Imagine being trapped in a nightmare, engulfed in darkness and fearing for your life; imagine being so scared to make even the slightest movement in case it sets off an evil creature lurking nearby; imagine just for a moment losing all hope you will ever be free again.
You may be able to wake up from that nightmare and go on living a comfortable and happy life, but hundreds if not thousands of women across Australia cannot.
They can’t just snap their fingers and end the nightmare, because it is their reality. That monster they fear so terribly is not just a scary creature out of a storybook, it’s their partner, the one person they thought would keep them safe and loved.
In some ways Jane*, who asked her real name not be used for this story, can be considered one of the lucky ones; she escaped the grips of an abusive partner and an extremely unhealthy relationship. But that doesn’t mean she is free of the pain that will haunt her life forever.
For 24 years, Jane was subject to domestic violence, with the abuse going far deeper than the physical side of things.
“I remember when our baby was little and we were at a friends place and I had not brought baby food with us,” she told Starts at 60. “I had to insist we came home. He [my husband] was angry. He said I will never do this again and smacked me in the face. I was holding the baby at the time.
“He never hit me again but what he did was almost worse… he made me question my sanity and the belittling made me feel like everything was my fault.”
There may not have been bruises on the outside, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t serious or the pain was any less, for Jane will never truly live a carefree life.
“I think if I had a black eye I would have left. My dad told me I could hold this marriage together and so I tried,” she explained. “Later he said to me how can you live like this? So when my husband said ‘I want out of this marriage’ I said yes.
“Don’t get me wrong, lots of our life was fun but the price I paid was not good. I am on medication for anxiety and will never take on another partner, although I do enjoy the company of men.”
Domestic violence has wreaked havoc on Australians for years, stealing their happiness, hope and optimism and replacing it with dread, failure and little self worth.
Not only that, it has stolen the lives of women who hadn’t even had a chance to truly live or chase their dreams. In fact, in 2018 alone a total of 63 women were killed at the hands of someone they once loved, and that’s only the ones that can be proved.
Sadly, one in two women have experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime and one in four women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15.
And while both men and women can be victims of domestic abuse, statistics show that overwhelmingly, it’s women who are subject to the torment on a regular basis.
This White Ribbon Day, along with working towards prevention of domestic violence, Australians can reflect on the work that has been done to minimise the occurrence of domestic violence. Over the past year state governments have worked to introduce tougher penalties for abusers and more protection for women at risk.
South Australia has come leaps and bounds, changing its laws so abusers who assault their partner or threaten violence while under a court order will face jail time of up to four years instead of two.
The breach of Intervention Order could be anything from incessantly texting or calling a person to breaking down a front door or assaulting a former partner.
Just last month the state also introduced a domestic violence disclosure scheme, which allows concerned women or men the opportunity to ask for details of an intimate partner’s criminal history, if they are worried about their behaviour.
While New South Wales has introduced a new strangulation offence which only requires proof of intentional choking, strangling or suffocating without consent, and carries a maximum five-year penalty.
These changes are described by both White Ribbon Australia and domestic violence lawyers around the country as a great step forward in the protection of victims.
However, according to Shine Lawyers’ Solicitor Kimberley Allen, this is just the beginning with all states and territories encouraged to follow suit.
“State governments must continue to consider the expansion of the definition of abuse, as we have seen in South Australia, and be aware of the impact of things like the use of continual advancement of technology in offences of domestic violence,” she told Starts at 60.
“The law needs to continue to be agile and proactive in addressing what is one of the most pressing problems in our country today.”
Her comments were echoed by White Ribbon Acting Chief Executive Officer Delia Donovan who said for the new laws to be effective, police must be aware of the many and varied forms that domestic violence takes.
“We need significantly more investment and leadership in all areas of Australia’s response,” she told Starts at 60. “This is our greatest social challenge and we can only meet that challenge together.
“If this were any other incident involving mass deaths, immediate action would be taken to ensure no more lives were stolen. If this was terrorism, our troops would gather into action, if this was a health outbreak, our health system would be on high alert; we can no longer sit back and watch it happen.”
For Jane, who is now living a much happier and fuller life, the answer lies in education for both women and men.
“It is definitely a good idea to up punishment but warning may not work,” she claimed. “As a victim you think it is your fault, you think if you could do something different things would be better.
“Education of people about their self worth is the answer for men and women. Women need to know they are wonderful and don’t need to abase themselves to a man to be important.”
If you are concerned about domestic and family violence in your relationship, your family, friendship group or workplace, contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 737 732, Mensline Australia on 1300 789 978, Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277 or Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 for confidential support, advice and referral that will help you explore your options.