Enabling routes to escape violence

Ending a violent relationship requires courage, planning and support, writes Bell Murphy.

From the day they are born, girls are told to fear strangers and going out at night alone. But statistically in Aotearoa, we are safer on the street at night than we are in our own homes in the daytime.

Ninety percent of the abuse women and girls suffer is carried out by someone known to them, and about 50% of the time the abuse is in the context of intimate or family relationships. Every instance is unique and people of any gender can be abusive. However, there are patterns in the way family violence plays out in our society.

When one partner has complete power and control over the other it is most often perpetrated by men against women. More than a third of all homicides against women in Aotearoa are by male partners or ex-partners.

Women are killed by their partners three times more often than men are killed by theirs. Ending a relationship like that can be extremely difficult and dangerous. It requires courage, planning, time, resources, support and, in many cases, takes multiple attempts.

This means that knowledge about warning signs in a partner's behaviour, options for dealing with different kinds of abuse (emotional, physical, financial, social), and where to find support if things go wrong are crucial safety skills for women in Aotearoa.

The Women's Self Defence Network - Wahine Toa runs workshops around the country for women and girls, including those I run here in Otepoti/Dunedin. Thanks to funding from the Ministry of Social Development and ACC, most courses are free.

These workshops spend less time on how to fight off muggers in the street and more time on developing the awareness, confidence and self-worth necessary to stand up for ourselves with people we know and love.

Self-defence gives you more options for how to deal with unsafe situations, including positive communication skills to assert your boundaries and express your needs and physical techniques to back you up when words aren't enough.

Knowing our rights helps us to recognise when something is not OK faster and to trust our instincts, which helps us choose a response that feels right for us. Resistance comes in many forms.

Abusive behaviours are designed to give the abuser power and control over their partner and this can be done in many different ways.

Many people think that an abusive relationship is one where women and children are physically beaten but abuse can also be psychological (affecting our ability to trust our own judgement), financial (restricting our access to resources), sexual (forcing or pressuring us to do sexual things), spiritual (damaging our wairua and self-esteem) and social (isolating us from others by controlling or damaging our relationships).

See the Power and Control Wheel resource on Women's Refuge website for more examples. Non-physical abuse is just as serious as physical abuse and can leave scars which are deeper and take longer to heal than those left on our bodies.

Recognising unhealthy dynamics early is important because we can miss the warning signs until we are so deep in the woods we can't see the forest for the trees.

No relationship is perfect, and unhealthy behaviours can be present from time to time in the best relationships. The key is whether we can identify them, talk about them together, take responsibility for our own poor behaviour and really change. If not, unhealthy behaviours may be red flags and are likely to get worse.

The relationship discussion in self-defence class begins with women/girls sitting together around a jumbled up pile of cards which have examples of relationship behaviours and dynamics written on them: the good, the bad and the murky.

Through discussion, we sort them into columns: healthy, unhealthy and abusive. The ones in the middle tend to generate the most discussion and debate. I love doing this exercise with intergenerational groups.

Young women at the beginning of their relationship journeys sit wide-eyed and listen to the wisdom which older women bring to the discussion from their experiences: multiple marriages, surviving abuse and supporting friends through abuse in all of its unique and challenging forms.

Self-defence can happen before, during and after violence. It includes how we care for ourselves after experiencing violence: knowing that no-one deserves abuse, it is never our fault, we are not alone and we deserve support if we are hurt.

Knowing where to find support and ideas for how to support others is also an important part of self-defence. Abuse can happen to the strongest of us and there is no shame in asking for help.

Through decades of activism, Women's Refuge has developed skills and resources for supporting women and their children in times of crisis to build violence-free lives. They can help with the practical logistics like finding a safe place to live, advice about legal options, educational programmes and a non-judgemental ear no matter how many attempts it takes.

Shakti, a refuge service run by and for migrant women, provides culturally appropriate support and help with the specific challenges migrant women may face. Support is also available for women survivors of sexual violence through Rape Crisis. Stopping Violence Dunedin is another wonderful organisation we are so lucky to have here.

They provide counselling and support for those who have used violence and want to learn non-violent ways of living, loving and communicating. Support for individuals and whanau within a tikanga Maori framework is also available through A3 Kaitiaki, Arai te Uru, Te Roopu Tautoko ki te Tonga and Te Hou Ora.

-Bell Murphy is an accredited teacher with Wahine Toa, The Women's Self Defence Network.

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