In these times of COVID-19 restrictions, we can only imagine how many women and children have been trapped in homes where they are subjected to domestic violence. Abuse, in its many forms, will have been exacerbated by stress, isolation and confinement.
We know that domestic violence, which includes physical, emotional, social, financial and sexual abuse, is used by one partner against another to exert coercive control. In the year before COVID-19, more than 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) across the globe, were subjected to sexual or physical violence by a partner. And where there is physical and sexual abuse, emotional, financial and social abuse is often also present.
In Australia, one in six women have experienced physical or sexual violence, with 80% experiencing coercive control by a current or previous partner since the age of 15. More than a quarter of the women say that children in their care had witnessed this violence and abuse. I previously coined the phrase ‘sustained hostility’ to describe the ongoing nature of a combination of these abuses and the atmosphere that is generated at home when women and children live under the shadow of abuse.
With child protection and welfare services moving towards providing comprehensive services again as most states come out of lockdown, many women and their children enduring domestic violence will come to the attention of professionals who investigate and protect children.
Services look for any deficits in mothering in the belief that women are unable or unwilling to protect their children.
However, we know that when there has been domestic violence perpetrated by a father or male partner, instead of addressing issues with the abuser, those employed to protect children often look to the mother and see her as ‘failing to protect’. In this way, services look for any deficits in mothering in the belief that women are unable or unwilling to protect their children. This misses the opportunity to help women and children by focusing on the strengths and micro-strategies mothers exercise as they try to protect their children from domestic violence.
My colleague Professor Nicole Moulding and I used interviews and focus groups to explore the lived experiences of 16 women who had mothered children in domestic abuse, hoping to better understand their thoughts, feelings and actions during that time.The women had left their abusive partners at least one year prior to participating in the study.
With hindsight, all of the women spoke about the many ways they planned and acted to protect their children when they had no chance of escape. Their actions were, of course, invisible to others, carried out behind closed doors.
Participating in the research was the first time most women had spoken about the ways they had acted to protect their children. Partly this was because no-one had asked.
They spoke about the things they did to try to keep their partners happy and calm in the hope that they would not explode into violence
Yet once the subject of protection was opened up, they spoke about the things they did to try to keep their partners happy and calm in the hope that they would not explode into violence: things like making sure dinner was ready and on the table; ensuring the children were clean and quiet; and always keeping the house neat and tidy despite having young children.
In addition, as one woman said: ‘You’re always on the back foot, you’re walking on ice, and you’ve got to sort of sugarcoat them [the male partner] to make things are as okay as possible for the kids’.
Women also spoke about times they actively intervened, putting themselves between their partners and the children if they thought there was going to be an abusive outburst. Protection could span from keeping the children out of harm’s way when they thought an assault was likely to occur, to putting themselves physically close to their abuser to try and placate him. Despite wanting to put distance between them and their violent partner, some placed themselves closer to the danger, arguably increasing the risk to themselves in order to reduce the risk of harm to the children.
In view of the findings from our research, we call for practitioners to ask about and recognise mothers’ protective thoughts and actions so that services work towards increasing safety for women and children living with domestic violence.
Women can’t always protect their children and there is only one person who can stop the abuse – the abuser himself.
Of course, women can’t always protect their children and there is only one person who can stop the abuse – the abuser himself – but by focusing on women’s strengths and actions to protect children, women can feel empowered and more able to change the trajectory of their and their children’s lives.
Further, children and those who grow up with domestic abuse can see themselves as valued when they are alerted to the ways their mothers acted to protect them. Following a lecture to a class of undergraduate students about this study, a student emailed to say: “My mother is still suffering domestic violence … thank you for helping me to understand that my mother was busy trying to protect us and so did not have time or space to show she cared”.