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When your carer is also your abuser: For 10 years, Nicole Lee felt trapped.

Warning: This post deals with domestic violence and sexual assault and could be triggering for some readers. 

Monday, November 25, is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2019, kicking off the United Nations’ international campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence to call for the elimination of gender-based violence.

It took a suicide attempt and trip to the emergency department for Nicole Lee to get the help she’d needed for a decade.

Trapped in an abusive marriage with a man who was also her carer, she couldn’t see any other way out.

Thankfully, the attempt was unsuccessful. When hospital workers asked her why, she told them: Her husband had raped her four times in the past week.

We lose one woman every week in Australia to domestic violence, but that’s just the tip of a very grim iceberg. Post continues below video.

Video via Mamamia

Nicole couldn’t go through some of the usual avenues for domestic violence survivors, like a women’s refuge, because Nicole is a wheelchair user and needed specific care. She also had two young boys she couldn’t leave.

Then, her husband was called to take her home.

Thankfully, someone at the hospital notified child protection of the situation and before long, police came knocking. Nicole’s husband was removed from the home and an intervention order was put in place.

He eventually pleaded guilty to the abuse, was jailed for two and a half years, and placed on a four year Community Corrections Order.

Speaking to Mamamia, Nicole said that without police intervention, she probably wouldn’t have left her abusive relationship.

Escaping a domestic violence situation is always a hard, dangerous decision. There are barriers at every step, and for those with a disability it is even tougher.

Listen to Nicole Lee tell her story on Mamamia’s interview podcast, No Filter. Post continues below. 

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According to research by Safe Steps in the UK, women with a disability wait on average three years before reaching out for support, whilst other women wait for around two years. They’re also twice as likely to experience sexual assault, domestic and family violence than others and are faced with barriers when seeking support, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

For Nicole, these barriers meant she struggled with identifying her situation as abusive in the first place.

“For a lot of people with a disability, they’ve had the experience of being controlled and abused quite normalised, especially if that person perpetrating the abuse is in a position of authority over them.

“One of the huge barriers is if the person abusing you is also the one providing your care,” she said.

“That’s a very limiting barrier, if you’re going to leave them, how are you going to get by and look after yourself? If this person is the conduit between you and the outside world, and if they limit your activity with other people or freedom to get out, then how can you even tell someone when they’re controlling when and how you can leave the house?”

Other barriers to reporting include narrow communication options, as those who communicate non-verbally are disadvantaged.

If successful in reporting their situation, the difficulties continue: There’s barriers like a lack of appropriate support options and knowledge of support options and the possibility of not being believed or seen as a reliable witness, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities.

The representation of people with disabilities is limited, not just in domestic violence resources and support systems, but just generally in society. This leads to a lack of consideration and understanding – another major barrier.

“I wish I’d seen myself represented in some of the literature around violence and family violence,” Nicole said about her experience after her husband’s arrest.

“I wish that I’d heard other people’s stories, so then I could’ve connected up my experience with other women. Especially when you start bringing it that whole feeling like a burden and feeling like you’re really difficult and hard to look after, it would’ve been really good to hear from somebody else their experience and know that I wasn’t alone.”

“If you don’t understand all those added barriers, you’re not understanding why somebody is so afraid to leave,” Nicole explained. “If somebody had understood that, then maybe somebody would’ve said something to counteract the fear I had.”

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Nicole, a member of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council to advise and consult on family violence reform in Victoria, is determined to help change this. She’s helping shape how the state responds and works to prevent family violence.

This is also a major focus of 1800RESPECT, who have been working closely with professionals and advocates from the disability, social justice, and domestic violence sectors on initiatives to define what violence and abuse looks like for women with disability, the situations and circumstances they arise in, and have been working to break down barriers to support.

These projects have included the That is Violence campaign, the development of the Sunny app, and a national consultation with support services to improve referral pathways.

The Sunny app can be hidden as a weather app on a phone, and helps women with and without disability to recognise, respond and get help if they are experiencing abuse.

Since their implementation, 1800RESPECT has seen a 26 per cent increase in women with disability contacting the free helpline, and the Sunny app – crucially, designed by women with disability for women with disability – has been downloaded over 1000 times with more than half its users accessing the app regularly.

1800RESPECT General Manager Nicole McMahon said its important this community of women know they will be listened to, understood and believed.

“All women have the right to live safely and without fear. Violence is never okay, defining what it is and knowing where to seek help is incredibly important,” she said.

For Nicole Lee, speaking out and using her experience for change has been a bit like coming out from under a rock. But there’s still so much work to do.

“We need to start hearing more stories and we need to be ready to be uncomfortable because that’s where change is going to happen… We need to hear from so many more people. We need the stories because that’s what we’re going to uncover the true extent. And we can’t fix what we don’t know, that’s where we need to be bringing more voices out that inspires them.”

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

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