Working with women

Home Truths: Rethinking Our Approach To Family Violence

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Domestic violence is not a gender neutral problem. The prevalence of violence, the severity of physical injury and the level of coercion and control from all forms of violence are greater for women than for men. Men overwhelmingly perpetrate violence against women. Child protection practice is most concerned with men’s perpetration of violence against women in the context of their family.

Women are both victims and survivors of abuse. Each woman’s experience of living with and responding to violence is unique. Women living with violence need to know they are believed and that they have thought about and intervened to keep children safe. They  need  to  hear  from  us  what  supports  and  services  are available to them in response to their identified need. They need to hear from us that we will do everything we can to support them in keeping their children and family safe and together. Most of all, they need to know they are not responsible for starting or stopping the violence.

Common assumptions that underpin policy and practice

The ways we see and understand things influences the way we respond. In the discourse surrounding domestic violence, there are dichotomised views of women and their response. Women are seen as:

  • Passive victims – theories such as “battered women’s syndrome” or “learned helplessness” encourage us to see women as passive objects and we focus on the pathology of women rather than on a perpetrator and his use of violence. This leads us to believe that a woman’s passivity is the reason she stays in the relationship
  • Survivors – women who actively respond to violence and in many different ways seek help. If a woman is active, she leaves the relationship
  • Neglectful mothers - women who experience violence may resort or revert to substance abuse or develop mental health problems. She is portrayed as a neglectful mother who has an inability to cope and is unable to properly care for her children.
  • Such ‘black and white’ thinking doesn’t convey or address the complexity of a woman’s lived experience of violence, the context in which she makes decisions about her and her children’s safety or her ability to parent in the face of violence.

Womens resistance

A large body of mainly qualitative research reveals what life is like for women living with domestic violence. Key findings from this research indicate:

  • Women who are victims of violence are actively engaging in “resisting, escaping, or stopping the violence against them and their children” often before they encounter any formal services (Dutton, 1996). Through the accounts of women, we now know that they employ a range of creative strategies and tactics to cope with the violence and keep themselves and their children safe. Some examples of how women resist violence are included in table 2
  • A woman’s protective strategies are varied and may change during the course of the relationship, particularly in response to any changes in her relationship with the perpetrator and/or perceived  level  of  threat.  These  strategies  may  not  be obvious to an outsider. This may result in others making assumptions and judgments about a woman’s choices and actions, without asking her about what was happening for her.

Examples of how a woman’s acts of resistance may be misinterpreted are included in Table 1 below.

Table 1



Not showing emotions

Emotionally detached, avoidance

Not doing what the perpetrator wanted

Passive aggressive, un-cooperative

Doing nice things for perpetrators


Children agreeing with dad’s view of mum

Colluding with violent father

Based on the growing body of research driven and informed by the experiences of women, we now have a better understanding about their experiences of and responses to violence and more helpful ways for us to think about these issues. We know:

  • women’s experience of being abused and responding to violence are complex and context specific
  • women resist violence and control
  • women’s choices and acts of resistance are constrained by their access  to  resources,  the often poor responses they receive from services, social context (race, poverty, disability) and the nature and scope of a perpetrator’s control (Laing 2008).

