My first job out of university was working as a child support worker in a women’s refuge, working with the children whose mothers were escaping violence in their home.
I not only got a sense of how complex this issue is but a much better understanding of why it’s so difficult sometimes for women to leave relationships that are violent, especially if there are children involved. When we form what we believe to be life partnerships, they can be very hard things to give up on.
This was a time when the words "domestic violence" were still very new, where the experiences that so many women had for decades and centuries had been unnamed.
Any violence in the home was seen as a private thing between a man and a woman and it was almost as if what went on in a marriage was sacred and it couldn’t be questioned.
Even as recently as the 1980s, there were many women who were not only experiencing violence but their attempts to leave that violence were thwarted by their families, who did not want what they saw as the disgrace of a broken marriage, were often not supported by their friends and their community because they felt a wife should stay with her husband regardless of the circumstances.
Those early experiences certainly reinforced in me a view that women’s lives were often very curtailed by a lack of recognition about what was happening to them in their private lives. And that it’s very hard to succeed in your work and in your other aspirations if what’s happening in your private life is characterised by violence and abuse. I felt a great injustice was going unrecognised.
I remember one woman in particular, who was from a very close-knit ethnic community and who was very involved in her community’s church. She left her husband and was subsequently ostracised from the church – nobody would have anything to do with her because people felt so strongly that was the wrong thing to do.
It was an incredibly brave thing to do for her, to leave what was a very violent relationship, violent not only to her but to her children.
But attitudes do change. I’m pleased to say that, after a long period of difficulty, she is now welcome back in her church. She’s gone on to give her children so many opportunities that would not have been possibly if she had stayed.
Coming back into the not-for-profit sector and again working for an organisation that is helping women experiencing domestic violence, on the one hand I’ve been enormously heartened by many of the changes that have occurred. My staff can now rely on police to respond and to have the support of the community that they work in. I think we’ve made great leaps and strides in giving a voice to this issue and I think that’s been a very important step.
But I’ve been equally horrified to see the continued widespread prevalence, the same issues being grappled with by the courts and by the community generally.
YWCA in NSW operates a range of services for women who are seeking to leave these situations, including the Domestic Violence Intervention Service co-located in the Nowra police station and the South Coast Women's Domestic Court Advocacy Service. Staff there tell me that the police in Nowra say 70 per cent of their work in that region is domestic violence-related. I think the community would be astonished to hear that work is taking up 70 per cent of our police time and tells us a lot about how much more we’ve got to do.
There is lots of unfinished business and more work to be done. But, in order to believe that work can make a difference, you have to look at how far we’ve come and to remember there’s a whole lot of women out there who have changed their lives, who even 30 years ago would never have had the chance to leave. The courts wouldn’t have backed them, the police wouldn’t have backed them. The police certainly wouldn't have taken the perpetrator out of the house, allowing the woman and her children to stay, as legislation now allows for.
I don’t think we’re going to see an end to domestic violence until we see both men and women in the community make it absolutely clear that it’s unacceptable. We do need a strong police response, we do need education in our schools, we do need safe and secure places for women and children who are experiencing it. But we need men to say to their mates "I don’t want to be your friend if you’re doing this kind of stuff".
It really has to become unacceptable behaviour.
Anna Bligh was the premier of Queensland from 2007 to 2012. She is now the chief executive of the Young Women's Christian Association of NSW.