Creating communities where there is no place for domestic violence

A recent workshop in the south-east of Victoria, has provided participants an opportunity to better understand the experiences of those impacted by domestic violence and to consider how the causes of domestic violence can be addressed in our communities. 9 participants—clergy, volunteers and parish staff—from Wonthaggi and surrounding areas in Gippsland joined the Shining A Light workshop on 25 June at St Joseph’s Catholic Church.

Sr Nicole Rotaru RSM led the workshop, facilitating discussions that covered a wide range of perspectives—from the personal experiences of individuals who are impacted by domestic violence, to a wider societal view focusing on the deeper underlying causes of domestic violence. Participants explored what can be done to ‘shine a light’ on this issue and how we can all be part of creating a more equal, respectful community where there is no place for domestic violence.

A theme that emerged through the workshop was the formative experiences and modelling we have as children and how these can play out later in life, either in perpetuating inequalities and cycles of violence, or in challenging social norms and working towards respectful relationships.  

Workshop attendees selecting objects, images and words that represent an environment where domestic violence is present.

Exploring Experiences of Domestic Violence

An image chosen by a participant as representing the experience of a person affected by domestic violence: isolated, alone, dark and bleak.

Those who grow up in an environment of domestic violence can carry the effects of trauma into their future life.  A participant made this observation: ‘From the very earliest stages of life, children experience the impact of family violence if it is present in the home.’

Sr Nicole explained, ‘This can be either direct physical or emotional violence or indirectly through witnessing violence against a parent, noticing the effects on a parent or feeling unsafe due to an unpredictable environment. While very young children may not be able to recall particular incidents of violence, they feel the emotional impact and this can have long-lasting implications right into adulthood.’ 

A participant shared: ‘A person experiencing domestic violence may feel very isolated and that they are traveling alone, that the world is very dark and bleak. This can be the reality for some people.’ Another commented,A smile can mask what is really going on. A man might be “the street angel and the home devil”. A victim might be even more isolated because the public perception of a person is so different to their experience.’  Sr Nicole highlighted that this type of ‘double life’ shows that there is a choice being made. A person can regulate their behavior in certain situations.

One participant shared his sadness at better understanding the experience of those impacted by family violence.  Another participant responded: ‘But it gives me hope as well. This was hidden for so long. It is just so refreshing to have the door opened and that there are now services available to assist.’

Making Space for ‘Careful Conversations’

Sr Nicole explained the idea of having ‘careful conversations’ to provide opportunities for people to disclose if they are experiencing domestic violence. A role play illustrating how a careful conversation could happen was acted out in the group. Participants were invited to share what they witnessed. This led to a participant commenting:

‘Following the experiences of COVID and a time of social isolation, now is the perfect opportunity to check in with friends, family and neighbours and sincerely ask “how are you?”, then really listen.’

While offering support and a listening ear to a person experiencing domestic violence is vital, Sr Nicole emphasised that it important not to tell a person what they ought to do as this can be disempowering.

‘What we can do is to assist the person to seek professional advice for guidance by contacting 1800 RESPECT or SAFE STEPS. Staff in these organisations are highly skilled and can assist a person to navigate their next steps safely. If the person wishes to make contact, offer them the opportunity to use a phone other than their own. Why? Their phone may be tracked, or the abusive partner may check the person’s phone; these are common practices used by an abusive partner as a way of maintaining power and control.’  Sr Nicole emphasised that it takes enormous courage to leave an abusive violent relationship. And, that it is a very dangerous time as the abusive partner experiences a loss of power and control. This intensifies their will and determination to regain power and control of the person hence, threatening behaviours such as stalking and intimidating phone calls are often taken up.

Gender Inequality and Domestic Violence

The video, Let’s Change the Story: Violence against women in Australia provided participants with a good overview of the often subtle ways that societal and cultural values entrench gender inequality and contribute to domestic violence. The following are some comments shared by participants:

Participants at the Wonthaggi workshop, facilitated by Sr Nicole Rotaru

‘Some men have this expectation that they have to be the best and greatest. That’s something that is hard to live up to. Some men may lash out because of their feelings of inadequacy.’

‘I’ve been in situations when I’ve directed a question to the wife, and the husband has answered—it’s about dominance.’

The stereotypes that surround what ‘a real man’ should be can lead to men feeling pressure to be tough, to be the breadwinner and to always be in control.  Research conducted by Jesuit Social Services showed that 47% of men aged 18-30 surveyed believe they should act strong even when they are scared or nervous.  Participants identified that holding in these emotions may lead to stress, anxiety, low self-confidence and continual negative thoughts.

A participant shared the following insight:

‘If boys have grown up with the understanding that they should not express their true emotions, this can lead to mistrust – of themselves and others.’  Sr Nicole emphasised that this type of mistrust does not lead to healthy relationships.

A Way Forward

Later in the workshop the conversation shifted to ways in which parish communities, and individual participants, can be involved in reshaping attitudes and behaviours to address the underlying causes of domestic violence.

One participant identified the importance of awareness: ‘There is a saying that if you name a problem you can tame it.  So naming and making people aware of the issues is an important step.’

A participant noted: ‘The challenge is how we can continue this conversation, collectively.’

Sr Nicole asked participants to consider whether any of the Church’s structures or practices might exacerbate or make things more difficult for people in family violence situations. She stressed the importance of calling out inequalities and modelling a better way:

‘We are all made in the image and likeness of God. In all our interactions, let’s look for ways to encourage equal and respectful relationships.’

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