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Domestic violence report of country women shows attitudes aren't changing quickly enough

ABC News logo ABC News 23/09/2019

WARNING: This story contains graphic content that some readers may find upsetting.

The voices of country women who have experienced intimate partner violence, like 49-year-old Janine Priestley, are being heard, but wider campaigns to address the crisis may not be.

Ms Priestley was 18 when she found herself in a relationship with her now ex-husband, who would later be imprisoned for assaulting her.

a person standing posing for the camera: Janine Priestley stayed with her abuser for decades but is now trying to use her experience to help others. (Supplied: Janine Priestley) © Provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation Janine Priestley stayed with her abuser for decades but is now trying to use her experience to help others. (Supplied: Janine Priestley) "He threw me off the chair, threw me to the ground, grabbed my hair and pulled my head back, so I was laying stomach-down on the floor," she said.

"He pulled my head back and he was about to smash it into the floor. My girls were screaming at him. They were screaming at him to stop."

But living in the small town of Paskeville on the Yorke Peninsula, which had a population of less than 200 people, made things much worse for Ms Priestley.

"My mum and my sister were 130 kilometres away," she said.

"I was 20 kilometres from Kadina, so even if I wanted to get help, I couldn't if he wouldn't let me drive the car, so I was very isolated."

Country women's voices heard

Issues like these and more are highlighted in a new report, titled Young Country Women's Perceptions of Intimate Partner Violence, from the University of SA and Uniting Country SA as part of their Hearing Country Voices Partnership.

Researchers interviewed country women aged between 16 and 24, as well as older women who had experienced intimate partner violence at that age.

Dr Catherine Mackenzie, a research fellow at the Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise, said the aim of the project was to understand young country women's perceptions and experiences of violence.

"Unfortunately, most of the research has been undertaken with metropolitan women," she said.

"A lot of the research that has been undertaken in country areas has talked with service providers more than it has with women themselves.

"That's partly why we wanted to hear from women themselves in this study."

It comes after of the 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women And Their Children 2010-22.

Early warning signs

The report found early signs of intimate partner violence were not being recognised by young women living in country areas, meaning they weren't leaving a relationship before it escalated.

"A perpetrator starts trying to isolate a woman by asking questions about who she's talking to or even who she's thinking about," Dr Mackenzie said.

At 21, Ms Priestley was being isolated and verbally harassed when she started to worry about being physically abused.

"I looked back at one of my early journals from 1991 and I'd written in there: 'It won't be long before he's hitting me.'"

Ms Priestley said when she thought back to the early days, she could now identify the warning signs.

"He'd be very controlling with regards to who I could hang around with; he stopped a lot of my friendships."

Close quarters

Catherine Mackenzie says earlier research was undertaken with women in the cities. © ABC News Catherine Mackenzie says earlier research was undertaken with women in the cities. Dr Mackenzie said country women were often apprehensive about seeking professional support because of the tight-knit communities they lived in.

"They do have concerns about confidentiality, and so they may know the local domestic violence worker, for example," she said.

"They may be friends with their parents, or they may be friends with their abuser's parents.

"The workers know that they have to maintain confidentiality, and they do, but the young women may not understand that that is the case."

There also needed to be a change in culture, Dr Mackenzie said.

Posters from the national action plan call out how a culture of disrespect can grow into violence. © ABC News Posters from the national action plan call out how a culture of disrespect can grow into violence. "As long as we keep seeing it as being perpetrated by individual violent men, that sort of bad-apple argument, it will be really difficult to change." 

She said a good place to start was with the school curriculum.

"I know we do a lot with bullying [work]; young people will have a really good grasp of what's OK and what's not OK with bullying.

"Well, it's exactly the same for domestic violence in that regard."

'Get out early'

Ms Priestley says she is happy to no longer be experiencing violence. © ABC News Ms Priestley says she is happy to no longer be experiencing violence. The report recommends that formal domestic violence services are made more accessible to young people, and that youth workers and domestic violence workers should increase their understanding of intimate partner violence.

It also suggests a community approach could help society move forward — this is something Ms Priestley would love to see.

After spending decades with her abuser, Ms Priestley left the family home and was able to secure a private rental.

Now divorced and living on the Yorke Peninsula with her daughters, she encourages country women to get out early.

"It will never stop. You will never, ever be good enough in that person's eyes, but you are good enough and get out of it.

"You don't deserve to live that life." 

If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

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