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Why Doesn’t She Leave?

8 March 2018 at 8:47 am
Wendy Williams
The question most commonly asked by people trying to understand domestic violence is why doesn’t she just leave? But this is not only a question with a complicated answer, it is the wrong question to ask, writes Wendy Williams.

Wendy Williams | 8 March 2018 at 8:47 am


Why Doesn’t She Leave?
8 March 2018 at 8:47 am

The question most commonly asked by people trying to understand domestic violence is why doesn’t she just leave? But this is not only a question with a complicated answer, it is the wrong question to ask, writes Wendy Williams.

From the moment Hannah* decided she had to leave her partner, to when she actually left, took around 20 months.

“That was because I had to navigate that path really carefully and I was scared of what he would do to me,” she says.

“I feared for my life.”

On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner, according to the most recent analysis of homicide statistics in Australia.

One in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.

And one in four Australian women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.

For those who have not been abused by a partner, the most common question to ask, is why doesn’t she just leave?

But the answer is far from straightforward.

“There are many different reasons why it’s really difficult for women to leave,” Domestic Violence Victoria CEO Fiona McCormack tells Pro Bono News.

“Firstly we know that ending a relationship is a time when risk really escalates for women who are in abusive relationships.

“Because family violence is fundamentally about controlling a woman, when a perpetrator senses that a woman is ending the relationship that’s when they can really amp up the abuse in order to frighten her so much that she stays.”

Research has shown that statistically a women is more at risk when she leaves the relationship than at any other time –  it’s the time when she’s most likely to be killed.

When reflecting on her experience of leaving her former partner, Hannah, who is now a Speaking Out Advocate from Women’s Health East, tells Pro Bono News there were a number of things to consider.

“You need to be prepared. You need to have a safety plan. There are so many financial concerns, if you are the one physically doing the leaving especially, you know, where are you going to live? How are you going to pay your rent?

“There are some men who have gotten secret debts in their partners names, and things like that so there are credit issues. It’s just so many things to navigate. It’s not just as simple as walking out the door.”

She says one of the first hurdles she faced was identifying that what she was experiencing was domestic violence.

“I initially met my previous partner on a dating site and he was all charming, like they commonly are, and it wasn’t till moving in together that things began to change,” she says.

“Shortly after moving in together I got pregnant and then from that point things started to rapidly change.

“At that time I didn’t identify – and that was probably a barrier to leaving – but I did not actually know that what I was experiencing was family violence. I just thought he had issues and every relationship has issues. That was just my lot in life.”

It was not until things started to escalate further and Hannah reached out for help, that she realised it was more than an unhealthy relationship.

“One of my first calls was 1800RESPECT and when I described what I was experiencing, they labelled the behaviours and they put words to them and that was when it really hit me that this is more than just an unhealthy relationship. This is a dangerous relationship,” she said.

“In my situation I was also dealing with a senior member of the police force, who should have known better.”

A turning point came when during the course of the relationship, which lasted five years, Hannah discovered her partner had been engaging in the crime of image based sexual abuse, and had created fake profiles identifying her.

“But even when I discovered that crime I didn’t leave straight away and I didn’t leave straight away because of fear. Fear is the biggest hurdle, in my mind, to leaving. Because fear encompasses so many different levels,” she says.

“I feared the abuse would be worse after leaving him and in many ways it has become worse.

“And this is what women are realising now, especially with the education on family violence being a bit more out there, like you see commercials on TV, and you see posters here and there and it’s the topic of discussion around International Women’s Day. And at the end of last year there was the 16 Days of Activism. It’s a topic that’s frequently coming up now. And women hear other women’s stories and they hear how hard it is to leave. It’s not like leaving solves everything.”

McCormack agrees many women’s fears are a reality.

“A common pattern of a violent relationship is that women are told ‘if you leave I’ll kill you’, ‘I’ll take the children’, ‘you’ll never see the children again’, ‘I’ll post intimate photos of you on the internet’, sometimes women are threatened that loved ones will be harmed, or pets or things like that. Because this can eventuate, when women end relationships this is a time when we do see women and children murdered or where the physical violence really escalates, the fears are reality,” she said.

Beyond fear, there are many other barriers to leaving an abusive relationship that can include isolation, pressures from cultural and religious communities, financial pressures and legal issues.

“The other issue is that the options around Australia are really limited,” McCormack says.

“We’ve got a major housing crisis and housing affordability is really a key issue. In the old days women used to go into refuge, if they had left a violent relationship, and they might use that time to organise or seek either a private rental property or some sort of public housing or social housing etc.

“Those options have really dried up and the ability for women to live independently is significantly impacted.

“Of course this is also linked to unequal rates of pay between men and women as well. So that’s why pay equality is so critical because it means that women can have options in situations like these when they want to leave an abusive relationship or circumstances.”

