TRAUMA WILL NOT DEFINE ME
Manuela Whitford understands what living in fear means after experiencing physical assault. But a fresh start in a new home inspired her to help women escaping domestic violence to heal.
Iwas born in Mozambique in 1974. Due to the revolution at the time, my parents moved our family to South Africa seven months later. I attended school and graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a nursing degree.
I recall a very happy and secure childhood, which included walking to school and riding bicycles with my two sisters and friends freely in the street. Yet as I entered my teens, I noticed things begin to change. I became more aware of apartheid and the animosity between certain cultures. Security gates, fences and bars on windows in homes became the norm.
It provided a false sense of security. I certainly became wary everywhere I went, especially when I realised that my dad had started carrying a firearm for protection when we travelled to remote places for holidays or a weekend.
I became pregnant at age 21 and got married three years later, working full-time as a hospital nurse. Becoming a mother for the first time made me more aware of the importance of quality of life, and I became increasingly protective. My desire to offer my child a safer living environment – one which didn’t require constant vigilance and cautiousness – grew.
My husband and I began researching potential countries we could move to with that quality of life.
Coincidentally, I was working with a doctor whose brother was an immigration lawyer, and he guided us in the right direction in terms of paperwork and legal processes. Out of all the Western countries we researched, Australia was the place that stood out. I registered as a nurse, which opened up the chance to move.
WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED
In the meantime, life went on as usual. I had two more children, but I always made sure to keep my nursing registration updated – this way we always had a safety blanket if we ever decided to officially migrate.
In 2009, while on my way to see a patient, I was assaulted by eight men. It left me distraught and in shock. Fortunately, I knew to engage in counselling straight away, which was very beneficial and allowed me to process a lot of things.
After I pressed charges, I was on high alert for the whole time it took for the case to go to court.
I lost trust in people and developed anxiety. The attackers knew where I lived and that I had children. Several times I would come back to my car and find it open with something in it to show me they were around and watching me. I also received prank calls nonstop and saw them following me around.
Following that horrendous experience, I spent the next months putting everything into place for our move to Australia. I wanted to leave South Africa as quickly as possible. I resigned from my permanent job and registered with Mednurse Health Recruitment to increase my chances of finding a job in Australia. I also increased my working hours to complete the immigration requirements. I became very proactive in getting all the paperwork sorted.
Eight months on, I was in court for a whole week testifying as a state witness. From what I know, they each received a six-month suspended sentence. For me, the most important part was confronting them, as well as speaking out for people who may not have had the opportunity to stand up to those who wronged them and seek justice.
Two weeks after my court testimony, I boarded the plane to Queensland. I had already secured a job as a clinical nurse working at
Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre. My family followed six weeks later and we settled in the Gold Coast.
Unfortunately, I soon discovered something shocking. While I had escaped violence in South Africa that had happened in public, I found that many of the women in the prison system in Australia were seeking refuge from violence happening within their home – a place that I associated with safety, warmth and love. These women were committing crimes to escape abuse.
For me, until then, prison was a place where criminals were locked up to protect society. Yet what I started hearing was that many women were purposely offending to find shelter from domestic or family abuse.
These women, as young as 23 – the majority of them Indigenous Australians – were currently in an abusive relationship involving their spouse or another family member, and were seeking refuge within the prison walls. The prison structure gave them a sense of security, a roof over their head, three meals a day, medication, and the healthcare they were unable to get at home.
Antoinette Braybrook is a Kuku Yalanji woman from Far North Queensland, convener of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum (FVPLSs) and chief executive officer of Djirra – an organisation supporting Aboriginal women experiencing family violence in Victoria. She says that the women they work with “find it difficult to see how the law can help them. This is due to the history of our country and the historical injustices experienced by all Aboriginal people.
“Aboriginal women fear reporting family violence to police because their children may be removed.
“Lack of available, culturally safe services like Djirra, including housing and financial support, leads to our women becoming homeless with their children.”
TRUTH ABOUT ABUSE
What I learned is that domestic abuse comes in many forms. We tend to think of it as just physical violence, but it can also exist as financial and emotional violence, where the abusers tend to isolate victims from family and friends as a way to control them and to perpetrate abuse. This keeps victims feeling threatened and restricted in what they can do to escape.
As a result, they find themselves alone with no support. Ironically, the prison system becomes their safe haven, and a place where they can form healthy relationships.
For many Aboriginal women, prison becomes the place where they can find the elders or the protective maternal figures they are lacking on the outside. So, in this sense, they feel that they belong and are protected and safe from abuse.
I held this position for two years. I was then employed by the Gold Coast Hospital at the Drugs and Alcohol and Mental Health specialist services, a position that I still hold. Impacted by my experience in the women’s prison, I started my volunteering service. In 2015, I created Friends With Dignity – a not-for-profit organisation providing practical assistance to men, women and children displaced by domestic violence and seeking to escape it.
I would put out a message on Facebook for the material things they needed to settle into their new home. Together with friends and neighbours, we would gather what we had sitting in our garage, load it on a truck and send it over to them.
HELP IS AVAILABLE
Once I realised how willing people were to help, I came up with the concept of engaging the community to support survivors of domestic abuse. People want to help and make the world a better place; Friends With Dignity offers them that option. We were filling a gap the government and other non-government organisations were unable to fulfil in terms of material provisions.
What I see happening, mostly with women, is how they become an empty shell from the trauma of domestic abuse, and become unable to set up a home. They feel overwhelmed from the commitment of having to get their kids to school, get food on the table and pay bills and school fees – so looking for new furnishings and homewares isn’t a priority.
Friends With Dignity is committed to working with local services nationally to take away the burden for both women and men to have to go out and find furniture or pay for school uniforms and fees.
We can’t expect a person who has been broken down and is in crisis to make decisions regarding home furnishings. By offering this extended support, survivors can then focus on the crisis at hand and on healing physically and psychologically. At the same time, this work allows us to raise awareness in the community of how complex domestic violence is. It’s not just about removing the victim from the perpetrator, but also about giving them a ‘step up’ so as to not go back.
Many victims return to the abusive home because it is familiar territory and they fear the unknown. Staying safe from the abusive behavior is paramount. By providing people with a safe place, it will hopefully offer them time to build their confidence and the supportive network they need to move on.
For men who are victims of domestic abuse, what stands out is that they choose to be homeless rather than seek help. They live in their car and lose access to their children because child safety regulations will not allow them to live with their father under such circumstances.
Currently, Friends With Dignity works on a referral basis with domestic violence refuges, organisations and services. This extends to the local police and prison services, with more NGOs registering with us for ongoing support.
To date, we have completed 438 homes: houses we have fitted out with furniture, linen, kitchen goods, laundry items, bathroom items and anything else that a family requires to call a place home. This includes assisting women, men and children.
I am so fortunate to have found a passionate group of strong women and men to walk this journey with. We are equally committed to making a difference. I believe in working in collaboration, as together we can do so much more … and we will.
This African proverb summarises it all for me:
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.