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What I’ve learned over the past two years working in the sexual assault domestic and family violence sector

Nicole McMahon, 1800RESPECT
26 AUG 2019

Two years into her role as General Manager of 1800RESPECT, Nicole McMahon has learned that domestic and family violence is a far-reaching issue and it can be overwhelming, but change is happening.

Two years ago I stepped into the role of General Manager for 1800RESPECT, the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence support service. It was a great privilege, but it came with an enormous sense of duty to do my personal best for those impacted by violence and assault.

While I knew I brought extensive experience from the health, medical, media and IT industries that could add value to this vital service, my sense of purpose was enveloped in nervousness. Working within the women’s sector alongside champions for change. Was I worthy? I now recognise feeling inadequate is a common worry for women, and I am no different.

My first action was to listen. Listen to the many women working tirelessly to support people impacted by violence and abuse. To learn from their experiences and to bring my skills to this service to make sure more people can access support when they reach out for it. It has been nothing short of awe inspiring, and I am still listening today.

I learn every day from incredible women like Rosie Batty, domestic and family violence advocate.From our 1800RESPECT National Sector Advisory Group including domestic violence advocate, Libby Lloyd (who chaired the first National Council for the prevention of violence against women), Maha Abdo, CEO Muslim Women Association and Women with Disabilities Australia Executive Director, Carolyn Frohmader - along with many more amazing individuals. These passionate, driven advocates were invaluable in my early days and continue to be strong mentors and supporters to direct me and the 1800RESPECT service to support women, children and men who have been impacted by violence.

Every day I hear stories from many women and men who have reached out to me and shared their journeys. Their strength helped me get through my own challenges in recent times.

Not long after I started my role, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, spending most of the past two years undergoing aggressive treatment. The 1800RESPECT team and I think of ourselves as custodians of this vital service and as such I did not let the treatment stop me working incredibly hard. I discovered resilience, and a deep understanding that my own crappy day was no more important than anyone else’s. Everyone has a crappy day at some point. Rosie Batty helped me learn about managing grief and pain. Instead of ‘why me’, I was able to say, ‘why not me’. The National Sector Advisory Group has been supportive of my journey, as were so many in the sector I didn’t know personally at the time. I felt like the sector wrapped their arms around me. For that, I am grateful.

I’m still learning and I know I have a significant and valuable task - just like everyone else. This opportunity has been the most purposeful and meaningful in my career. I am sharing what I have discovered in my time working for 1800RESPECT to encourage others to listen and learn so they can be part of solving this national issue. That is my biggest learning. That we all have a role to play.

I now understand that:

Domestic and family violence and the number of people impacted by it is a national crisis

Or, as Natasha Stott Despoja says, a national emergency.

From my time in the health sector I understood sexual assault, domestic and family violence has a wide-reaching impact on the community. It was not until I spent every day speaking to survivors, counsellors, advocates, and support providers on the frontline that I truly began to understand the extent of this issue. And that it could happen to anyone.

A woman is murdered every week by a current or former partner. Eight women are hospitalised every day. One in four women have experienced sexual assault or physical assault since the age of 15.

There is no excuse for this violence. At 1800RESPECT, every hour of every day, our counsellors speak to people impacted by violence and sexual assault.

The number of contacts coming into 1800RESPECT increased by 78% per cent last year. While it’s encouraging that more people are reaching out for support, the ever-increasing number of people seeking support is a clear demonstration of the extent of the issue.

Anyone can be impacted by sexual assault, domestic and family violence

As Rosie Batty says, violence can happen to anyone, it doesn’t matter what kind of house you live in. Rosie has been an unexpected part of my professional and personal journey, and someone who has taught me so much. That domestic violence and sexual assault can happen to anyone- from any suburb, culture or circumstance. About incredible services that help those in need. That you can get up every day and make a difference, no matter what happens in your life. And that while circumstances are different, grief is grief.

