Engender Equality Mic

Tasmanian woman shares experiences of family violence ahead of election

By Bec Pridham
Posted to The Examiner online April 10 2022 – 3:30am

Charlotte’s* first encounter with family violence was as a child. Living with incessant bullying and harassment in her family home, she was forced to flee in the middle of the night at age 16.

The violence left behind a devastating legacy that followed her into her intimate relationships – the trauma, coupled with her disability, leaving Charlotte vulnerable.

“It’s often expressed that autistic people lack empathy. You could describe that as a disability in communication. We are unable to perceive simple conversational cues, and this causes people to be uncomfortable. It causes misunderstandings both ways. It causes a lot of conflict,” she said.

“Relationship after relationship the men learned to manipulate [me], a person with autism, to manipulate to the point of an autistic meltdown, and they then claimed ‘see, look what you made me do’.”

“Then they punch you.”

Charlotte met the father of her son at a young age.

She fell pregnant early into the relationship, which left her feeling locked in.

“I had a strong sense of needing to survive. If it hadn’t been for my son, I wouldn’t have.”

Her partner was violent and coercive, taking her car keys so she could not escape, controlling how she spent her money, forcing all the child caring responsibilities upon her.

“My partner broke my neck and (according to him) it was my fault. And once it happens time after time after time after time, you’re convinced that it’s your fault.”

She never recovered from the incident, left physically disabled and in constant pain.

“I didn’t leave him until my son was 16 months old.”

While each victim’s story is nuanced and incredibly complex, Charlotte’s escape from violence is somewhat of an anomaly.

She did not leave. He did.

“I wasn’t going to leave. I wasn’t going to run again.”

It’s very shameful to admit to domestic violence and so you don’t. And so I’ve suffered in silence. I took it to be my fault and tried to be a good girl. “People leaving abusive relationships shouldn’t be made to think it’s their own fault.

Charlotte said she was “lucky” to have a close circle of friends she could lean on. They began inviting themselves to dinner at her home every evening, telling her partner he needed to leave. After three months, he succumbed to the pressure, and moved out.

Charlotte did not receive her autism diagnosis until later in life, when her complex post traumatic stress disorder rendered her unable to manage her life.

“I was forced to begin to address the abuse in my adolescence in the family home, the reason I had to leave, why it came to that. If I’d only known earlier, if there was only enough support … I cannot stress how vital that diagnosis is.”

Charlotte said Australia’s family violence situation has made little progress since she left decades ago.

“People who are suffering from gaps in equality, people that are leaving violent and abusive relationships or families, are still at a disadvantage as much as they were 30 years ago. They really are. And this is both in terms of society acceptance and lack of support.

“It’s very shameful to admit to domestic violence and so you don’t. And so I’ve suffered in silence. I took it to be my fault and tried to be a good girl.

“People leaving abusive relationships shouldn’t be made to think it’s their own fault.”

It is a message resounding from those working in the family violence sector, who point out that raising the profile of women is desperately needed if Australia is to really address the issue.

Women’s Legal Service Tasmania chief executive Yvette Cehtel said Australia’s focus needed to be on primary prevention, not just early intervention and response.

“If we want to change attitudes and the way people behave, then we need to get in early and we need to do it before there’s a problem and we need to have nuanced conversations with all of our young people about what respectful behaviour looks like,” she said.

Ms Cehtel said she was looking at the government to implement a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment and promote gender equality.

She said we should understand family violence as being on the extreme end of a continuum of inequality.

“The attitudes and the behaviours that allow unequal treatment of women is all along that continuum,” she said.

“If we’ve got one in three people at work being sexually harassed, we’ve got a massive problem with equality in the country.”

Ms Cehtel referred to the Kate Jenkins report, Set the Standard, which lists diversity, equality and inclusion as requirements of a safe and respectful workplace.

Launceston White Ribbon Committee secretary Carol Fuller said there was a difference between equality and equity.

“Women aren’t the same as men, so they have different needs. And to live a successful life and contribute all that we can to society, we need equity,” she said.

“Equity means that because we’re different, we need different systems. We need different processes that allow equality to happen.”

Ms Fuller said the government focused much of its resources on supporting people in danger, but needed to look at the bigger picture.

“What I would like to see, what White Ribbon would like to see, is stepping back and stopping it before it even starts,” she said.

“You can’t do that immediately, it’s a long-term drawn out changing of societal attitudes.”

Ms Fuller pointed to harmful gender stereotypes, sexist language and jokes, unequal laws and unequal pay as factors that might seem innocuous, but lay the foundation for violence.

She wanted to see the government pour the same efforts it did into changing societal attitudes to smoking, using the same consistent, prolonged and broad campaigning.

“I don’t think the government can do anything immediately in terms of stopping it … there’s no magic wand. This is going to take generations. But we’ve got to start now,” she said.

The state government launched the Safe Homes, Families, Communities plan in 2019, investing $26 million over three years in responding to and preventing family and sexual violence.

In March, the Commonwealth committed $20 million to electronically monitor high-risk perpetrators deemed high-risk.

Charlotte has been working through her PTSD with professional help.

She has also become an advocate for change, helping other women.

“If people know that someone like me has pushed through it, then anyone can do it,” she said.

View the story at The Examiner online