Mangerton woman Jacqui Charlesworth has never let her disability define her, yet for some time a man took away her sense of identity.
A victim of domestic violence, the 35-year-old is now speaking up to help women like her understand the difference between a healthy and a harmful relationship.
Ms Charlesworth has Mosaic Down's syndrome, a rare form of Down’s which usually presents with fewer symptoms than the classical form.
It has left her with a mild intellectual disability, something her former partner used to manipulate her.
‘’We’d had a long friendship before we started a relationship and I thought he was the guy for me,’’ she said.
‘’Then a couple of years later the warning bells started to ring. He took away my cards and started controlling my money; then he isolated me from family and friends.
‘’He became very controlling – mentally and then physically. He just wasn’t letting me be who I am.’’
Ms Charlesworth said she left, then returned, to the relationship several times before fleeing one night after a particularly savage assault.
‘’For a long time I felt trapped, I’d hit rock bottom. He’d even got me to take medication I wasn’t supposed to take and I wasn’t thinking straight,’’ he said.
‘’Then one night he hit me over the top of my head and I was able to get to my phone and call the police – and thankfully they came quickly.
‘’I never looked back after that – I found the courage to step up and seek support.’’
The issue of domestic violence against women is now firmly in the spotlight, but little attention has been given to the plight of disabled women who are 40 per cent more likely to be the victims.
Ms Charlesworth, a Greenacres Disability Services employee, recently took part in a pilot program to prevent domestic violence and promote healthy relationships.
Along with 15 of her female co-workers, she was able to share her story as well as gain tips on how to better take care of her mental and physical health.
‘’I have a new man in my life who works at Greenacres as well; he’s a good guy,’’ she said. ‘’I’ve come out of a bad experience stronger and knowing I can stand up for myself, that I have got the guts to speak out.
‘’I hope that by sharing my story with other women like me, that I can let them know that there is support out there, that there is light at the end of the tunnel.’’
Ms Charlesworth said she hoped more awareness about the issue would see a corresponding rise in services for women – and punishment for perpetrators.
‘’It makes me furious that women have to suffer this, and that the men are often allowed to walk free.’’
If you need support, ring the Domestic Violence Crisis Line on 1800 656 463.
Pilot program to break the silence
A unique Wollongong-based program aims to reduce the horrifying statistics of violence against women with a disability.
Ninety per cent of Australian women with an intellectual disability have been sexually abused according to a recent Senate submission by the Australian Cross Disability Alliance, with much of the abuse occurring when they are children.
Meantime one quarter of all rape cases in Australia each year involve a woman with a disability.
To begin tackling the problem, the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre and Greenacres Disability Services created a six-week personal health and well-being program.
After the success of a recent pilot of the program with 16 female Greenacres workers, they are now trying to attract funding to expand it.
Project co-ordinator, Kim Sattler from the women’s centre, said women with a disability were often targeted for abuse because they were seen as vulnerable.
‘’Statistics show that women with a disability experience even higher levels of domestic and sexual violence than other women, and it’s also clear they’re not getting enough help,’’ she said.
‘’A lot of these women are sitting in silence because quite often they feel they won’t be believed.
‘’It’s also disturbing that many feel that violence and abuse is just something they have to put up with.’’
The program focuses not only on issues around domestic and sexual violence, but also gives these women tools to look after their physical and mental health.
‘’It’s about teaching them the importance of having safe, trusted people in their lives, and developing a personal safety plan if they do get into trouble,’’ she said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, ring the 24/7 Domestic Violence Crisis Line for help on 1800 656 463.
There’s a wealth of international research that suggests that women with a disability are more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual assault than women without a disability.
Like other women, women with disabilities are usually abused by someone they know, such as a partner or family member. These women also face the risk of abuse by caregivers.
The statistics in Australia are shocking.
Ninety per cent of women with an intellectual disability have been subjected to sexual abuse; two-thirds having been abused before they turned 18.
Meantime more than a quarter of rape cases reported by females in Australia are perpetrated against women with disabilities.
Women with disability are also 40 per cent more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without disability.
The national statistics come from a 2015 Senate submission by the Australian Cross Disability Alliance.
The submission states that violence against all people with a disability is an ‘’urgent, unaddressed national crisis, of epidemic proportions’’ which had specific implications for women and children with disability.
‘’Violence against people with disability in institutional and residential settings is Australia’s hidden shame,’’ the document states.
The high incidence of sexual, physical and mental violence against women is something Illawarra women’s and disability services are trying desperately to combat.
The Illawarra Women’s Health Centre and Greenacres Disability Services have recently joined together to create a six-week pilot personal health and well-being program, which they are now seeking funding to expand.
The program aims to educate and empower women with an intellectual disability; to help them understand the difference between a healthy and a harmful relationship; and to speak out.
Project co-ordinator Kim Sattler said women with a disability were often deliberately targeted because they were vulnerable.
She said social media had opened up new avenues for perpetrators to stalk, intimidate and control their victims; so this was another area that needed to be addressed.
Illawarra organisations or individuals interested in supporting the program’s roll-out to more women should contact Ms Sattler on 4255 6800.