Many women find it hard to take the first steps in getting out of a violent relationship. A Patnership Against domestic Violence PADV report Pathways: How women leave violent men (2003) PDF icon (PDF, 976KB) documented the experiences of Tasmanian women who have left violent partners and identified common critical success factors in their leaving. The following sections are excerpts from the full report:

Testimony from the women interviewed for this report can be found in Women Sharing with Other Women PDF icon(PDF, 93KB), in which they tell what they had learnt from their experience of leaving and establishing a new life.

What are women's perceptions of the turning points and pathways in leaving and remaining out of a violent relationship with a male partner?

The research for Pathways: How women leave violent men focused on women's own identification of what enabled them to negotiate their way successfully out of violent relationships.

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Major turning points for women:

  • an incident of severe violence
  • an escalation of or further threat of violence
  • the women's concerns regarding their children witnessing the violence against their mother

Key turning points for women:

Other key turning points, intimately interwoven with the major two, was a change in beliefs including new beliefs that:

  • staying was not in the best interests of the children
  • the male partner was responsible for the violence
  • the violence was not going to stop
  • the violence and abuse was not normal and/or acceptable
  • that certain religious views on marriage could be challenged
  • their partner's infidelity
  • the death of their partner
  • the involvement of child protection services
  • a new partner
  • commencing university
  • starting work; or
  • the children growing older


The phases of leaving

The following phases of leaving can take weeks or years, with some phases being repeated:

Pre-contemplation: managing and/or resisting the violence but not generally thinking about leaving.

Contemplation: beginning to think about leaving, usually acutely aware of the barriers, and often when women first wanted to discuss their options with informal and/or formal supports.

Deciding to leave: seeking information and making plans.

Actually leaving: usually the women leaving their home either temporarily or permanently, often feeling 'in crisis' and seeking action-focused practical and emotional support.

Establishing a new, violence-free life: a particularly challenging phase, where women usually sought non-directive practical and emotional support, and access to resources was crucial.


Pathways and significant factors in leaving a violent relationship

Key pathways to leaving fall into broad categories - formal and informal. In addition there are often a range of underpinning enablers - structural supports and beliefs that support a womans efforts to leave and establish a new life. In summary, the key pathways identified by women are:

Enabling responses from formal supports, primarily domestic violence-specific services and counsellors (mostly social workers); but also Centrelink, adult educational institutions, police, lawyers (mostly after leaving) and to a lesser degree, general practitioners; and informal supports, primarily female friends, but also family (mostly female) and new partners.

Underpinning structural supports, mostly access to resources (i.e. income security, employment, education, affordable housing and childcare); and to justice, through the criminal justice system.

Access to information, mainly through the media, books and domestic violence-specific services' information strategies.

Enabling fears, beliefs and feelings, primarily regarding safety, the children, a sense of self/agency and hope-that is, the giving up of hope the violence would stop and regaining hope for a safer future.


Barriers and significant factors which make it difficult for a woman to make the decision to leave

Constraining beliefs and feelings, primarily fear:

  • fear of being killed if she left
  • fear of the impact on the children
  • hope the violence would stop
  • feelings for their partner
  • fear of losing financial security
  • fear of managing/being alone; and
  • a reduced sense of agency

Structural barriers - a lack of access to:

  • an adequate income
  • information on support services
  • legal rights and domestic violence
  • transport
  • affordable, appropriate housing
  • support services; and
  • affordable childcare

Ineffective responses from informal and formal supports from whom the women had sought help:

  • informal supports-primarily family but also friends
  • formal supports-primarily the police but also general practitioners
  • the broader criminal justice system
  • counsellors
  • the clergy; and
  • domestic violence-specific services (mostly shelters)


Recognising diversity: culture, background, circumstances and needs

Women with children

Four out of every five women in the study had children, and of these women:

  • about half identified their families as a pathway to establishing a new life in relation to support for their children; and
  • about half wanted or sought help from formal supports to enable their children to establish new lives

In relation to their children, the women identified as pathways:

  • structural supports, including Centrelink payments, access to the legal system, housing loans and affordable public and private housing; and a number of other formal supports including counsellors, government-funded
  • children's mental health services, parenting centres, Aboriginal children's centres, and church-funded counselling and support programmes focusing on children who have witnessed domestic violence

Women's fears for their children's future wellbeing were the second most common key barrier to leaving. Almost a quarter of women in the study reported having children with a disability and/or health issue/s. All of these women identified that disability or health problem as a barrier to leaving and/or establishing a new life.

