Agency & Resistance: Centring the Voices of Survivors in Violence Prevention

Content warning: violence, abuse

On Tuesday 22 September the Victorian Women’s Trust hosted, Agency & Resistance: Centring the Voices of Survivors in Violence Prevention, a free webinar event attended by around 550 people from all over Australia.

Speakers included Nicole Lee (violence prevention expert and disability activist); Fiona Hamilton (proud Trawlwulwuy woman and family violence educator); and moderator Jess Hill (author of See What You Made Me Do) discussing problematic victim-survivor stereotypes, and the importance of recognising the agency and resistance inherent in their stories. Thank you to WIRE (Women’s Information and Referral Exchange) for providing support to all attendees throughout the session; and special thanks to our Auslan interpreters.

Watch the video and read the transcript below:

If this topic raises any issues for you, help is available:

1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732
LifeLine 13 11 14

For more support services, visit:


Jess Hill: It’s time to get started. So hello and welcome to this Victorian Women’s Trust event on agency and resistance and centering the voices of victim survivors. And I want to start by acknowledging the Traditional owners of the land I’m speaking from, and that is the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. Their sovereignty over this land was never ceded. And the traditional wisdom of first nations people all around this country honed over more than 60,000 years is really the key to our collective futures. My name is Jess Hill and I’ve been writing and reporting exclusively on domestic abuse for the past six years or so. And last year, I finally published my book on the subject called, See What You Made Me Do. And we have 2.9 million people, 2.2 million of whom are women who have experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, and it’s estimated that around one in four children will grow up with domestic abuse.


Jess Hill: And despite the fact that our culture depicts these women and children as passive, as fearful, as helpless, the truth is radically different. Women and children are almost never passive in the face of their abuse, even when victims may feel they’ve surrendered their agency or had no choice, but to do so, they are still making minute to minute calculations required to survive and strategising their way through every day. So this is what we are going to be talking about today, agency and resistance. Now, there are hundreds of you joining us online. I think over 800 people have registered and I wish we could see all of your faces. We’re not really going to be talking a lot about the details of personal trauma today, although we may touch on that throughout the event. So I just want you to know ahead of time that this is not hopefully going to be too triggering for people.


Jess Hill: But if it is, feel free to go and have a cup of tea, take a walk. We’ll be recording this session, so it’s always available later, if that’s what you need to do. And without further ado, I also want to introduce our two offline interpreters, Angela McClain, and Glenda Judd, our panelists today, one Nicole Lee and Fiona Hamilton, I’ll introduce in a moment. But first, just some housekeeping, at about the 40 minute mark, we’ll start to open up for questions and you can enter your questions in the Q&A function down the bottom of the Zoom throughout the discussion. And I’ll be dropping in and out of that Q&A box to see if those questions are relevant to the discussion and may just drop a few in as we go. Otherwise, we’ll be really attending to those in the last 20 minutes. Please keep these questions brief, if you can, so that we can answer as many as possible. And also given this the public space, maybe just refrain from disclosing in the online chat about your own personal trauma.


Jess Hill: But if you do want to talk to somebody about something that you’ve been subjected to or experienced, the Women’s Information Referral Exchange, WIRE, they have phone support workers ready to answer calls during and after this event and details will be in this webinar’s chat. Now, if you’re watching this later and you need support, obviously, please call the nationwide helpline 1-800-RESPECT. Now, when I get a chance to talk publicly about domestic abuse or speak privately to the gatekeepers, to politicians or judges, I really go in backed by the power and expertise of women and children like the two women we have on here today, Nicole and Fiona. I’ll never forget sitting with Nicole who suffered at the hands of her husband and Kara for a decade to become a public commentator, a disability advocate, an advisor to government on family violence.


Jess Hill: She was running for the Victorian Senate as an independent candidate when we met and we sat at this little cafe in Melbourne CBD, hard to imagine now, and she made the truth plain in a way that I will never forget. She said, “We’ve got so much awareness. We’re sick of talking about it. This is not a ribbon, it’s not a colour, it’s not a hashtag. Just think, how many women and children this year have had to face that last moment of their life? That terror, that moment of going, fucking hell, make it quick. Yep. You’re going to kill me right now, I get it, but please don’t make me suffer. How can I not do something?” So I use Nicole’s words like fuel. And I also go to any interactions I have wrapped up in the brilliance of Fiona Hamilton who like Nicole, I’ve been lucky enough to develop a beautiful friendship with since we first spoke for many hours, many months ago.


