'I didn't know what happened in my home was different'

Date

Clementine Ford

Extreme loss: A 14-year-old is pushing for education to help young people speak up about violence in the home.

Extreme loss: A 14-year-old is pushing for education to help young people speak up about violence in the home. Photo: Steven Siewert

There's no doubt that the wider Australian community's understanding on  what constitutes family and intimate partner violence has improved in the last few years. Thanks in large part to the ongoing work of women's health services and community organisations, greater numbers of people are becoming aware of what FV and IPV look like. Encouragingly, more and more of them are becoming confident to speak out against the scourge of this hidden violence.

Daily Life is proud to have been part of this conversation, relentlessly working to remove the stigma around these conversations and partnering with health services to deliver the latest information to our readers. Destroy the Joint's 'Counting Dead Women' project has almost single handedly been responsible for tracking the numbers and names of women killed as a result of violence in Australia, a sobering exercise that has helped to galvanise people determined to change this statistical nightmare.

But despite the increase in available information, there's still one demographic that remains worryingly ill-informed of the facts around FV and IPV- adolescents. A new petition has highlighted the devastating impact that family violence has on children, especially when they aren't empowered to understand that what they're witnessing is wrong. When you consider the high rates of hidden violence in Australia, that amounts to a potentially significant number of children unable to speak out.

Until now. Last week, Rachel*, a 14 year old girl from NSW, started a heartbreaking petition on Change.org calling on the NSW government to incorporate education on domestic violence into the school curriculum. Rachel writes:

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"I didn't know that what happened in my home was different to any other family home, as a child how could I have known any better? My three brothers,mother and I just accepted the ongoing abuse (whether it be verbal,emotional or physical) , I wanted help ,but didn't know how to get it. If I had known any better, my family would have been safe and a lot happier than what we were." [sic]

After what Rachel calls a "major DV incident", she and her mother and brothers became homeless for nine months. Rachel's mental health began to deteriorate, and she developed eating disorders, depression and experienced dissociation. Even after she and her affected family members found a new home to live in, their situation did not improve. Rachel's mother slid further into depression and, eight months after they were re-homed, she very tragically took her own life. Rachel says, "she was the only person I ever needed in my life ,I miss her so much.If domestic violence was addressed within the public schools educational criteria ,i could have gotten help and saved my mum." [sic]

Rachel's story is not all that unusual. Every day in Australia, children are the witnesses to and targets of family violence. Their status as dependents makes them even more vulnerable to the impact of this violence, especially if they haven't been empowered to recognise that what's happening around them isn't okay. New research shows that the impact of childhood trauma and abuse also has strong links to addiction in adulthood. Like Rachel, survivors are more prone to poor mental health and depressive episodes.

So why are programs addressing domestic violence awareness still failing to include the education of children? As the Sydney Morning Herald points out, "When the Baird government and Labor rolled out their extensive policy plans to combat domestic violence before the NSW election last month, neither featured any changes to the existing school syllabus." It seems unlikely that the move is a deliberate attempt to keep children in the dark. Rather, it is more probable that the value of comprehensively educating young people to recognise and report domestic violence simply hasn't occurred to anyone.

I have seen this lack of awareness in my own work speaking to school groups, most of whom seem surprised to hear that well worn statistic of how many women are killed as a result of domestic homicide in Australia every week. But if it can be reasonably assumed that a proportion of children attending school at any given time are the victims and/or witnesses of domestic violence, then it stands to reason that we need to be arming them with education and options to report this violence. Rachel's story might not be the blueprint for every version of family violence, but neither is it an anomaly. How many other children and adolescents are living in fear and constant anxiety because they either don't know how to speak up or, worse, think this is just what every family is like?

We will eventually win the war on violence against women and children. We are already making huge inroads. But unless we are prepared to look at all aspects of that violence, and empower all of its potential victims to speak up and speak out, we will only have addressed part of the problem. Education is one of the key weapons we have against the patterns and execution of violence - and education, as we all know, starts when we are young.