Natalia will never forget the worst day of her life. She was lying on the ground outside, she had been beaten and stabbed, and her three children, who were aged 5, 3 and 22 months, were all driven away by the man who attacked her.
“I had my phone but I couldn’t even use it. I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “Some neighbours came out because they’d heard the screaming and I said ‘Call the police. He’s taken my children!’”
‘He’ was her husband, the man she had been attempting to flee.
What happened next is foggy: there were sirens and a helicopter and she knows she was taken to hospital. A search was underway for her husband and children and their faces were all over the news.
Police took her to a hotel room after she was discharged from hospital and she remembers the next day watching the news and hearing a police spokesperson say the father had been caught and that the three children had been reunited with their mother.
According to the report the mum was “understandably ecstatic”. Except the children weren’t with their mother and she certainly wasn’t ecstatic. Hours later there was a knock on the hotel door and her three children were returned to her safely.
Her 22-month old was wearing the same nappy he’d had on the day before when she was attacked.
That was 13 years ago and for ten of those years she was barely able to talk about what happened. Once the criminal and family court proceedings were resolved – he was eventually convicted and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, and she was awarded full custody – she changed the kids’ surnames, deleted herself from social media and started using a PO box.
“I wanted to forget,” she says. “The kids’ surnames are different. I have remarried and had a new baby. I wanted to pretend he didn’t happen. But he did.”
Being asked to dance at an event called One Billion Rising, an event to end sexual violence against women, was the catalyst for Natalia to start telling her story. She was profoundly moved by the experience of dancing for a crowd of people who ‘were on my side’.
The performance took place in a big square opposite the court house where she had had to confront her ex-husband.
“My heart was pumping. We were the opening act and I was in front of all these people and all I could think about was scanning the crowd for him. I remembered like it was yesterday him standing in that court house,” she says. “And then I looked at the crowd and realised that every single person there was there to support me and people like me. If I’d pointed a finger at him and said ‘He’s the reason we’re here – he’d be scared.’ That gave me so much power. It was the safest place I could ever be.”
Afterwards she wrote a thank you note to the event organisers describing the experience, and she was invited to come and speak at one of their meetings.
It was the beginning of her journey speaking out against violence and abuse.
Tamara and her husband had only been married seven weeks when she experienced physical violence.
“We had been together for 5 years and one night, seven weeks after we had got married, he came home drunk and he put my head through a toilet and then through a door,” she says. “When I tried to run away he tried to strangle me to death on our bed.”
That was the first attempt her husband made to kill her but Tamara says it was far from the first time she experienced abuse.
“For the five years we were together I was a victim to every type of abuse – emotional, sexual, mental, financial – it happened differently every week,” she says. “I always made excuses and justified it. ‘We’re only young’. I accepted his apologies.”
The police came the night Tamara was attacked, just over a year ago, issued an AVO and her now ex-husband was charged.
“He pled guilty,” she says. “He got an 18 month suspended sentence with no jail time but the guilty verdict was enough for me because he was being made accountable for what he did.”
Their marriage broke down and she lost all of her friends.
“To this day I don’t have a single friend. They didn’t want to recognise their friend had done that. They walked away,” she says. “Because of that my connection with my family has grown tenfold. It’s amazing the strength I have got from my mum, my sister and my dad. They have emotionally and financially supported me. Without them I don’t know where I’d be.”
Speaking up for change
Tamara, 25, and Natalia, 38, are both advocates for Voices for Change NSW, a survivor media project that supports women with lived experience of gendered violence to speak up publicly about their experiences.
“The project aims to prevent violence from happening in the first place by educating the community about sexual assault, domestic and family violence using real life stories,” Voice for Change coordinator Renata Field says. “The alarming fact is that violence against women is actually preventable, however it requires the commitment and collective actions of the community, governments, schools and workplaces to educate and respond to violence and the causes of violence such as gender inequality and the condoning of violence against women in our community.”