According to McCormack, because of the difficulties in exiting women to housing options there is now a bottleneck of getting women into refuges.

“Across Australia, we’ve got waiting lists of women trying to get into refuges and sometimes women might end up in a hotel without support. They’re terrified of him finding them and leaving means that the kids are having impacts on their education, it means they’ve got to be dragged away to somewhere else to live, it means they’ve got to start a new school, that they lost friends, extended families, sporting clubs etc,” she says.

“It has huge implications on the children and when women end up in temporary hotel accommodation and they get a glimpse into the options in the future, sometimes women think, ‘actually it might be better for my children just to return home and I’ll try and manage the violence as much as I can’.”

For Hannah, she says the months leading up to her leaving was a “really hard and awful time”.

“When I discovered his crime of image based sexual abuse, I confronted him and even at that point I knew if I left he was going to be hell to leave,” she says.

“Initially I clung to some sort of hope, false hope, that me confronting him about his crime would give him an enormous jolt and get him to get help for himself and maybe his behaviors would change if not for my sake for the sake of our children. And I clung to that hope.

“But just a few weeks after, he came home randomly one day and accused me and blamed me for his crime of image based sexual abuse. It was that moment, I think, more than discovering what he did, that made me realise he’s a really unwell individual and is not healthy.

“The fact that he could go so far as to blame me for something so serious I just sort of recognised at that point he was beyond help.”

Hannah began to seek counselling in secret to work out how to safely end the relationship.

“I was just coming to understand and grasp that I’m a victim of family violence and getting my head past the false hope that he will change, maybe something will improve and then eventually I just thought ‘No. I have to end this’. So I ended the relationship but he refused to leave the family home,” she says.

Hannah, who at the time she was wanting to leave “had two little kids, a dog and two cats” was then faced with further barriers.

“Financially he was controlling and abusive and deceitful,” she says.

“At the time I was wanting to leave, my little girl was just over two, at that point I was actually working casually but only once or sometimes twice a week, but not enough to support myself.

“I actually asked him ‘can you move out?’ He kind of indicated he would but he never did.

“He likes to actually bully by being present. He knows I don’t like him near me, I feel uncomfortable, I feel unsafe. So he very specifically likes to force his presence upon me. So he basically refused to leave the house and then he started keeping criminal notes on me, like documentation on me, on what I was doing, to try to make me feel uncomfortable in my own home.”

It was not until Hannah reported her former partner to the police that he left.

“Eventually I just couldn’t take it anymore, I was just constantly walking on eggshells and I had been doing that for most of the relationship with him. And I was just tired of it and exhausted,” she says.

“I didn’t want to report his crime before we separated but eventually I did, I thought he’s never going to leave. And it was when I reported his crime that the police said they were going to get an intervention order and remove him from the house. And that just maintained stability for the children for a little while longer until the family home sold, but it was just so awful.

“There’s no one who can give you a textbook or anything that can answer your questions on how to best manage the situation, you just kind of make decisions as you go and you never know whether your decision is a good one or if it’s going to be worse, like even getting the IVO, I thought ‘oh my goodness he’s going to try and push back’, which he did. He immediately started family law proceedings.”

Since leaving Hannah says she has experienced ongoing post separation abuse through harassment and is now also “on the constant end of systemic and legal abuse”.

“And that’s another barrier for leaving, because like many women I find myself in a situation now where I’ve just swapped one sort of abuse for another,” she says.

“I’m in a position where I’m still financially being abused because my time is literally monopolised by him and his constant court action, the constant stunts that he pulls, he’s always breaching the intervention order.”

Hannah says the courts have “got a long way to go” to protect women like her.

“I made a submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. And one of my points was the current system is about who you know, how much money you’ve got, a judge lotto and a whole lot of luck. And until that changes, where these men can stop manipulating the legal system, I can’t say that it is ever going to stop,” she says.

“But I’m not going to let that stop me. I am not going to stop speaking out against systemic abuse and legal abuse and I’m not going to be silent to make the people who are doing this feel more comfortable about what they’re doing. If I don’t speak out nobody knows what’s going on.

“I always remind myself of the positive things, that is I have got majority care of the children. And we’ve got great futures ahead of us. He does his best to make it difficult but he can’t do that every day.”

McCormack says it is critical for women leaving to have confidence that the system is going to keep them safe.

“In speaking out, in contacting police, in engaging with services they have to be really, really confident that they are going to be protected. That the police, the court, is going to protect them,” she says.

“When we’ve had a history of this thing treated as just a personal matter, just another domestic, when it isn’t taken seriously by police, or courts, the consequences for women are significant.

“This can really embolden a perpetrator that they can do this, that the community don’t really see this as a terribly serious matter and it in fact endorses a man’s right to behave this way when they see that there’s a lack of consequences.”

