Nowhere to run
The Australian Women's Weekly|May 2021
People living in remote Australia are 24 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family and domestic abuse
SAMANTHA TRENOWETH

Karen Brock was sitting on the bedroom floor, her back pressed hard against the door; her feet bracing against a chest of drawers opposite. “And my husband was pushing on the other side,” she tells The Weekly. “I could hear the door cracking around me, and I was trying to work out how I was going to break the window to get out of the room. I knew the net curtain would stop whatever I threw at it and I didn’t have anything in the room to throw anyway. There was no phone to call for help. He’d already broken that. And if he got through that door, with the adrenaline rush he’d get, I wouldn’t have survived.”

Karen, her husband and their two little ones (her son was five years old and her daughter three) lived on a wild and windswept property in Tasmania. There was nowhere to run and no one would hear her scream.

Karen had weathered brutal treatment in the past. She had been beaten and raped throughout her five-year marriage. “And there was a mental war going on that, at first, I didn’t realise was happening,” she says. “That person wanted to control you. Slowly, like an acid erosion, you lose your self-esteem, you lose your self-worth, you lose sight of any hope. You get yourself down to where you just exist.”

This attack, however, was particularly vicious. “It was the war of the worlds,” Karen adds, because days earlier she had summoned the strength to tell her husband that he had to leave.

Karen’s story is frightening but it’s not unusual. People in regional and remote Australia are 24 times more likely than those in cities to be hospitalised as a result of family and domestic abuse. The further from the state capitals you travel, the worse the figures become, and the more scant the specialist services to help them. In NSW, for instance, one in every two domestic violence-related assaults and 47 of the 50 local government areas with the highest rates of family violence are outside Sydney. In the far west of the state, domestic violence-related assaults are 3.6 times the NSW average. And similar figures play out around the country.

A whole range of factors feed these statistics, including isolation, community attitudes about masculinity and women’s roles, the availability of weapons and a lack of infrastructure and services (things like public transport, social housing, refuges and legal aid). And in the case of Indigenous communities there are complex webs of intergenerational trauma, disempowerment and racism that add fuel to all those factors.

“In [regional] communities,” Hannah Robinson from the Western NSW Community Legal Centre explains, “the increased risk of physical harm, geographic isolation, social and cultural norms and structures, and the distinct lack of services and support all combine to trap women, physically and psychologically, in violent relationships.”

Karen’s kids were in the next room when their father returned to punish her. After he finally ran out of steam and left, Karen says, “I was sitting on the floor in the hallway because I was so injured, and my five-year-old comes out, puts his arms around me and says, ‘It’s okay now Mummy, he’s gone’.”

Karen drove into town to the doctor. “I just walked in and said, ‘Doc, I want you to document every injury and mark and bruise you see.’ So he looked at my whole body, marked it all down. He was very quiet, very shocked. He’d known me since I was in diapers, for Christ’s sake. I went to school with his kids. That’s the local community – everybody knows everybody.”

Karen had broken ribs, contusions (deep muscle bleeding) in her arms and thighs, a bruised neck from strangulation. “I was a walking bag of misery,” she says. “But as soon as I left there, I went up the street to the town solicitor and arranged to apply for an AVO. I wrote five pages of incidents. He said that one page would have been enough…”

Karen had been reluctant to seek help because everyone in the district knew her and her family. And she hadn’t wanted to admit that her marriage was failing to her strict Baptist parents. That day she visited the doctor, she says, “was the first time I had ever actually admitted to anyone what had been going on in my relationship”.

This reluctance to report, says Fleur McDonald, an author and a farmer who lives in the far south-west of Western Australia, is particularly common in regional communities. “Everybody in the country is interconnected,” she explains. “A lot of the time, we know the policeman, we know the doctor. I’m in a Rotary Club where a couple of the coppers come every Thursday night to dinner. Now if there’s a person that’s using violence who knows those people – is friends with those people – then the person who is experiencing that violence is less likely to make a complaint … And it’s harder to be anonymous in rural areas. If you’ve got your car out the front of a counselling service more than once in a blue moon, people are going to notice.”

This reluctance to report is compounded by a lack of services. When regional women summon the considerable courage required to leave violent relationships, they often find that help is dangerously thin on the ground. “Instead of being there to catch them,” Jess Hill wrote in her groundbreaking study of domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do, “we’re holding a safety net that’s full of holes.”

For 20 years Catherine Smith survived one of the most extreme cases of domestic abuse on record in Australia. In a speech to the United Nations in 2012, she said: “It’s not easy to escape the violence when you’re living in a rural community. One time I remember running from the house with my four children but where were we to go? We ended up walking almost 80 kilometres to the nearest town that had a refuge, sleeping on the riverbed, with just the clothes we had on us.”

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