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.

MiNDFOOD - - MY STORY - WORDS BY ELLI JA­COBS

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.

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