SWIRLS Director, Professor Sarah Wendt, marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Today marks the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Every year, I pause and think of all the women killed by their partners. Another woman is dead, and her (ex)-partner has been charged with murder. It is just so final. No one really knows what she had to endure, the pain, torment over a long time. This is harder to count. And we want to talk about this homicide and terrorism because we as a society are saddened, frustrated and at a loss. I think about my research into domestic violence and child abuse, and the colleagues that surround me devoting careers as academics and practitioners in social work to be part of the solution. Are we making a difference?
The making a difference question plagues us all. So as I write this piece I can’t help but want to divert attention towards the much needed conversation about the perpetrators who are responsible for the violence. Because if we continue conversations focusing on women and what they could or could not have done, or express dismay at community, family, and neighbours reactions or non-reactions, we are all unintentionally ignoring the perpetrator and the abuse he uses to control, scare, and wear down his partner. And how we are all unintentionally perhaps placating him and colluding with him.
We need to understand that some perpetrators are relentless. Women do leave, women do seek help, women do engage in safety planning. But when the perpetrator is so persistent, outraged and entitled, women and women’s shelters are placed in the unsustainable and awful position of avoiding and navigating him. We, as a society force women to be responsible and expect them to continue to placate him, understand him, support him. Our system has been set to hide women, expect women to take out intervention orders, expect women to constantly monitor their life. I am not arguing we don’t need women’s shelters, or intervention orders, we do as they are life savers. Instead, I am asking are we as a society, despite our good intentions, reinforcing the sentiments that domestic violence is an intimate problem, a private family issue, and when women make the excruciating decision to seek refuge they are hidden in shelters? Are we unintentionally shaming women and this work? Women and, in many circumstances, children who are victims are secreted away for their own protection. And the perpetrator is not visible.
Another approach is necessary. The perpetrator needs to be put front and centre into the picture if we are to fully understand and comprehend what we are dealing with. When we talk about domestic violence, in any forum, I want the first thought to be – who is he, what did he do, and how do we respond to him.
Let our outrage be directed to the perpetrator and his actions, his use of violence. He is a man, with agency and choice. We need to ask ourselves, does society really know and understand what a perpetrator of domestic violence is capable of? Or do we need to continue to share the memories and trauma that haunt women, us as researchers, social workers… I can replay too many memories from the stories of women…
- A woman being kicked to the ground and dragged by her hair across the floor through broken champagne flutes because the perpetrator didn’t like how she said goodnight to his parents.
- A woman enduring rape in her own bed by her partner when he comes home from drinks with the boys as it is ‘easier’ and ‘safer’ than to tell him to stop.
- A woman isolated and estranged from family and friends, she sleeps behind the town hall as he kicked her out of their house because she was getting on his nerves.
- A woman constantly ill with the flu/cold because she never has enough money to feed herself and her children, as his social life is priority.
- A woman in a safe house, only to have her security screen ripped off by him so he can enter her home.
Is this the story telling we want to keep replaying? Let us not forget perpetrators believe they are entitled, they are controlling, and our cultures reinforce this. Let’s not forget perpetrators are mainly men. How we understand masculinity needs to be front and centre. We must continue to have this conversation about men’s use of violence and what men do. Let’s start naming who the perpetrator is, what the perpetrator does. Let him sit with and experience shame, not the woman, the workers, the neighbours. If we do not through our media, service responses, trainings, laws, make him the focus we all enable his invisibility. We cannot continue as a society to expect women (who’s wellbeing has been eroded by domestic violence and fear – who are traumatised) to continue to manage him. We cannot continue as a society to expect frontline, low paid, largely female dominated workforce to continue to bear the burden of such risk. We need to expose him and what perpetrators are capable of. We as a society need to find the will and resources to focus on him.
What does our service sector look like when the perpetrator is front and centre, not hidden?
Professor Sarah Wendt, Director, SWIRLS