Table 2

Perpetrator Actions

Victims resistance

Isolation of victim

Attempts to maintain friendships: physically or via phone

or social media when he is out or asleep

Remembering good times with friends

Attempts to humiliate the victim

Thinking or acting in ways that helps maintain self-

respect and feelings of self-worth

Holding her head up high privately hating the perpetrator

Attempts to control the victim

Acting in a way that shows she refuses to be controlled -

doing of the opposite of what the perpetrator wants or likes

Doing what the perpetrator wants her to do in a very

dramatic way

Quietly disregarding instructions

Finding ways to get out of the house and escape control

Attempts to mutualise the violence

Refusal to respond to or accept statements such as

conflict, argument, which indicate that she was partially responsible

Ringing the police after being abused

Showering after sexual abuse

Makes excuses for the violence

Thinking or acting in ways that show for herself that

there is no excuse for the victim or that the abuse is wrong

Knowing and thinking that she did not deserve the abuse,

it was wrong,  the perpetrator is fully responsible

Refusal to accept a perpetrator’s view of himself as

gentle or unable to control his emotions

Telling others about the abuse

Refusing to stay at home and hide physical evidence of

the abuse

Refusing to wear glasses or makeup to cover up abuse

If the perpetrator tries to hurt the


Doing things to reduce or escape the pain

Numbing their feelings when they are abused, taking her

mind to a peaceful place

A child might interrupt –say he is feeling sick to stop the


A child might take his siblings for a walk or into their

room to protect them from violence

Refusing to show emotional vulnerability, privately hating

the perpetrator

Womens journey toward a life free of violence and abuse

One  very  simple  message  that  emerges  from  research  with women is that their journey toward a life free from violence and abuse  is  a  process-  it  is  not  a  one  off  event  or  an  incident. Important parts of this journey are depicted in Figure 1 and involve:

  • getting helpful support from family and friends
  • available,   visible,   appropriate,   affordable   and   effective services that are linked up to meet a variety of the mothers’ and children’s needs
  • moving between keeping children safe, making sense of situations, taking control of their life and knowing who they are and what they want
  • understanding  that  throughout  their  journey,  women  may spiral in and out of contact with the perpetrator. As they feel more in control and rebuild their sense of self, the perpetrator’s influence diminishes.

As practitioners, we come into contact with women, not knowing where   they  are   on  their  journey  away  from   violence.  We sometimes make assumptions rather than asking her about what life is like for her and where she is at the present time. Likewise, if we lecture women about the effects of violence on children or about her diminished parenting capacity without acknowledging her existing thoughts and actions, we push her back into feelings of guilt and shame.

Figure 1: Theoretical Framework (Community Care Division Victorian Government Department of Human Services, 2004)

A single intervention is not enough

The second message coming from the research is that because achieving  a  life  free  from  violence  is  a  process,  a  single intervention on its own is unlikely to resolve the issue completely.

However, women are often provided with single interventions such as a criminal justice intervention. In this situation, if she does not comply with or won’t follow through on legal processes she is often blamed for not complying or labelled as un-co-operative. Suggestions that “you must leave” do not take into account the complexities of her and her children’s life and the disruption or danger that leaving may create.

Women defined advocacy

In response to women and children’s need to engage in a number of inter-related services, women defined advocacy services have proven effective in helping women and children feel safe and enjoy a life free from violence (Allen, Bybee & Sullivan 2004, Goodman, Fels,  Smyth,  Borges  &  Singer  2009).  Advocacy  related interventions include:

  • Needs assessments and services and interventions which are ‘framed’ by survivors. This means we listen and consider what a woman says she needs, the direction she thinks she needs to go in to keep her and her children safe
  • Partnering with women to navigate the complex network of services to get the resources women think they need to keep themselves and children safe. e.g. housing, legal service, transport, child care, financial assistance, material goods, services for children and social supports
  • Understanding  and  bridging  the  different  organisational culture, values and attitudes they may be confronted with when accessing different types of services
  • Acting on the woman’s life hopes, plans and perceptions of problems and priorities.

There  is  strong  evidence  to  show  that     advocates  working intensely with women and helping them gain access to the multiple services results in women experiencing less violence, having a higher quality of life and social supports, having less difficulty accessing community resources and, for some, being completely free from violence (Allen, Larsen, Trotter, & Sullivan 2013).