McCormack says the question of “why doesn’t she leave” is the wrong question to ask.

“It’s extraordinary that in our culture when we discuss family violence that we even focus on her behaviour,” she says.

“I think it’s difficult to comprehend what it’s like having somebody so focused on making your life a torment and who will pursue you no matter what. It’s terrifying, absolutely terrifying.

“I can’t think of any other victims of crime where we as a community ask them to leave their homes, as a result of the abuse, and the violence that they’re experiencing.

“So even the fact that we say ‘why doesn’t she just leave’ is terribly naive I think and really unfair. What we should really be asking is why is he abusing?”

She says society as a whole needs to tilt its focus away from what women do and focus on the activities of the men who choose to use violence.

“I know it sounds kind of surreal, but many women don’t necessarily recognise that their in an abusive relationship, and this is for a number of reasons. One is because a feature of an abusive relationship is that men who choose to use violence will tell women over and over ‘this is your fault’, ‘You make me do this’, ‘if only you didn’t do this I wouldn’t behave this way’ or ‘this is your fault’,” she says.

“Those messages are reinforced by us as a border community, when we are ambivalent about family violence or when we make excuses for violence.”

She says there could also be a tendency for some people to feel so frustrated when women don’t leave that they might distance themselves from the woman.

But according to McCormack it is important when the woman makes a choice to leave that she has support from people around her.

“What we need is a closer contact with the woman in case there is a circumstance in which she’s really unsafe and having more people around her would enhance her safety and reduce the likelihood of perpetration,” she says.

“Contrary to the common myth that there are certain women who are attracted to violent men and choose them over and over, in fact men who choose to use violence can be incredibly charming and women can fall madly in love with them at the beginning of a relationship, particularly with promises of a wonderful life together, and they can feel genuine love for that person and there’s hope that the men will change.

“And so I think it is being a sounding board but also someone who provides a reality check in just asking questions such as ‘do you think that behaviour is love?’”

McCormack recalled a woman who was a witness in the Royal Commission who went to a hospital with injuries and was asked by the doctor if she understood that what had happened to her was a crime.

“And the woman said ‘on the day I married my husband, I became his wife and therefore I belong to him’. The doctor said ‘on the day you got married, your husband promised to love and protect you’,” McCormack says.

“And the woman said she thought about it over and over again, particularly with somebody in a position of authority, just reflecting back the reality of what’s normal in a relationship and also what a woman is entitled to in a relationship, can be a great way of providing a reality check against those awful undermining messages, that really constitute psychological abuse, that so many women are exposed to.

“It might not prompt them to act immediately but it might play on their mind.

“This woman said that later on, this was something that really triggered it, that somebody in a position of authority had provided her with that feedback and said to her ‘you deserve better, and you have a right to be safe’.”

She says it is also important not to think about men who perpetrate violence as “either evil monsters or insane”.

“In reality in the main, men who choose to use violence are everyday men who happen to hold certain attitude,” she says.

“We know that the strongest evidence about the likelihood of perpetration is adherence to violence, to rigid stereotypes about the roles and rights of men and the roles and rights of women, who see women and children as subservient to men in a family and also a violent supportive attitude.

“So sometimes women might be in a relationship and they think ‘he can be really lovely to the kids’, or ‘he did that terrific thing for a friend just recently’, he’s a pillar of the community’. And it can really confuse women thinking that in order to be in an abusive relationship they must be really, extremely evil.

“Actually it’s a little like the link between racism and race related violence, or homophobia and homophobic related violence. The sexist attitudes that are held against women can justify in some men’s minds their behaviour.

“That’s why particularly in this week with International Women’s Day, it’s really important to be sending that strong message to the broader community but particularly men about what’s the difference they can make in challenging sexism and supporting the development of a safer community.”

McCormack says they are ways that men can make a difference.

“I think sometimes men who want to make a difference might think that they have to wait until they see a violent circumstance before they can intervene or play an active role. And I think sometimes men also say ‘well I don’t hit women so there’s nothing really more that I have to do’,” she says.

“But we know that what has most influence with men in our society is the opinions of other men, and so what is really required, what would make such a difference to the lives and outcomes of so many children and women across the Australia is if we had men checking and pulling other men up in respectful ways around hyper masculine attitudes, sexist attitudes and particularly disrespectful attitudes around women.

“We know that this can really challenge men’s thinking and that would make an enormous difference.

“I think all of us have to play a role in supporting greater gender equality because we know that part of the reason why violence against women flourishes is because of attitudes towards women that see them as lesser and [sees them] treated lesser. And this isn’t about women dominating men, this is just about equal relationships between men and women and greater diversity in a community that actually supports better outcomes for everyone.”

*Hannah’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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