By James Oaten
At any one time, up to half of the emergency accommodation being provided to victims of domestic violence are women on visas. In a foreign culture and unfamiliar legal framework, victims can be too scared to report the abuse for fear they will be deported.
After moving to Australia to start a new life, Sarah (not her real name) started noticing dramatic changes with her husband to be. He had problems with his former wife and needed money. His sleeping habits changed, his drinking escalated dramatically and a violent streak emerged.
“I didn’t do anything. But he started to hit,” she says about the first of his many violent outbursts. “I can’t scream. I can’t run.”
‘He started to slap me without reason’
Sarah arrives at the ABC late at night to help keep her identity secret. Darwin may be a capital city but it has a relatively small population and many faces are familiar.
She is with her case worker, who keeps Sarah’s toddler son occupied with videos on a smartphone.
Sarah begins by explaining with confidence that she hopes her story will inspire other domestic violence victims to seek help.
“I want to tell other women not to suffer,” she opens our conversation. But she holds back tears and takes regular pauses when our conversation turns to the physical and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her partner.
“In 2014 he had a problem with his family,” she says.
“He started drinking whisky and he took sleeping tablets because of his problem. Then he started to slap me without any reason. We had our arguments but he had never hit me like this. I was so upset.”
‘I’ve never before seen a father kicking their son’
The first signs of abuse began when she discovered that her partner had not broken off communications with his former wife.
Her husband became defensive and eventually struck Sarah in the face.
Initially Sarah wanted the relationship to move beyond the assault, believing it was in the best interest of their newborn baby.
But as the weeks passed, Sarah’s husband became increasingly aggressive, making more demands for money from Sarah’s family, telling her it would be used to help the couple apply for a permanent visa.
Rather than calling the police, Sarah called triple-0, pleading with paramedics who arrived to help her husband, saying he was “sick”.
One night the abuse extended to their newborn, prompting Sarah to flee the home.
“I’ve never seen before fathers kicking [their] son,” she says.
“I took the baby, I ran outside [but] I have no place to go.”
None of her friends knew her partner had been violent towards her, so she went to Darwin’s Casuarina Square Shopping Centre where she stayed for three days.
“I went to the cinema. I fed my baby in there. Then I was [with] my baby in the common toilet … How long could I stay there? Again I came back. The same thing happened. He started hitting me,” Sarah recounts.
Visa fears stopping violence from being reported
Sarah’s story is not uncommon for Dawn House, one of Darwin’s largest domestic violence shelters.
It has seen a doubling of calls for help, from 6,000 in the 2014–15 financial year to 11,000 in the year after.