Hitting Home: An interview with Sarah Ferguson

Content warning: domestic violence, violence against women.

Globally, one in three women will experience domestic violence at the hands of their partners. In Australia, one woman is killed by their current or former partner every week.

After spending six months living in a women’s refuge, award-winning journalist Sarah Ferguson (The Killing Season, A Bloody Business) is leading a sobering look into the lives of young men and women affected by domestic violence. A two-part documentary, Hitting Home is a sobering look at domestic violence statistics in Australia, and what we can do to support healthy and stable relationships, particularly among young Australians.

Sarah joins me today to talk about her time working on Hitting Home, and why domestic violence in Australia needs to be talked about.

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In 2014, a study by Vic Health found that young Australians aged between 16 and 22 are more likely to blame the victim and excuse domestic violence. You said yourself in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that domestic violence is so much more than just a punch and that these victims can’t “just leave”. After your experience with so many young women, are you surprised by these figures, and why do you think this stereotype is still prevalent in the younger generation?

Anybody who has been in a relationship or a series of relationships would have seen very small signs of domestic violence. They will have seen either in their lives, or in the lives of their immediate friends and family, examples of domestic violence. This doesn’t mean that you know someone or you yourself have been punched. That isn’t it. It is about control. That’s something I didn’t understand coming into this experience. That’s why people keep asking the question, “well, why don’t you leave?” but the punch, that first act of violence, comes after an escalating period of control. It often starts off as very small things. Like: “what are you doing on your Facebook page? What are you wearing? I don’t like you wearing lipstick, I don’t want other guys looking at you. Why are you still talking to your ex-boyfriend on Facebook?” Things that seem to be a little bit restrictive or controlling or jealous, but should be taken seriously because you don’t know if this person who is doing these small things is capable of violence. But even if it doesn’t progress to violence, that form of mental abuse, and it is mental abuse, can become like a living hell. It’s a torture. You lose yourself.

So no, the figures don’t surprise me, and that’s why we do have to talk about it. For most people the word “domestic violence” means being kicked and punched, but people don’t understand from that word is the mental torture that controls these victims. And it’s so important for younger readers to understand that.

Domestic violence is known to be a bit of a taboo where the media is involved, particularly in local settings. These days, so many tech-savvy Australians are being impacted by what they see and hear on the internet and in the media. How do you think can we change the representation of domestic violence in the media and encourage conversations on healthy and safe relationships?

At least it’s moved from being completely taboo. We need to recognise progress where it has been made. A lot of people are talking about it now, just the fact that you and I are talking about it wouldn’t have happened ten or fifteen years ago. You wouldn’t have had a big series like this being produced. There has been enormous steps towards talking about domestic violence more, and Fairfax ran the ‘Shine the Light’ campaign, there’s a lot more naming and identifying of domestic violence.

The media has to find ways of writing and talking about domestic violence that gets away from the stereotyped image. Throughout filming, I had to be very careful of the language I used. Domestic violence is reduced to a single impression – of a man standing over a woman, threatening to punch her. You might feel like you know the story when it comes to domestic violence, but in reality it comes in all sorts of different forms.

So where do we go from here? I think one of the big things is realising that when a relationship has become violent, that somehow it’s become acceptable. That some relationships become volatile – as if it didn’t start somewhere.

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There’s this scene where a victim is subjected to a brutal cross-examination by her partner’s defence lawyers in the court room. You also spent a lot of time with specially trained police officers in Blacktown. What needs to change to support victims within the legal system?

Well again there’s been some progress and that’s a good thing. I didn’t know about the safe rooms. So if you’re a victim and you go to court, you can be in a room where you can be looked after by professionals who will help you through the process. You don’t have to sit in the lobby with the person who as assaulted or abused you. That’s the biggest thing.

There is also a trial of domestic violence courtrooms in Queensland and I think that’s probably the way to go because having your personal life being discussed in court, even though a crime has been committed, is very difficult for people. They’re ashamed and embarrassed to be in that situation. I think this is a particular crime where the victim needs to be treated differently, and they need to be cared for, and the personal nature of domestic violence requires us to go further in the way these crimes are heard.

Everyone is entitled to a proper defence and a proper trial but if you are the victim of domestic violence by your intimate partner having that played out in court is really hard and I think we need to look closely at the DV court trial in Queensland to look at the next steps of altering the legal system towards hearing these particular crimes.

I guess we talk about change a lot, because there’s so much that needs to be done to support victims of domestic violence but there’s also some great work going on right now. One of those places is the refuge you were living in for six months. What was it like staying there and getting to know the professionals dedicated to helping these women and their children?

It was so fascinating. I moved in and then while we were filming I would use it as my base. You know there were people who were arriving who had literally run directly from dangerous situations with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were so wary. And just seeing them get their confidence back over a period of days and weeks was fascinating. To see a human being put themselves back together slowly. Just through simple tasks – they can have their own ATM card, they can make their own decisions. And the work of the people in the refuge was amazing. When you come out of a bad relationship, as soon as you see someone showing compassion you tend to lock onto them and want a lot from them. So you need a really empathetic and well-trained person to do these kinds of jobs. You can’t become their friend, that’s not you job. There’s such a fine line to it all. But watching the professionalism of these people around me, an enormous credit to them, they have absolutely endless patience.

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These women tell such harrowing stories and then in the second episode you speak with the men convicted of domestic violence who are now in jail for their crimes. How hard was it to remain objective, especially after getting to know these women and their families over such a long period of time?

You know, it is my job. You go into each situation with an absolutely open mind. You’re not there as anyone’s advocate. When you have two versions being played out, it important to leave your prejudices behind. We really want to see if the programs (for the men convicted of domestic violence) were working and if their time incarcerated changed the way they viewed and spoke about women. I was looking at if and how they were changing. That’s what I was there to do.

You mentioned that you hope at the end of this experience we look at and analyse the relationships around us. If young people reading this do need support, where can they go?

1800 RESPECT is a fantastic service. The domestic liaison officers in the police stations are just the most extraordinary people from wealthy suburbs on the east (of Melbourne), from people far out west, they are fantastic, completely committed and they know what you’re going through.

Every local police station has a list of services to help you. Your local GP will have a list of services that will help you, too.
Go online, websites out there have fast escape buttons so if you do have a partner who is monitoring your internet usage, these fast escape buttons close down the pages immediately.

But the most important thing to know is that there are a lot of people who can help you. One thing some people have said during filming is that they didn’t realise how much help was available – in fact, there’s a lot of help out there. The key thing is the first step. Just ring 1800 RESPECT. Tell your friends, get someone to go with you, who will support you.

No one should live in a relationship where a partner feels threatened, isolated or uncomfortable, and you are entitled to more.

 

Hitting Home is a two-part documentary series by ABC television in association with Screen New South Wales. It is presented by Sarah Ferguson and directed by Ivan O’Mahoney. It runs Tuesday 24th November, Wednesday 25th November, 8:30pm, ABC. Wednesday is the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

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