Catalina Valencia was a strong, independent mother, who worked in various roles helping others in the community. She was a case manager assisting women impacted by homelessness, as well as an interpreter for people from culturally diverse backgrounds.
Although, that all changed after she became involved with her second husband, who subjected her to years of violence and abuse. "He took everything he could," she explained, "leaving destruction and agony in his way."
And as a result of this violence, Ms Valencia eventually lost her house and her career. However, today, she considers herself a survivor, and no longer a victim. And this understanding has only been strengthened through her work with the Voices for Change project.
Shifting community attitudes
Led by Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW), Voices for Change is a project aimed at bringing an end to domestic, family and sexual violence with an emphasis on having survivors sharing their real life stories in the media.
Launched in November last year, Voices for Change involves advocates sharing their stories, so as to shift community attitudes towards violence against women. And the project also provides much-needed support to the advocates for change, as revisiting such events can be traumatic.
Voices for Change coordinator Renata Field said that the project has been "really successful and well taken up". And there's been no shortage of women volunteering to speak out about their own experiences, with the desire to help others in similar situations.
"The thing that I've heard from journalists in their feedback is how nice it is to know that these people are supported in their safety risk, or that we're able to debrief with them afterwards," Ms Field explained. "It's been good for the journalists as well."
Over recent years, the Australian community is finally taking violence perpetrated within domestic settings seriously. However, it continues to be said that if the scope of this violence was attributable to terrorism, government would take greater action.
Indeed, on average, Australian police deal with one domestic violence call out every two minutes, one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner, and one in five Australian women have been subjected to sexual violence.
And experts assert that this violence persists, because women are still not valued in the same way that men are in our society, which is evidenced in other areas of gender disparity, such as pay gaps and employment opportunities.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Catalina Valencia about her reasons for taking on the role of an advocate for change, how the project has helped transform her, and why women's refuges are a vital service government should be funding.
Firstly, Ms Valencia, you experienced domestic violence at the hands of your second husband. Can you tell us a little about what that involved?
My experience of domestic violence was really incredible. I was an independent professional woman, mother and wife at the time. And I was shortly reduced to an anxious, fearful and confused person, trying to understand this other person.
I was confused because of his mood changing behaviour, which involved shouting, pushing, fist-clenching, dragging me by the hair, and pushing me towards the wall and chocking me. All these acts of violence were degrading.
But, the worst part was the fact that children were witnessing or hearing this. And it affected my personality and well-being.
As a domestic violence survivor, how did you find attitudes within the community regarding what was happening to you?
In certain cultures, the man is the head of the family, meaning he's the provider, especially when women don't work outside of the house.
And this is misinterpreted by many to find that women don't have any right to express their opinions, or even participate in making decisions for themselves or their families.
In saying that, many people don't accept or find it normal that a man would behave in an authoritarian way towards a woman when he's in a relationship with her.
The other thing is that when you speak to the community that's close and share the violence that's happening at home, they don't understand that it's true, because these perpetrators have a double personality.
They show charming in public. And for people around you, it's very hard to understand that the same person is violent at home.
The third point would be that a woman in my case feels guilty and totally isolated. You feel that you have no one to trust and nowhere to go.
You've been involved with the Voices for Change project since February this year. What was it about the project that drew you to it? And why was sharing your experience with the wider community something that appealed to you?
The Voices for Change project is a unique opportunity for women who are survivors of domestic violence to tell their story. And the reason for me wasn't talking about how domestic violence affected me, but how it affects the children, which is so important.
Children need to be protected from violence, violent crimes and abuse. For me, I really believe that Voices for Change assists with this.
Also, with being involved with Voices for Change, my story will be reaching those silent victims who are still hidden and don't know they have a voice. In this case, speaking up and being part of the project, I am a voice for them.
These people will know there's help for them, and will contact the authorities, police services, or the DV Line. They will see that I am their voice, and that perpetrators must be reported.
Domestic Violence is a crime. And the number to call for that is 1800 656 463. They must report any type of violence.
As you've just mentioned, the aim of Voices for Change is to bring about a better awareness of domestic, family and sexual violence and in that way prevent it. What are some of the other changes the project is trying to bring about?
Voices for Change aims to bring about changes to family laws regarding parental access visits, when an AVO is present. These should always be supervised access visits, when minors and children are involved.
Another aspect is the awareness that authorities – including both state and federal governments – have about the repercussions that domestic and family violence, as well as abuse, can have on the victims for life. And we're advocating for new protection laws as well.
You've worked as a case manager for women experiencing homelessness. How would you describe the link between domestic violence and homelessness? And what are some of the challenges women specifically face under these circumstances?
Domestic violence and homelessness are directly connected. If a victim needs to run away from their home for their own safety and that of their children, this is the way that domestic violence can leave people homeless. That's one point.
The other point is the health problems a survivor is left with. This can be physical or mental illness. And when a person becomes physically or mentally ill, they lose their way to work. They cannot work for much longer. This happened in my case.
Therefore, you immediately become dependent on services from government, because you don't have a job – you're unemployed. If you can't afford to pay your mortgage, you lose your home. That happened to me. If you need to pay rent, you can't afford it.
The Baird government implemented the Going Home Staying Home policy in 2014. It resulted in a large number of women's refuges and speciality services being closed down. In your understanding, how is the sector operating today?
I have been away from work for many years now. But, as far as I'm concerned, as a survivor of domestic violence, it's an error to close or not give sufficient resources to women's refuges.
Government is supposed to provide more resources. These services are good support for women escaping violence, as well as for their children, who are victims as well.
And lastly, Ms Valencia, you've been involved with Voices for Change for about 10 months now. For women out there considering becoming a part of it, what would you say the project does for the advocate for change themselves?
It has supported me all along. You have the opportunity to talk about having been through violence and survived. You are no longer a victim, but a survivor, who is trying to help others.
You are an advocate for all others, who, at the moment, are unable to speak for themselves.
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