Aboriginal women

Most of the pathways and barriers identified by Aboriginal women were similar to those identified by other women in this study. In addition Aboriginal women identified as key pathways:

  • Aboriginal-specific formal supports, in particular the University of Tasmania's Aboriginal Education Centre, Riawunna;
  • adult education institutions (TAFE and/or universities) - identified as a key pathway by a higher proportion of Aboriginal women compared to the total sample;
  • cultural identity and a sense of community and support from community (including that generated by Riawunna)

Aboriginal women identified additional barriers in relation to:

  • a lower level (in comparison to the total sample) of accessing police before leaving, and of identifying police as a key pathway;
  • discrimination, including inequities relating to the intersection of race and gender; and
  • cultural issues.

Culturally diverse women

Most of the pathways and barriers identified by culturally diverse women were similar to those identified by other women in this study; but they also identified as pathways:

  • culturally diverse women-specific formal supports; and
  • their own cultural identity.

In addition, a higher proportion of culturally diverse women (compared to the total sample) identified as key pathways:

  • adult educational institutions; and
  • domestic violence-specific services

Barriers identified by culturally diverse women related to:

  • their ethnicity and to access due to discrimination;
  • lower levels of reporting police as a key pathway;
  • a cultural response from culturally diverse women informal supports, including a higher level of barriers relating to family;
  • language; and
  • immigration status

Women with a disability

For women who identified as having a disability, an additional pathway was disability-related services and service providers. In addition, a higher proportion of women with a disability, compared to the total sample, accessed police and a lower proportion identified police as a barrier; and a higher proportion identified as a pathway:

  • domestic violence-specific services;
  • psychiatrists and general practitioners; and
  • a change in certain beliefs;
  • their disability as a key barrier;
  • a higher level of access barriers;
  • a higher level of family as a barrier; and
  • higher levels of barrier beliefs and feelings relating to a fear of being unable to manage alone, and a belief the violence would stop

Women with a health issue

The stories of women in this study clearly indicated that the violence and abuse they experienced from their male partner often took a toll on their minds and bodies. Over two thirds of the women experienced physical and/or mental health problems during the relationship with their ex-partner. Depression was by far the most common health problem, identified by over half the women in the study.

Significant factors

Significant factors in the key pathways for these diverse groups of women were:

  • cultural sensitivity and non-discrimination;
  • affirmative action;
  • accessible information and referrals;
  • education;
  • the enhancing of cultural identity and sense of community;
  • the enhancing of a sense of self, self rights and sense of agency;
  • emotional and practical support;
  • an enhanced sense of justice and safety;
  • a sensitivity to disability issues;
  • clinical support;
  • acknowledgment of the impact of domestic violence on health; and
  • support in caring for children.

The significant factors of key barriers for these women included:

  • cultural insensitivity and discrimination;
  • a lack of affirmative action;
  • inaccessible information and lack of referrals;
  • blaming the women for the violence;
  • lack of access to education;
  • the diminishing of cultural identity and sense of community;
  • the diminishing of a sense of self, self rights and sense of agency;
  • a lack of emotional and practical support;
  • a diminished sense of justice and safety;
  • an insensitivity to disability issues;
  • a lack of clinical support;
  • a failure to recognise the impact of domestic violence on health; and
  • a lack of support to care for children.

Women living in rural or isolated areas

While pathways reported by women in rural and isolated areas were similar to those reported by other women in this study, women in rural and isolated areas reported fewer pathways overall, largely accounted for by their isolation and/or lack of services. In comparison to the total sample, a smaller proportion of women living in rural or isolated areas identified:

  • family as supportive, or as a key pathway;
  • contact with domestic violence-specific services and counsellors before leaving; and
  • contact with most formal supports

These women also identified the attitudes of some in the rural community as a barrier. Of particular note was the number of significant factors contributing to the barrier of living in a rural or isolated area:

  • the additional difficulties and costs of packing up and moving;
  • the additional cost of physically leaving eg plane fares or extra distance to travel;
  • a lack of access to transport;
  • geographically or climatically being unable to leave eg on an island or snowed in;
  • the distance from family, friends and neighbours;
  • no existing support services or no access to support services;
  • accessing women's shelters meant having to move outside the community;
  • no or limited access to information;
  • no or limited access to outside communication;
  • the conservatism of rural communities;
  • no or limited capacity to develop an escape plan;
  • no access to emergency cash due to no access to or no banking services;
  • leaving home meant leaving one's livelihood or employment eg a farm;
  • a lack of confidentiality;
  • police taking a conciliatory approach; and
  • key support services' workers, including police, more likely to be known to or friends /colleagues of the woman and/or be known to or friends/colleagues of male partner


What enables women to leave and establish a new violence-free life?

