Behind closed doors: our domestic violence epidemic

5 September 2014

Domestic violence is a dark undercurrent in Australian society. It is the distant sounds of shouting coming from the house down the street late at night, it is the curious bruises on a work colleague that she claimed came from walking into a car door. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in three women has experienced physical domestic violence while almost one in five women has been sexually assualted. These very disturbing statistics are based on the Personal Safety Survey conducted in 2012.

However what is perhaps even more disturbing, are the results of a 2013 survey conducted by VicHealth. The national survey found that one in five Australians believe a woman is partly to blame for being raped if she is intoxicated. More concerning still is that over 90 per cent of respondents believe that a woman cannot be raped by someone that she has had a sexual relationship with. 

While domestic violence has statistically not increased since the ABS's 2005 Personal Safety Survey, the results of the VicHealth survey show significant deterioration in community attitudes towards domestic and sexual violence. 

Just a 'rough patch' in the relationship

Domestic violence is that thing that happens to other people. Because when it is happening to you, it is not violence, it is just a ‘rough patch’ in your relationship.

At least that is how Amber deflected the concerned questions of friends, families and colleagues when she was in a deeply violent relationship. It has been nearly 15 years since she was moved interstate under a police escort and with a new identity to begin the agonising process of beginning her life again. 

Those harrowing years of fear, violence and pain are long behind her now. Amber now lives in the home she shares with her partner of many years, a gentle and caring man. Her home has the warmth and soul of a family home, her grandchildren's swing set sits in shade of the backyard, a lovingly tended vegetable garden has just been planted ready for spring. 

The walls are adorned with family photos, a finger painting is proudly displayed on the fridge. Amber smiles as she glances around her home the top row of her teeth are glossy, straight and perfect, too perfect, while the bottom row shows signs of wear and staining. She will later explain that her face was kicked so hard she lost eight teeth, replaced with dental implants. 

Amber fell explosively in love at 25. It was a love of passion, intensity and fire.

“I had never felt anything like it before. It was an all-consuming hunger. I - still to this day - have never loved anyone like I loved him.”

She reflects that in hindsight, it was unhealthy and codependant from the beginning. She admits that her family and friends gently expressed concern and voiced doubts about him, this only made her withdraw from them more and throw herself more intensely into the relationship. 

They loved each other ferociously and, for more than three years, their volatile relationship was the centre of Amber’s universe. They would fight violently, as though sparring partners in a match of brutal passion. 

“It’s difficult to explain to people why I stayed, why I loved him. At the time, I didn’t feel like a victim, I didn't feel powerless. He was hitting me, but I was hitting him right back.

"For every black eye that I hid, I was dabbing concealer on him too, to hide the punches I had landed.”

As Amber begins to tell the story of how the relationship ended, her face clouds with pain. 

“I fell pregnant with twins, I was so excited. Things got better when we found out I was pregnant, we were fighting less, looking for a bigger house.

"Then one night we had a fight, I don't remember how it started or what it was even about. I was six months pregnant and in no state to block his punches or throw a few back. 

Amber said after the first few punches, she tried to run away but he pushed her to the ground.

Then that he started kicking her. 

“I kept rolling away from his kicks, curling into a ball and covering my stomach. I was screaming and crying for him to stop.”

A neighbour heard her screams and called the police, who arrived with an ambulance and Amber was taken to hospital. She suffered broken ribs, eight of her teeth had been kicked out, her nose was broken, she was covered in bruises.

But the worst was yet to come; she had lost her twins.

“He killed them. Their tiny little hearts weren't beating anymore. I lost the babies,” she said, becoming too emotional to continue her story. 

Becoming a survivor

Amber survived however many women are less fortunate. In 2014 an average of one woman has died every week from domestic violence in Australia.

Jessica [name has been changed] is a psychologist who treats women who have been the victims of domestic violence every day. She believes it has reached epidemic proportions in Australia. 

“Some days I do feel almost a hopelessness, I worry that what we offer won't be enough to help these women break the cycle of violent relationships. I believe the rates of domestic violence are much, much higher than the statistics indicate and it is happening across every socio-economic demographic.”

Amber was a highly educated, intelligent and charismatic woman who had a healthy, happy upbringing in a wealthy family who found herself in a violent relationship.

Now, she seems strong, even in the vulnerability of her emotions as she recounts the harrowing ordeal of losing her twins. She is not the kind of woman one would expect to be a victim of domestic violence, however domestic violence affects women and families from all walks of life. 

If you or someone you know is experience domestic violence, please call the national domestic violence hotline on 1800 737 732 or visit the 1800RESPECT website.