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To honour the work of Toora Women’s Inc in Canberra across the last 40 years, we’re sharing the stories of the women they have helped. Please note this story contains details of domestic and family violence.
In a backyard in a leafy Canberra suburb, Leanne is talking about a trip she took to China to visit family, four years ago.
Leaving her eight-month-old son in the care of her husband and parents-in-law, Leanne flew to her hometown—little did she know her husband had an ulterior motive when he encouraged her to take the trip.
Once Leanne was overseas, he broke into her email and withdrew her application for permanent residency with the Australian Government. This, she says, was the beginning of a pattern of emotionally, financially, and physically abusive behaviour that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Stranded in China with her ability to return to Australia uncertain, Leanne had no choice but to get a job to save for a flight to Australia.
“I was very vulnerable. I had no permanent visa. This is when the [abuse] started,” she says. Her mother even hid her passport, fearing for her daughter’s wellbeing in Australia.
“She couldn’t understand why I would want to come back. She thought, why would I want to come back when I was faced with this kind of family? But I wanted to come back to my son.”
After four months, Leanne finally had enough money for a flight to Australia and returned to her son and husband in Canberra on a visitor visa, only for the abuse to become physical.
“My husband was very stressed about paying his mortgages and would make me apologise for his tenants being late while he made me slap myself,” she says.
Leanne became pregnant again, and the abuse worsened, peaking when her husband flew into a violent rage after she lent eczema cream to a friend.
Leanne’s poor mental health was identified during one of her prenatal appointments, but despite the concern of her healthcare providers, she was hesitant to take action.
“My mental health score was low so they asked if I wanted to talk to one of their social workers. They suggested I could separate from my husband but I really thought everything would get better after the baby was born.”
After another physical altercation, Leanne’s husband moved into his parents’ house, asking his father to move in with Leanne and their son. Leanne says her father-in-law controlled her everyday activities and “didn’t let us go outside for long periods of time.”
One night, her father-in-law accused heavily pregnant Leanne of being too rough with her young son and lashed out physically. Leanne called the police.
“I was so scared. I thought, ‘There’s too much violence in this family’,” says Leanne quietly. “I thought, if I keep living here, I might die. I need to keep my kids and myself safe.”
Leanne was assisted by Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT to find emergency accommodation and apply for a Family Violence Order and was then connected with Toora Women’s Inc. For Leanne, it was a turning point.
“I’ve been living in Toora accommodation for a year now. I don’t need to see my ex-husband and my kids are happy and go to childcare…I’m so lucky.”
“Toora gives women a place to live and makes women stronger. We have support, we have a place to live, we can be brave and we can protect our kids. Without Toora, we would be in darkness.”
However, this hasn’t meant Leanne has fully escaped her ex-husband’s influence.
“The court matters are ongoing, and my ex-husband refuses to make child support payments, so the violence continues. Now he’s trying to use the system to abuse me.”
Leanne says she’s very aware that without services like DVCS and Toora, women such as herself without family in Australia may choose to stay in a dangerous home rather than venturing out alone.
“I’m alone—I don’t have anyone else here,” she says. “I would have been homeless or I would have stayed in that situation.”
Now Leanne sees the future clear before her. She plans to study disability care or aged care and further grow the community that stepped up in her time of need.
“My plan is to work in community services. I get so much from the community and from Toora. I feel very warm—everyone has helped me and supported me, so I want to do something for the community. I want to give back.”
We asked Toora CEO Kellie Friend what she wants the community to know about Domestic and Family Violence in Canberra.
“These issues are deep within our society and just because Canberra enjoys higher than average access to education and income, Domestic and Family violence does not discriminate and permeates all socio-economic groups of our community,” she says.
Kellie also seeks to remind the community that while the common understanding of domestic and family violence is a “battered woman” it is also “coercive control where a person’s choices and freedoms are removed, financial control where a person’s ability to earn or access money is controlled so as to limit freedoms, it is sexual abuse and control, where a person’s right to consent is removed, it is verbal and psychological where a person’s self-worth is eroded and often it represents a complex combination of many of these”.
Of course, while the statistics confirm most domestic and family violence is perpetrated by men, this is not always the case and support for both men as victims and perpetrators of domestic and family violence is also available.
Lastly, Kellie asks us to remind the community not to keep services like Toora a secret. Tell your family, your colleagues and your friends.
If Toora supports more than 500 women each year, you may know someone who hasn’t reached out yet.