We have come a long way in the evolving discussion around family and domestic violence, but this question – ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ – inevitably rears its head from time to time.
Sometimes there are feelings of frustration at women who do not pack their bags, grab the kids, and flee when they experience abuse.
For women who have grown up feeling safe at home, not leaving can seem incomprehensible. But this is not the experience of all women: some have grown up knowing they were prey, and feeling unsafe has become part of their everyday lives.
Discussions about women’s safety often miss the point that for some, feeling safe is a foreign concept. They don’t understand what it means, what it feels like or that they have a right to expect it.
Beyond their home
Moreover, we talk about their unsafe home life in isolation from the rest of their lives.
For someone to be truly safe, they must feel safe everywhere.
But women are not safe everywhere. We are often not safe outside our home. In our workplaces, sporting clubs and communities we are still targets for objectification, disrespect, control, slander, harassment, abuse and assault.
We are not even guaranteed to feel safe accessing systems and institutions that are meant to support us. We all know the stories of system failure.
When a woman discloses abuse, that means taking a risk and exposing a vulnerability to a world that may or may not believe her, treat her with respect, or even help her. They fear the system might even remove her children.
Marriages and partnerships come with unwritten rules, and in many communities a woman’s place is still beside her partner. Leaving behind an abusive partner can mean walking away from a lifetime of friends, family, community, culture, a home, and financial support.
After years of feeling unsafe, powerless, not enough, not worthy, many women simply do not have the internal resources to leave. Sometimes all the resilience they possess is used up just surviving.
The capacity to add more, like the planning and resourcing involved in leaving, can be just too much. Combined with a fear of the system, it may feel like it is safer to stay.
What does this say about our society? It tells me that we need to purposefully create and hold space – figuratively and literally – that women to feel is safe to step into.
That can look like a family and domestic violence hub where women can come and speak to advocates, counsellors, and health professionals. Where they can just be, find resources, and their agency to make decisions that might currently feel too hard.
It’s also about holding space for each other.
Women in these situations feel isolated. They fear disclosing their situation to a friend, or colleague or health professional because with the disclosure comes an expectation of action. Action they may not have the strength to take.
And when they do not take it, there is frustration and more than just a whiff of disbelief. (I mean, if it was really that bad, she would just leave, right?)
It’s time for all of us to hold space for these women.
The 16 Days in WA campaign is currently running and there is an opportunity to start small conversations with friends and families. Someone might choose to disclose their partner is hurting them or abusing them.
If you are not trained in this space this can be daunting. Your first step is to help them feel safe with you. Do not ask too many questions, let them take their time and listen.
Then try this:
“Thank you for sharing this with me. I want you to know that what is happening is not your fault. You have the right to feel safe and loved. I am here, I will support you however you would like me to.
What would you like to do? What might help to make you feel safe right now?”
They may ask to be taken somewhere, like a refuge or their mum’s house.
They may ask for a cup of tea.
Both are valid.
The crucial point is that you hold that space for them to keep having conversations with you, with no expectations on your part.
Your belief in their right to choose what comes next is important. You can ask if they have any supports in place. If not, you may offer to walk alongside them as they find some.
If you hold that safe space of belief and validation, they may just build up their strength enough to plan their exit and leave, on their own terms.