Whilst the women in the national study Against the Odds (Keys Young 1998) identified numerous barriers to leaving or seeking help, the report found that the women were not 'passively accepting or colluding in the violence perpetrated against them but actively taking steps to try and deal with or solve the problem'. Some were helped by family, friends and professionals through the provision of an appropriate, sensitive and helpful response, including non-judgemental support.

Positive responses were identified as those that assisted women 'to gain the information, awareness and support necessary to enable them to deal with the abuse in their own way and in their own time'. Women in the study identified police responses as helpful when they: responded quickly, provided useful information, believed the woman, did not blame her, and charged the perpetrator and/or removed him from the premises.

A frequent comment from women prior to interview was that, if telling their story could encourage one other woman to leave a violent relationship with a male partner, it was worth doing for that alone. Through the course of the interviews, most women had a quiet sense of achievement as they identified the many barriers that each of them had overcome and the pathways they had accessed to leave and establish a new life for themselves, and often, their children.

When asked 'What is life like now?' most women responded by focussing on the positives of leaving and establishing a new life. Recurring themes were:

A sense of agency: The majority of women identified they now felt in control of their lives, were able to make choices and had a sense of freedom.

Peace and safety: many identified this sense, with contentment, reduced anxiety and a capacity to reflect and think again.

New insights into self, an enhanced sense of self: Many women reported journeys of self discovery, rediscovering their sense of identity and building an improved self image.

New opportunities: Many spoke of new and exciting opportunities they believed would never have occurred if they had stayed where they were. They spoke of moving into politics, of achieving their ambitions at university or a better lifestyle for themselves and their children.

Non-abusive new partners: At the time of interview, almost two thirds (64%) of the women reported having new partners. The majority spoke of the happiness of entering into non-abusive relationships.

Happier children: Most women reported that their children's lives were now happier, they were able to enjoy being with their children more, and their children felt safe.

Becoming stronger and wiser: Women reported new strength, wisdom, and the acquisition of new insights and skills that enabled them to build a new life.

The personal is political-wanting to make a difference for other women: Some women spoke of taking action to achieve this. Although fearful at times, they reported taking a stand for social justice as they lived out the belief of the women's movement that the personal is political. Since leaving, some women had become involved in politics, been advocates for women or worked with domestic violence issues.


Ongoing barriers and hardships

Whilst all the women were able to identify positives in their lives from leaving, for some women there were also hardships. They included:

  • a lack of confidence in making decisions after years of being controlled;
  • grief and loneliness;
  • an inability to trust men;
  • a dislike of men;
  • feeling unable/being unwilling to establish new relationships;
  • the difficulty of being a single parent; and
  • not feeling safe physically or financially

The men's violence was, almost always, only aimed at the woman and sometimes the children as well - but not outsiders. This is despite perceived 'causes' of the violence-such as substance abuse, mental illness, a traumatic background-being an equal influence on all other aspects of the man's social encounters.

Many of the women in the study tried to make sense of the violence they experienced, seeking causes and explanations and trying to manage it by developing strategies to make the violence stop. The ways they found were as varied as the women themselves. What they had most in common, however, was that, invariably, nothing they tried stopped the violence.


Key terms used in the report

Key terms used throughout the report are defined as follows:

Turning points: those events that most influenced the decisions that contributed to a woman being able to leave and establish a new life, as well as the points at which women made their life changing decisions.

Pathways (enablers): the public, private and community services (formal support) and family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, fellow students and other members of the community (informal support) that women perceived enabled them to overcome or remove identified barriers to leaving and establishing a new life. The term also encompasses factors such as: information; feelings and beliefs; a change in previously held feelings and beliefs; and structural supports such as laws and policies.

Key pathway: a pathway identified as most significant in the process of leaving and establishing a new life.

Domestic violence-specific services: those with a primary mandate to provide services to women who experience domestic violence. Women's shelters were included due to their high level of involvement with domestic violence.

Leaving a violent relationship with a male partner: leaving refers to the ending of the relationship. A violent relationship refers to violence that constitutes an assault as defined by law and is consistent with the definition the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) used in its national domestic violence survey 'any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of either physical or sexual assault' (ABS 1998).