Chiaka Moneke was working as a family lawyer helping women recover from the carnage of violent and broken relationships when she decided to take some of her own advice. “Every time I’d go to work, I’d go to the bathroom and think about the interview I just had with a woman, and I would think to myself, ‘why can’t you take some of your own advice?'” she said. But her decision to leave her abusive husband had huge consequences.
“You’d have people outright tell their partners and wives not to talk to me. “I started to lose friends. People wouldn’t invite you to things. Over time, people wouldn’t call you, wouldn’t visit you.”
About 12 per cent of calls to Canberra’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service are from culturally diverse women. Many face extra barriers to seeking and receiving help because they fear the public spectacle of a police visit or a trip to court. “There may be a real emphasis of secrecy … you don’t talk about what you’re experiencing,” said Professor Patricia Easteal AM, who runs Legal Light Bulbs consultancy which advises on violence against women and the law.
“It is a profound taboo to keep the secret because it brings shame not just on the person but on the family and on the community.” In some culturally and linguistically diverse communities, violence isn’t necessarily seen as wrong.
For Ms Moneke, in her African-Australian community, divorce or separation was seen as a failing on behalf of the woman, and a reflection on the family that they hadn’t been able to make the relationship work. “It’s the role of the woman to make the marriage work in my community,” she said. “And if the marriage doesn’t work, it is your fault that it didn’t work.”
Lockdown linked to increase in domestic violence
COVID-19 social restrictions have added to the difficulties faced by women caught in domestic violence situations. During the lockdown, there was a decrease in reports to police and applications for Domestic Violence Orders (DVOS) but there was a significant increase in people seeking support through the Domestic Violence Crisis Service.
In the months after restrictions were lifted, Canberra Hospital saw a spike in women and children seeking help at the emergency department as a result of family violence. “There was an increase in the brutality of the violence,” ACT coordinator-general of family safety Kristy Windeyer said.
“A number of those were culturally and linguistically diverse women who presented at hospital.” Ms Windeyer said the challenge was finding creative ways to reach women in smaller communities. “Depending on their circumstances, these women might only go to a very small number of places: the shops, the school, the supermarket,” Ms Windeyer said. “Some do fall through the cracks.” And that’s where Ms Moneke has stepped in to help.
Survivor becomes advocate
Despite the whispers and finger-pointing that accompanied her separation from her husband, other abused women realised she was in their corner. “They can see you’re still out in the community, still engaged, still the vice-president of the Nigerian Association,” she said. “[Women] think ‘this is someone I want in my corner — someone I want advice from’.”
In quiet and private conversations far from the prying eyes of the community, Ms Moneke started meeting with women who had asked for her help. She has now helped dozens of African-Australian Canberrans make action plans — financial, legal, and emotional — to empower them to leave their partners.
She wants women to have access to all the services and information that she had. “I was educated, I spoke English, I was fortunate. I had some of the tools that other women don’t have,” Ms Moneke said. “That’s how I survived. If I didn’t have the tools that I had to get the right jobs that I got, then I’d probably still be in that relationship.”
Ms Moneke said many women stay in an abusive relationship because they don’t know how they’d support their family financially. “I’ve gone back to these women six months post them making their decision, they always talk about the peace they have,” she said. “You can’t put a dollar figure on the peace you have when you’re in a safe environment.”
And while Ms Moneke paid a heavy price for her freedom, eight years on from her separation she’s living a bright life with her two children. “I was worried [leaving my husband] would destroy the lives of my children,’ she said. “But I realised that actually, they would be worse off if I was dead.”