Abused women live in fear all over our Valley
"THE tragedy about domestic and family violence is that it's peppered with myth," was the first sobering fact delivered by Clarence River Women's Refuge manager Nav Navratil.
"People tend to think it's a certain class of people that come here but that's just not the case.
"We've had financially secure women, university educated women, teachers, nurses, policewomen all stay here in the past. There's no discrimination when it comes to domestic and family violence."
Nav has worked at the Grafton refuge for the past decade and in the field of domestic and family violence for 21 years. She said the onus was still put on the victim's behaviour.
"They are the ones put under the microscope rather than the perpetrator," she said.
"The system hasn't lent itself to change as far as that goes but it is better than it was 21 years ago."
Apart from the high-profile physical aspect to domestic violence, Nav said the mental effects could be just as devastating.
"Physiological abuse doesn't seem threatening enough but the long-term effects can be devastating," she said.
"Being constantly put down year after year, it's a form of brainwashing.
"The media like to highlight the drama. The visual elements, the black eye or the broken arm.
"In a lot of cases physiological violence is not reported because there's no visual evidence but it can be much more far reaching. You don't need to see violence for it to have an impact on kids."
Nav said the Clarence Valley rated in the top 20 areas of domestic and family violence incidents in the state but those numbers could be higher as often the isolation of living in a rural area contributed to people not reaching out for help.
She said the Clarence was geographically challenged when it came to things like transport and technological black spots.
"I've had women who live on isolated rural properties being held hostage, the phone line cut and there are firearms," she said.
"But everything can be a weapon, knives in the kitchen, power tools, cigarettes - I've seen the burns - and others being terrorised with kerosene."
Nav likened domestic violence to being in the trenches at war.
"There can be a honeymoon period where everything is going okay, chocolates, flowers and then the cycle of behaviour turns
explosive again. They either remain there or leave," she said.
"But often being constantly under threat emotionally and put down, you lose the capacity to make choices. A lot can't get out of that trench. They might leave three or four times but go back when it seems to settle down again."
Nav said the most dangerous times for a woman in this type of relationship were when she was leaving or pregnant.
"There is a higher incidence of violence in those cases," she said.
"Often with pregnancy it is because the woman is receiving all the attention and support. With medical services intervening the perpetrator feels their control is under threat."
It's this control that is at the centre of most domestic violence situations. Nav recalled one case where a woman worked in the finance industry but didn't know how to use a key card.
"She'd never been allowed to own one. People think how is that possible but it's all about the control," she said.
Nav said the higher the perpetrator's social status in the community, the harder it was to prosecute.
"There's a lot of shame and embarrassment involved for women and quite often they are pitted as being crazy," she said.
Even something as simple as getting a haircut can became a major issue.
"One woman hadn't been to the hairdressers for 10 years. Her partner was paranoid about losing power and control. Women talk to hairdressers. We have had to tell them where to send clients before."
Nav said the Clarence River Women's Refuge had operated since the 1970s; Grafton the first to be funded in the state. Last year the five female staff looked after 252 clients and children from all over Australia and took innumerable calls from women seeking advice.
"We've had women from Western and South Australia, Tasmania stay here," Nav said.
"It depends on the nature of the offender and how dangerous they are. Unfortunately demand for our service exceeds our capacity to deal with requests."
Nav said the refuge was a specialised service, a place of safety for women who need to be removed from a stressful situation.
"It's somewhere they can come and think clearly and make decisions. A lot of women let their general health go too, like those regular medical check-ups, pap smears, breast checks. Others have been here as children and come back as adults, we don't want to see that happen."
She said the first two weeks were critical when settling in.
"We work within a six to eight-week period because we have to have some sort of timeframe but there is longer-term accommodation onsite."
Nav said their main job was to support their clients' growth and point them in the right direction.
"Many of those who had no education have gone on to study and get qualifications," she said.
She said the offenders "aren't all homeless, uneducated men who drink a lot. They are doctors, solicitors, police officers and teachers too.
"Some men also go on to make the choice to seek help after they identify they have a problem and not all adolescent boys growing up in DFV families go on to be perpetrators. Sometimes it has the opposite effect."
While the statistics and stories are harrowing, Nav holds hope for the future of affected families.
"The community is full of good men. They need to help shape young boys' behaviour within families by standing up and saying this sort of behaviour is not acceptable," she said.
"The message is more powerful to perpetrators when it comes from their peers."
Love Bites program
The Clarence River Women's Refuge also provides education to Clarence Valley high school students (Year 10) through its Love Bites program. "We've educated thousands of students over the past few years on the subject of domestic violence and sexual assault."