Jess Hill: And I use that brilliance to try to get across the strategic-ness of Fiona, both from with inside her relationship, of course, of control that she strategized her way out of, but also in her work as a family violence worker and as an advocate. Fiona is a [inaudible 00:05:00] woman of the Tasmanian Aboriginal nations. She exploded with post-traumatic growth after her own experience, of course, of control to go on to lead the resistance and response to family violence in Tennant Creek. She took Malcolm Turnbull when he was prime minister on a surprise night visit to the house where a local toddler had recently been raped. And to his visible distress, she said, “I don’t want your tears, Malcolm, I want your answers.” And when Turnbull later asked her what was going on in Tennant Creek and what could he do to help, she took her moment and she made it plain, “You have to deal with the poverty and inequity here. You have to invest.”


Jess Hill: And he bloody did. They invested $60 million in a regional deal hours later. So as Fiona told me, and as I’m sure she’ll allude to today, most people are just looking for what the answer is. They’re looking for a win-win. So I carry her words with me. I carry her strategic brilliance, I carry Nicole’s strategic brilliance, and it energises and sustains me in this work. So it’s a pleasure and an absolute privilege to be hosting a discussion between these two brilliant women for you today. Every time they speak, I learn something new and I hope you come away from this discussion today reinvigorated and recommitted. So just to start with the first question, let’s open with the classic image on all the posters and the newspaper articles, and it’s the victim, generally a white, often appears as a middle-class victim cowering in a corner beneath the looming fist of a man towering over her.


Jess Hill: I want to ask you, Nicole and Fiona, perhaps Nicole first, because we’ve talked about this. What did you think seeing those images when you were being subjected to abuse? Could you recognise yourself in that woman?


Nicole Lee: Well, that’s the thing, and I’ve reflected on this a few times in a lot of the work that I’ve done, that I did actually purchase white ribbons while I was living with violence. And I would see that imagery and I would see those women and all I could reflect on was, jeez, they didn’t even do anything to deserve what’s happening to them, or I kind of fought back and I did all of these things and I defended myself and I did not see myself as a victim because I didn’t think victims were meant to fight back. It also meant that my partner also didn’t see himself as a perpetrator because those women hadn’t asked for it, but you had. You nagged, you pushed, you did X, Y, and Z, and it fed into all of that gas lighting as well. And I did not see my experience reflected in those images, whether it be from the passive caring victim, but also the white straight middle-class woman as well.


Nicole Lee: I found it very difficult to see myself in that imagery. And I know it’s a very hard thing to change that narrative, to show a victim being less passive, a little bit more forthright, and how do you strike that balance that actually gets a message across to everyone. But I don’t think that cowering victim in the corner with the dark shadow and the fist that we see in media, we see in newspapers and we see online all the time, the stories, it is not emblematic of our experiences, and it leaves a lot of us feeling like we don’t fit in the family violence sort of scheme of everything. And it takes away that ability to be able to identify what you’re experiencing as violence as well.


Jess Hill: I know you had a suggestion for what those posters could look like that might actually represent the agency of women experiencing this. What would you suggest as a really simple change?


Nicole Lee: Well, some of the things that I even actually did, I remember sitting in a cafe, which is my hand in the air just saying, “Stop. Please stop, please stop.” To him. And just even showing a woman anything other than just passive. So it doesn’t have to be overt actions, it can just be a woman with her hand in the air going, ‘No more. Stop, leave me alone.” To maybe even physically moving back or stepping up and moving away or anything in that imagery. It doesn’t have to be verbal, but an action which shows her as taking some control and not just simply being a passive recipient of what’s happening to her, because we’re not passive in those moments. We do say things, we do have body actions. Like I said, I put my hand in the air. And all of those actions then make us doubt what we’re experiencing as well.


Jess Hill: And Fiona?


