Breaking the stigma of domestic violence

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A FEW months ago there was a note on my desk to call a young mother. The note said that it sounded urgent. I called the number and the voice on the other end of the line said that she could not talk right now.

An hour later she called me back. It was extremely difficult for her to get the words out, but after a few minutes she was able to articulate her situation.

I won’t go into detail but the bottom line is she described the terrible circumstances of living in an abusive relationship (primarily verbal but sometimes physical) and she did not know where to turn. She was extremely worried about her children and what they were witnessing on a regular basis.

To add to the dire predicament, she had spoken to her own parents and they told her to work it out. I am not assuming that they didn’t believe her but it seemed they weren’t prepared for her to file for a divorce or to have rumours in the community about the family.

As a rabbi with a background in counselling, I provided her with support and reassurance that she did not need to continue living this way. I referred her to professional services to make sure she was safe, and continued to offer support over the ensuing months.

Fortunately, the professional support she received was excellent and her husband has been attending workshops and counselling. Matters are looking far better than the day she made contact. There is still a way to go but the important factor is that she is now empowered and most crucially, feeling safe for herself and her children.

Sadly, such an outcome is not always the case. On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner here in Australia. This is a staggering and shocking statistic.

Domestic violence does not discriminate. It occurs in all racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, geographic, and occupational groups. The Jewish community is certainly not immune.

Domestic violence can comprise a number of unacceptable behaviours including intimidation, verbal, physical, financial, emotional and sexual abuse and gett refusal.

I have had numerous discussions with colleagues and others who work in this area and they have all experienced similar cases to the one described above – albeit with different results and circumstances.

The Talmud teaches that if a person has the ability to correct a situation and is derelict in doing so they actually bear the responsibility for whatever results. If the abuse stemming from domestic violence is not acknowledged and spoken against, it becomes tolerated.

Standing by while a sin is being committed is a violation of Jewish law and any moral compass. The figures show that this is happening in our community and we need to do something about it. We cannot stand idly by.

The challenge of course is that we have to break the stigma. When I am involved in officiating marriages of young couples, we have classes in the lead-up to the wedding day. We speak about the concept of shalom bayit – the ideal home. This is a harmonious home where all are nurtured and respected. It almost seems unimaginable that there could be a different reality.

But, Jews are people and ideals are not reality. We have to recognise that there are men who are committing violence, abuse or exerting power over their partners and children. We have to create a space for women to feel comfortable to come forward and feel safe to report the abuse. Most importantly to ensure they are not judged or spoken about for taking that brave step.

Fortunately there are organisations and movements today which have created the opportunity and possibility for that to occur. There is a growing movement of men who are standing up against men’s violence against women. Organisations such as White Ribbon Australia are doing a tremendous job to grow that number.

It is not men, however, who deserve the credit for this. It is rather the women who were prepared to speak out and create these movements. The community is indebted to the women who built these movements and did so in the face of massive opposition and risk to themselves.

But as mentioned above, the work is far from complete. The door opened by these brave women now requires the community to come together to finish the job.

I have read numerous papers and watched various talks on the subject of how to end men’s violence against women. There are two main points gleaned from what I have read.

First, we have to call this a men’s issue. This is not a women’s issue. Sure, women are the ones who are suffering from it but we need to place the responsibility and shine the light on the perpetrators and not the victims.

Second, we have to constantly ask the question, “Why do men beat the women they love?” This is a common problem in our society and in answering this question we will realise that it stems from a number of factors.

We have to look at the role of institutions, organisations and the culture they nurture in our children and youth, sporting culture, the language used in day-to-day life and of course, the messages fathers are giving their sons. Each of these aspects needs to be examined and every person who has the ability to effect change in their surroundings needs to step up and speak out!

The goal is to create a community whereby people experience fair, empowered, happy and peaceful relationships. Where being “a man” holds a different meaning to its current definition. A community where girls and women can live free from the threat of violence, abuse, intimidation or control and enjoy this freedom in the home, workplace and community.

This is the society in which I want my daughter to be raised. We can achieve it. If we work together and tackle it correctly with the right focus and emphasis we can succeed.

The truth is that when this does occur it will not only benefit the women of our society. Men will have better relationships with their partners and enjoy an increased emotional connection to themselves and the ones they love.

RABBI DANIEL RABIN is the rabbi of South Caulfield Hebrew Congregation.