Though she sat with her head down, I could only think of her resilience. Now 31 years old, having survived fourteen years of battering by the father of her seven children, she seemed finally about to make a sure step away. Her neighbours, who have offered many moments of care, are unsung heroes of our nation, helping without public recognition, and it’s their strength that she is relying on to find hers.
The beatings started after her first son, as they do for so many women for whom having children puts them at greater risk of domestic violence. At first, women think it will stop. She said, she had ‘hope’. As their children increase, they become less able to leave, and to manage on their own. The rest of us may think that anything is better than a violent home, but that doesn’t help us to understand the challenges associated with leaving which women may be unable to overcome.
Violence continued, even while she was pregnant, once causing her to go into labour at home. Her tooth was broken, ears torn, lip burst, and she can point to scars from cuts all over her body. The last time, just weeks ago, one beating caused her head to swell, and she went to the hospital, though normally she bore her wounds at home, perhaps afraid of being judged as a woman and mother.
She made many reports to the police, but was never sent to a shelter, and would never have gone if it meant separation from her children. It’s a decision to stay that many mothers make which keeps them in harm’s way, but such separation is often their worst nightmare as those children may be their most powerful reason to live. Following a suicide attempt after another beating, she ran away from the hospital where she was taken, afraid they would declare her mad – rather than simply, finally more battered than even she could manage – and take her from her children. All these are the realities that social services have to take into account in their strategies to empower women to become independent and live violence-free. The police came to verify that she had chosen to run away. After that, nothing.
Social workers that she met through the Regional Corporation provided food cards, and community police gave her their number and offered counselling. He broke her phone where the telephone number was stored. She missed the counselling, from lacking clothes, money to travel and anyone to look after her children while she was gone. Not all her children have regularly attended school. Their father, on drugs, recently sold their home, leaving them homeless.
Astoundingly, despite numerous visits to police, with community officers, and from social workers and district health nurses, many of whom helped in one way or another, and despite teachers seeing children in school who one day disappeared, none of them ever helped this woman right through every step until she escaped. Despite a labyrinth of national welfare services, none pursued counselling to address the children’s trauma over these years. No one ensured she secured a protection order.
Understanding how impoverished and debilitating situations threaten women’s capacity to even make sound decisions, it wasn’t even clear where she could go that would provide step by step help to escape. And, the correct protocols are still not clear to all these, even well-meaning, state officials who encounter battered women.
It’s neighbours who have held her and her family together, bringing all the children into their home after the last beating as she recovered from head injuries and they ended up alone and hungry. It’s her neighbours who sat with her when the Children’s Authority came this week, and samaritans offered her help for rent and to live. Care of neighbours succeeded where social services in an oil rich nation over fourteen years failed.
Today, this is a story of community help and family hope. One from among the hundreds of women who report domestic violence to the police each year. May this woman hold her head high, for she is a survivor. Now, hundreds more women need us to recognise that we are our neighbour’s keeper.