Both Natalia and Tamara had tried to reach out for help in different ways. Natalia had called youth hostels asking if they would allow her to stay with her children but was told no. It was just for travellers. She slept on the steps of a police station one night but instead of offering her information or support, they drove her home to her husband.
“They said to him ‘Don’t do anything to her again or we’ll have to come back’,” she says. “No one said to me ‘There are refuges’ or ‘There’s a number you can call’. Or ‘Here’s some information’.”
She says those things would have given her something to hold on to.
“When [my ex-husband] threatened to kill me and the kids and the police came I thought I’d have to spend the night in a jail cell. I couldn’t believe refuges existed,” she says.
This is different now, she hopes, because there is more publicity and conversations about the services available for people in abusive relationships.
“But there is a bad side to refuges as well,” Natalia says. “You meet other people with experiences that you think are more scary or worse. It makes you think ‘Oh maybe my situation isn’t too bad. I’ve overreacted. I’ll go back’.”
That was, in part, why Natalia agreed to meet her husband again, after she had left, when he proved her wrong and attacked her on a street.
Tamara tried to reach out to her friends and her work colleagues but no one seemed willing to listen or help.
“I told my best friend about what was happening occasionally but she had the mentality of ‘I don’t know what happens between you two but it’s for you two to sort out’,” Tamara says. “I disclosed to my work once too. Someone asked why I was working such long hours and I said ‘this is my safe place’. But no one said anything.”
After the night her husband attempted to strangle her, Tamara’s neighbours confessed that they had heard everything.
“They said they heard me screaming that night but they didn’t want to get involved,” she says. “When I confronted work about it and asked why they didn’t intervene the response was similar. ‘Well that’s your private relationship and we didn’t want to get involved’.”
It’s difficult to understand and changing that mentality is why Tamara wants to speak about what she experienced.
“If a person disclosed to me that they were in an abusive relationship I wouldn’t say that’s their own private issue. We can’t think that because this happens behind closed doors we can’t get involved. This is an epidemic. We all need to recognise how many lives are being lost and how many women and children at risk because of it.”
Advice for people wanting to help
Natalia and Tamara agree that the most powerful, useful thing anyone can do when they suspect someone they know is suffering abuse is to listen. And allow them to talk.
“I wish someone had looked at me and said ‘Something isn’t right. What’s going on?’” Tamara says. “If they had, I would have opened up. I know that.”
“Taking the step to talk to someone is huge,” Natalia says. “But we are often bursting to tell someone who will listen and not judge. Listening and not judging and believing women is very very important.”
Crucially, do not, under any circumstances, blame the victim.
“It’s not your fault. It’s never your fault,” Natalia says. “It’s his choice to behave that way – it doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do. It’s not your fault.”
Advice for people experiencing abuse
Tamara: “It’s never going to change. If it is going to change it will only get worse. You deserve the basic human right to be safe and respected. Being in a relationship where you don’t have that means you aren’t safe. My life changed dramatically since this happened. 90% of my mental health issues went away. To capture what happened, your life can be beautiful and amazing and happy every single day you are out of an abusive relationship.”
Natalia: “I know it feels very scary. Most of the time women stay in relationships because they feel trapped, whether it’s by a mortgage or children, but it is time to be brave and believe that you are fighting for yourself and that things will get better. Not straight away but there is hope and there are services out there. Even if you’re not ready right now you can prepare for it.”
“Keep a diary – in a safe place – of what’s happening because every time you feel like going back you can read it and see what was happening. Re-reading it can give you strength – it will remind you that this treatment is wrong that you deserve better and respect. Let’s face it, when you wanted happily ever after this isn’t what you wanted. Be brave and talk. Keep talking until someone will listen.”
“Since everything happened and I had a person telling me I was worthless every day I found out who I am and realised how strong and independent I am and how much control I can have over my life. I can’t believe I have done everything I have. To carry my children through it and see them be proud of me…it’s very special.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au
In an emergency, call 000.