Rosie's son Luke was just a few months younger than my eldest daughter Paris. I can’t possibly comprehend Rosie's journey as I watch my daughter experience life as a 17 year old- just like Luke should be. It reminds me of the profound impact she has on ordinary people like me, and that by sharing her story she provides powerful insight to a journey that could have happened to anyone. I appreciate her tireless advocacy.

The importance of listening to the women who have been working for change in this area for many years

There is an army of advocates, workers and professionals in the sector who are working every day to provide crisis support, counselling, advice, advocacy and more. Many of them have been working to bring about change for 20 - 30 years. Even more. We must listen to these warriors who have been working to reduce violence for so long. They have an incredible wealth of experience and a vast amount of support to provide. There is so much work to be done, we can only bring about change by working together and building on the valuable experience of others.

My team and I are harnessing the sector strengths to improve 1800RESPECT every day through our National Sector Advisory Group: a group of expert leaders who provide advice and strategic direction to ensure 1800RESPECT continues to be the best possible sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service as well as plan how it will meet future demand using the knowledge and skills of leaders in the field.

This incredible group of 14 women bring together domestic and family violence and sexual assault experts with knowledge and experience in disability and family law areas as well as on issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, same sex relationships, and Australians in rural and remote areas.

Workers and professionals on the frontlines provide amazing support

I am inspired by the incredible work the counsellors at 1800RESPECT and other frontline support workers provide each day. From listening to people’s experiences, providing practical advice, counselling, information and referrals, the work they do is truly inspiring. While the issues and the work is challenging, the counsellors I speak to reiterate how rewarding the work is and how much they know they are valued.

At risk groups need tailored support

While no two experiences of violence and sexual assault are the same, research indicates that there are groups of people who experience higher levels of violence than others. Aboriginal and Torres Islanders, women with disability, people in same sex relationships and migrant and refugee women.

It’s imperative that we keep people front of mind when evolving services like 1800RESPECT.

We need to make sure support is tailored to people who are at risk. We have done a lot of work to increase accessibility including the development of the Sunny app, to help women with disability understand their rights and know where to reach out for support. There’s more to do and I’m so proud to work alongside the other groups, individuals and community to keep improving what we do.

We all have a role to play

While it’s important to listen, we must continue to welcome allies into the sector and work with them to increase their understanding and garner their support to manage this issue.

Individuals, men, women, corporates, not for profits, governments, media in safe reporting and directing people to support.

While not everyone in the community has been impacted by violence or sexual assault, every person has been on a journey and understands pain. Even when we can’t completely understand another person’s suffering, we can empathise and we can work to support them.

Change is happening

The issue of domestic and family violence and sexual assault is a far-reaching issue and it can be overwhelming, but change is happening. The increased discussion and awareness of what violence is and where support is available, and the bystander campaigns that encourage us all to call out abusive behaviours are making a difference. More people every month are reaching out to 1800RESPECT and talking about their experiences of not just physical violence, but also emotional abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse. With this increased understanding it is more likely for people to seek support when they’re ready. We need to do more

While we’re hopeful for change, the numbers are still too high. As a community we need to keep the conversation front of mind. We need to call out sexist language and behaviour that we know underpins violence. I encourage people to ask others if they’re safe and learn how to recognise violent behaviour. Listen to people and their stories. Believe them.

I no longer feel like I don’t have enough to offer, but I do know that I am not unique. Every person can make a contribution. Everyone can make a difference, no matter how small. I have watched the influence the #metoo movement has had in bringing assault and violence into everyday conversation- a conversation that will not stop until we eliminate violence and sexual assault.

I want to live in a country knowing my daughters can walk down the street. Day and night. Safely. Without keys between their fingers as I have taught them since they were young. Without fear of avoiding door recesses and bushes in case someone is hiding. Without the sense of imminent danger. Being respected. Not blamed for walking down the street at night alone after something happens. Because there is no excuse. Violence is never okay -no matter your circumstance. Your postcode, or your culture.

One woman a week. We have work to do.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au In an emergency, call 000.