I expect many of you, like me, have struggled to accept the news that has been all around us these past days. Here in Queensland this week we have seen another two women and a child killed by men who supposedly cared deeply for them.
And then when we look back to the beginning of this year alone and consider the lives that have been lost in similar tragic circumstances it is now the case that at least two woman are losing their lives each week as a result of violence caused by their supposed loved ones.
We of course call these acts ‘domestic violence’ more than we call them acts of ‘murder’ which I think is a big part of the challenge we face as society. Until we class violence between partners or former partners purely as ‘violence’ we will continue to be able to push these acts into a category of their own where they can continue to occur behind closed doors and often out of sight from most of us.
Domestic Violence is Violence. It includes acts of assault, battery, intimidation, power abuse, control, manipulation and as we are currently seeing too regularly- murder. By grouping these serious crimes under the title of ‘domestic violence’ I fear we are too able to separate ourselves from the truth- that these acts by one human being against another are illegal, unjust and not to be tolerated.
When I first began my career in law I soon found myself appearing at the local Magistrates Court on a Tuesday- the day each week when the Court managed Domestic Violence applications. I can perhaps sadly say that this was my first exposure to the serious crime that is violence during a relationship. Since that time I have come to almost accept that more often than not the people I am working with at the end of relationships have experienced violence during their relationship.
And in my ‘work life’ as I call it, despite the trauma that I can see in the clients I work with, I am after all ‘at work’- a place where the most personal and serious matters still end up having a somewhat sterile feel as by the time a person is working with me, chances are we have found our way into a legal process that means we are helping them through the other side of that relationship.
But despite what I consider to be a deep understanding of this serious problem, earlier this year I found myself in a situation that brought home just how challenging this issue can be to manage in the ‘real world’- outside of the security of an office, and the safety of a Court room.
My family and I live in a reasonably quiet neighbourhood (give or take the traffic out the front). You don’t hear too much at night other than the cars and the occasionally the chickens up the street, but earlier this year I started to hear yelling- lots of yelling coming from a house close to us. The first time I heard these arguments I stopped what I was doing and stood very still. There was something in the tone of those voices that told me this was more than just a couple sorting out a disagreement.
One night I remember hearing those voices again and what I thought sounded like banging. I got out of bed but I couldn’t hear or see anything. I sat for a while and wondered what to do. I really didn’t know what to do. I stayed up for a while and kept checking to see if I could hear anything else but eventually I went back to bed.
A few weeks later I was woken late at night to the screams of this couple. I went outside my house and this time they were outside. It was late, I was not really awake but this time I picked up the phone and dialled ‘000’. I felt terrible as I made that call. Was this really an emergency? I didn’t really know but I decided I wasn’t about to find out.
That night I ended up on my front porch for a good few hours. I was sitting with a woman who I felt was not safe. I am not sure whether she felt the same or not. Waiting for the police to attend I must say I did not feel safe and I was not known to this couple at all.
That night I had 2 choices. I could stay outside, and get involved or I could go back inside, close my doors and not get involved.
I am a family lawyer. Since I began my career I have been exposed to some of the most heinous acts of violence during relationships. I have had training in both understanding and assisting victims of domestic violence and yet I, me, a person who prides herself on understanding these issues paused and considered whether I should really be getting involved. Not because I did not want to help, but because I did not really know what was happening-this was a private matter- it was really none of my business some would say.
Since that night I have thought a lot about that situation with worry. I worry what has happened to the lady I sat with that night. She wrote me a lovely card afterward but she spoke of working things out.
But the thing that has bothered me most is the realisation that if I thought twice about getting involved, how many other people, just like me hear or see things and choose to close their windows or keep walking by?
This year our TV screens and social media feeds have been full of the news of many serious tragedies of violence during or at the end of relationships. Those women whose lives have been lost as a result of senseless violence. But while this is happening there are so many more families who are living the consequences of these crimes on a daily basis. They are in need of our help but it is often impossible for them to ask.
And until recently the media and public attention to these crimes was small and passing but I sense, finally, we are living in a time where something is going to change- it has to for the safety of all of us.
So what can we do? What can we really do to help change the culture of violence that seems rife in so many intimate relationships here in our Country?
There is so much we can do-
- We can force legislative change so that these crimes are treated just as they should be- as crimes of the most serious nature;
- We can force funding to be sent where it is needed to ensure that those seeking refuge, advice and assistance are not turned away;
- We can start to demand that our education systems focus on teaching the importance of relationships- respectful and positive relationships- as much as they focus on maths, science and english;
- And we can stand up and say ‘No- enough is enough’
All of this is needed but then I ask what can ‘we’ do right now?
Those of us who are at home right now, sitting on a bus or arriving at work. Well I think we can do more. Sometimes we need to stick our noses into someone else’s business. Sure it might backfire, but what if it doesn’t? What if instead it means that someone gets the help that they need? What if it meant that a life was saved? Surely we can all do more for each other as right now, whatever we are doing is clearly not enough.