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Why don’t women leave abusive men? Sarah Ferguson has the definitive answer.

He’s in prison for his second criminal conviction for domestic violence.

He’s categorised as highly likely to reoffend. And the time has come, in the 10-week behavioural rehabilitation program he’s undertaking, for him to tell the group about what he did. To talk about his thought processes in the lead up to the assault. It’s a pivotal moment in the course.

“I didn’t do it. We had an argument and she hurt herself getting out of the car.”

abc hitting home
Image via ABC: Hitting Home (YouTube)

He was defiant.

His version of events doesn’t correspond with what a court has found and it doesn’t match the version of events his partner has given.

Sarah Ferguson was in that room, listening to this unfold, and found it challenging to hear.

“There is no sense of confronting them with what they’ve done. I wanted to say ‘You’re in prison because a judge found you guilty of assault.’ But that’s not how it works,” Ferguson explains. “What do you do with someone who doesn’t believe they even did it?”

He was then asked who his behaviour had impacted. “He didn’t mention his partner,” Ferguson says. “The moderator had to say ‘and….your partner?’ He said ‘Oh ok, yeah’.”

It hardly instills confidence in programs designed to rehabilitate and prevent repeat domestic violence offenders.

“Changing behaviour is a tall order. You can’t underestimate the difficulty in that. These are men in their 40s who have been behaving like this for a long time. These [programs] fail easily and are easy to criticise.”

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This is one of countless eye-opening experiences Ferguson encountered while immersing herself on the front line of domestic violence in Australia for her two-part documentary Hitting Home which airs on the ABC on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

She spent time in a men’s prison, slept in a women’s refuge, she lived with a woman who was fearing for her life and she spoke to many victims caught in the domestic violence web.

It completely transformed Ferguson’s understanding of the scourge that has killed 78 women this year and it will change yours too.

If you have ever asked why “don’t women just leave”, you need to watch it.

If you think that domestic violence only affects people who are poor, you need to watch it.

If you believe that domestic violence is always about throwing punches, you need to watch it.

If you have asked yourself, even once, how nearly two women have been killed by their partners or former partners in Australia this year, you need to watch this.

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“I guess you’re addicted to the hope that it’s going to get better.” [Image via ABC: Hitting Home (YouTube)]
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“I started out in a position of quite profound ignorance,” Ferguson admits. “I was interested but ignorant. My sense of domestic violence was like the images – a hulking bloke in a kitchen with his fists raised. That’s part of it but, at its heart, it is one person’s attempt to exert control over someone else. Fist almost always follows control.”

It’s because of this, that asking women why they don’t just leave is so misguided.

Domestic violence campaigner and Australian of the Year Rosie Batty on 7. 30…

Video via ABC

“The point physical violence erupts is the point when your soul has been undone, your self-belief dramatically reduced, and your ability to make decision is diminished,” Ferguson says. “They ask that question as if they are speaking to someone who has had a domestic violence perpetrator jump out from behind a hedge, as opposed to being perpetuated by the person they live with.”

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Ferguson says once you understand the pattern and the way control wears women down, domestic violence instances begin to look identical.

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Sarah Ferguson [Image via ABC: Hitting Home (YouTube)]

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are – it’s your phone, your friends, the isolation, the process of making a partner feel worthless. When we look at murders – it’s the same pattern.”

And it strikes at the heart of the popular myth that domestic violence only affects poor people.

“It doesn’t belong to any one group. It’s ridiculous to say it’s purely a socio-economic thing because above all it’s human behaviour from Toorak to Rose Bay to the outer suburbs,” Ferguson says. “Lower socio-economic areas do have very high levels of DV but the point is it happens everywhere. A lot of domestic violence that takes place in richer suburbs is hidden.”

Arguing that it doesn’t happen in certain areas isn’t just naïve, it’s dangerous.

Ferguson says the murder of Kate Malonyay, a young woman who lived in Mosman and worked in financial services illustrates how.

“He never hurt her. He was controlling. He lied. He isolated her from friends and family. Then after they broke up he murdered her.”

Kate didn’t recognise their relationship as being related to domestic violence, nor did her family or friends. They actually say in Hitting Home ‘domestic violence doesn’t happen to people like us’.

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“If you don’t know the signs, you are extremely vulnerable, you might even be in mortal danger,” Ferguson says. “Saying it only happens to people who are poor reinforces a very dangerous and harmful message.”

Ferguson, now a self-described DV vigilante, is adamant that awareness and education are paramount if we have any hope of stemming the toll this takes.

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Image via ABC: Hitting Home (YouTube)

“We have to talk to each other about this. Once you know about it, you can’t go back. It’s harder to get sucked into a toxic relationship if you know about it,” Ferguson says. “And as a community if we’re better at spotting it, we would get over our coyness not to intervene when we see warning signs.”

Solving domestic violence is no small task. It requires a myriad of services and programs to adequately support victims, rehabilitate perpetrators, improve access to justice, challenge stigmas, and educate young men and women about respectful relationships. But as individuals we are not powerless. Each of us have the ability to better understand the dynamics that characterise and underpin domestic violence and we owe it to all of the women in our lives to take up that challenge. To get informed, to delve beneath the surface of the statistics and make sense of this curse.

If you want to help stem the tide of domestic violence, watching Hitting Home in its compelling and gritty entirety is the only place to start.

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