Victims need to be survivors
BY JENNIFER KIRKALDY
In the family and domestic violence service sector, we talk about a person who experiences family violence as a ‘victim-survivor’. It’s an awkward phrase, and it’s not perfect, but it captures how two things can be true simultaneously.
Family violence is a crime. Those who experience it are victims. But each of these people is so much more than a victim. They have a life, a personality, a presence outside and beyond what has happened to them. In the moment, being a victim of family violence can seem all-encompassing and inescapable – but that does not need to be the case.
So, we also talk about survivors.
We focus on these things happening to a person, but those acts do not define them. It is something they are going through, but it is only one part of their story. Family violence is traumatic, it takes a long time to recover. It is a thing to be survived – it can be survived.
The great tragedy of the 53 women who have died this year is that the world only knows one small part of their story. Though the people who knew them and loved them know there was so much more, in the public conversation, their victimhood is permanent. It’s the people around them who are survivors.
Last year, the Salvos alone helped over 10,000 people escape violence. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 3.8 million Australians have experienced family violence since the age of 15 – around 27 per cent of all women.
Statistically, someone you know is in that number.
Which means, statistically, someone you know is perpetrating family violence.
It is so easy to feel powerless in the face of the enormity of this issue. When we look at the drivers of family violence, it can feel overwhelming to try to dismantle embedded social, economic and legal systems that perpetuate family violence.
And we need to dismantle those systems but just for a moment, let’s focus on the people you know. If you don’t know someone perpetrating family violence, someone in your circle does – and that means you have more power than you think. It means you can make a positive difference right now.
Right now, you can call out behaviour that minimises or excuses violence within our families, schools and workplaces. Ask people to explain why that joke is funny. Make it clear you are not interested in victim-shaming.
Right now, you can make sure you are a safe space for victim-survivors to reach out. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to say or what to do – demonstrate that you believe them and that you are on their side. Then, if they are ready, there’s a range of people who do know what to do, and you can help them reach out.
Right now, if you see something, you can say something. Sometimes intervening can make a situation more dangerous for the victim-survivor, so it’s natural to feel scared to act, but there are people who can help and advise you.
And if someone is in immediate danger, call the police. Don’t worry if it turns out to be a false alarm. If you are worried it will make neighbourly relations awkward, the police won’t tell them who made the call, and you might just save someone’s life.
There are a lot of structural things we need to do to address family violence. We need to fix gender equality and attitudes toward women. We need to reform our welfare system so victim-survivors are not choosing between abuse and poverty. We need to adequately fund our family violence sector so we can help every single person who reaches out and focus on early intervention.
We need to do all these things. But while doing them, we also need to take action personally.
There have been 53 women this year alone who never got to be survivors. At the current rate, that number will reach 58 by the end of the year. We can’t let that happen.
Jennifer Kirkaldy is the Salvation Army’s General Manager, Policy and Advocacy