Olivia lives with the rare Kleefstra Syndrome.

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Landscapes of Violence: Women surviving family violence in regional and rural Victoria

Family violence, once dismissively regarded as a ‘private’ or ‘domestic’ matter is now recognised as a public issue, requiring holistic community responses. However, there has been less focus on spatial variations in regards to experiences of and responses to family violence. Rates of family violence can be significantly higher in regional, rural and remote locations. And survivors living beyond the city – predominately women and children – encounter particular barriers when seeking assistance, and access to justice.

The Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice this month released a study, Landscapes of Violence, exploring the experiences and outcomes of women and children survivors of family violence. The majority of women involved experienced ‘lifetimes’ of violence; as children and/or later, as adults, in one or more long-term relationships. Violence being frequently normalised and sometimes expected, could lead to people being reluctant to seek support. “I thought that’s what happened in families,” one woman explained; “I kept it hidden because I thought everybody was experiencing it”.

As well as challenges overcoming this, women can also find it difficult to identify non-physical forms of violence. Despite the introduction of the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic), the CRRLJ study found that sometimes police and magistrates did not recognise, validate or understand the occurrence or impacts of emotional, psychological or economic abuse. In the words of one advocate “the change to the law that family violence is not just physical has not permeated through”.

Survivors, family violence workers and lawyers also spoke about the isolation of some regional and rural places. The sheer distances between survivors’ homes and police, medical services and support networks heightens risks and reduces opportunities for to receive help. Outside peri-urban areas, public transport networks can be limited and fragmented, private transport expensive, and it is not uncommon for abusers to control access to vehicles.

Women can also become socially isolated if they disclose or consider formally responding to violence. Survivors spoke about traditional notions of masculinity; which are not only found in rural communities, but can contribute to unequal power relations and the subjugation of women in those areas.

Visibility is a concern for all survivors in small communities. Confidentiality is tenuous at best, because survivors and their abusers are more likely to be known to those they seek support from. “You keep it [the violence] hidden for years, and then going from that to going public is hard,” a survivor explained. Survivors are also easier for the abuser to find, which can lessen their safety. Firearms and homemade weapons are also more common in rural areas, and more likely to affect survivors’ experiences of and responses to family violence.

Survivors also face practical constraints. There are fewer education and employment opportunities in regional and rural areas, which can affect their financial status and security, and ultimately influence their decision to leave or stay with their abuser. Survivors can be reluctant to leave relationships or feel pressured to remain in the home because of family businesses (like farms) and life opportunities for their children.

The scarcity of alternative and crisis accommodation (and accommodation that is culturally appropriate and tailored for survivors with disabilities) is by no means exclusive to non-metropolitan areas, but is certainly exacerbated in rural and regional areas. Furthermore, there are less support, health and legal services than in metropolitan areas, although advocates have showed ingenuity in outreach and connection through information and communication technologies.

Technology has the potential to overcome barriers, but also to extend isolation. Perpetrators are increasingly engaging in invasive and spaceless technology-facilitated abuse and stalking. Even if a survivor has ‘escaped’ violence they are vulnerable anywhere they access their phone, tablet or computer. Survivors felt police and magistrates failed to adequately recognise and respond to technology-facilitated abuse and stalking; this was, for many, a failure of justice.

Frustrated and fearful, survivors who disengage from social media or change their contact information lose connections with friends and family. In addition to emotional and psychological tolls, women and children who experience technology-facilitated stalking are in greater danger of being seriously or fatally harmed.

Respondents to the study showed awareness of the challenges facing regional and rural family violence survivors, as well as innovative ideas to combat the challenges. Investing further to support these people is both necessary and practical, given the huge social and economic costs of the problem. However, many of our recommendations do not require additional resources, but rather a practical and ideological shift and commitment to change. The key to overcoming barriers and boundaries facing rural and regional family violence survivors is understanding the unique features and outcomes of family violence in their areas.