Implications for Practice

To help women and children feel safe and live free from coercion and control, respectful practice involves working in partnership with women to help them preserve and rebuild dignity and act on identified risk. Some practice tips are:

  • Let women know you are there because of their partner’s choice to use violence against them and their children. Let them  know  you  are  there  to  help  keep  them  and  their children safe and help empower them to   improve their situation and quality of life. Be transparent about your agency’s work with women, including any legal or organisational requirements
  • Have  an  open,  non-blaming  and  respectful  attitude.  Be willing  to  listen  to  her  lived  experience  and  explore  the history and pattern of abuse. Acknowledge and respond to any safety concerns - a woman needs to know that she is believed and not responsible for the violence
  • Ask women what they see as the biggest risks to their and their children’s safety. Explore the risks caused by: the perpetrators pattern of coercion and control; social factors (such as culture, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, discrimination  experiences);  and,  the  system  (child protection, health, family law). Understanding how risk is generated and how women and perpetrators respond is vital to responsive practice
  • Some women may wish to maintain or return to their relationship  with  the  perpetrator.  There  may  be  many reasons why a woman chooses to stay in a relationship, including maintaining a family, the potential loss of material assets (income, housing, access to a car), feelings of shame or being socially isolated. Get an understanding about a woman’s choices and her decisions - ask her what supports make  sense  for  her.  This  helps  ensure  our  response  is driven by and aligned with her lived experience
  • Explore and honour women’s everyday efforts- the small acts of  resistance  that  she  undertakes  to  keep  her  and  her children safe. Helping women to view their responses as acts of resistance can be liberating for them and help revive their self-esteem and sense of worth
  • Balance efforts that promote their efforts and choice with the over-riding principle of keeping women and children safe. Often women only seek help when they cannot manage on their own-when their entrapment has become too dangerous and they  feel   powerless.   Don’t  ask   women   to   enact individualised safety plans that are in isolation to  efforts to curtail perpetrator’s violence-this can be dangerous and disempowering
  • Understand women’s feelings for her partner. She may have genuine love for her partner and appreciate his role as a father, especially if the violence is sporadic and followed by remorse. Being aware of the role love plays in women’s decisions and choice is critical to safety planning and our ongoing work with women
  • A single intervention is not enough. Women need agencies to work together and provide a network of protection around her and her children. Consider the likely responses from different agencies -do they promote or take away a woman’s decision making power? Do they pose any risks to women and children?   Are   there   any  structural   inequalities   or situational factors (geography, money, housing, and schooling) that would prevent women from taking up such services?
  • Explore and document women’s experience of violence and the multiple harms caused by the perpetrators violence. Accurate documentation of violence is essential to demonstrate women and children’s victimisation as required by multiple legal systems. Avoid the use of language that mutualises violence or suggests consent. Make it clear what the perpetrator did to abuse and control their partner
  • Use language that shows the patterned nature of control and coercion. Investigate the range of tactics perpetrators use to undermine a mother’s relationship with her children. The derailment of this relationship may mean that women and children are not attuned to each other’s responses and strengths. Create opportunities to bring women and children together so they can share their lived experiences and their responses and resistance to the violence. Help them to see and appreciate what they have to offer and support one another.

To hear more about Working with women watch Associate Professor Lesley Laing’s presentation  here.


Allen, N.E., Bybee, D.I., & Sullivan, C.M. (2004). Battered women’s multitude of  needs:  Evidence  supporting  the  need  for  comprehensive  advocacy. Violence Against Women, 10, 1015-1035.

Allen, N, Larsen, S., Trotter, J., & Sullivan, C. (2013). Exploring the Core Service Delivery Processes of an Evidence-based Community Advocacy program for Women with Abusive partners. Journal of Community Psychology 41(91), 1-18.

Community Care Division Victorian Government Department of Human Services. (2004). Womens journey away from family violence: framework and summary. Melbourne, Victoria: State of Victoria Department of Human Services. Accessed online rney.pdf

Dutton, M.A. (1996). Battered Women’s Strategic Response to Violence: The Role of Context. In J.L Edelson & Z.C Eiskovits (eds.). Future Interventions with Battered Women and their families. Thousand Oaks: Sage.