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah. I never think it’s useful to just sort of locate instances of violence and I think that’s what that imagery does. And I think it reinforces that idea that women and children experiencing violence are just kind of free floating in space and we’re not sure what’s happened on either end of that story. And the truth is that the story of violence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and of domestic assault is so much more complex because it’s the stories of our communities, it’s the stories of our lived experience, our families are so kind of complex and intertwined through kingship connection. And because we’ve experienced so much violence at any rate, I mean, those images just don’t resonate. And I think I would like to see a change in that representation. And this is something that Colin and I spoke about a little while ago, it sticks with you in the language of empowerment i.e. that somebody else is able to empower you because you are disempowered.


Fiona Hamilton: And I don’t know that that is a useful message to be giving to women who are experiencing violence, because actually when you’re traumatised, you’re fairly powerful.


Jess Hill: That’s right.


Fiona Hamilton: You actually are fairly powerful and it might be really fuelled by adrenaline and a whole heap of other staff or fear or whatever. I know personally I’ve done stuff in traumatised conditions that I’d never thought I could ever do, just resisting the violence I was experiencing.


Nicole Lee: And it hearkens us back to the days of provocation. I’ve sat alongside [inaudible 00:11:57] for quite a few years now on the family violence agenda. And just bringing back that we used to blame women for being murdered in the courts via the law of provocation. And I guess, we need to start shifting that imagery slowly within community, otherwise we are just talking back to a time that we’ve tried to remove from the justice system. That idea of the woman who provokes their partner is still fairly alive and well within sort of community attitudes that sit around violence, well, what did you do?


Jess Hill: And we wouldn’t blink an eye at the idea of someone physically resisting someone who’s breaking into their house or an attack on the street, and yet when women defend themselves either in the moment or in an act of violent resistance to maintain their dignity in a state when they’re constantly being degraded and their freedom’s being limited or eroded entirely, that somehow that is then mutual violence, or as you say, it’s provocation that, well, if you hadn’t done that, he probably wouldn’t have escalated. When actually this is not only for a lot of women necessary for them to retain dignity and actually just protection, which obviously is not always the case, sometimes it can escalate when violence from the victim was invoked. But also that this does not mean that you are not being victimised, the effect of your resistance.


Nicole Lee: Yeah, absolutely. And all of those things are still steeped in looking to seek excuses and all the excuses that men make as well. It’s steeped in sort of that lens of patriarchy, it’s steeped in misogyny, and those things are deeply, deeply embedded within our society all the way back to the days of colonization as well, and we as a community through that imagery is something to start shifting.


Jess Hill: And I mean, Fiona with you, I know that especially in sort of remote communities and where Aboriginal women and children can have so much trouble accessing any kind of help from the system and in fact, can find themselves punished for seeking help or in a worse situation after seeking help, that kind of agency and resistance is going to look really different to what people might expect. And that need to defend yourself in that situation is heightened because there’s a feeling that you’re the only one who’s going to be able to help yourself.


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The first thing I have to say is that I’m not here to speak for women in remote or other communities because I think women are very able to do that, but I can speak to my experience of working with those women in those communities and make that distinction. And I’m really sorry about this, but I’m just going to have to swear. I mean, I met so many women who just went, I couldn’t handle it. I just had the biggest fuck you moment and I knocked him out, or whatever. But you know these women’s stories and you know that they have put up with maybe 10, 15 years of just horrendous violence on so many levels. And those women just went, you know what? There was nothing that day that was going to stop it so I just had an F-you moment and I retaliated, and there was just a ton of that.


Fiona Hamilton: And so what looked to police quite often and especially on CCTV camera footage, which is everywhere in remote communities, as woman was trying to get to safety, man was arguing with her underneath a CCTV camera. She turned round after five minutes and produced a pair of scissors out of her pocket and kind of just went at him to get him to back off. Police were holding that woman as the perpetrator, but as a family violence worker, you know that history and you know what that woman’s been through and her desperation of just trying to get away. And you just see that so often and you see that behaviour playing out in schools in so many remote communities, but you see it in other communities too. So it worries me. I think that anybody who lives with really full on violence from a partner for a very long period of time, yeah, you can actually develop a sort of a-


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah, you can actually develop a belligerence towards that as a protective measure. I know I do.


Jess Hill: We made a bit of a conscious choice today not to go into great detail about both of your stories. Both of your stories are incredible. We’ve both collaborated with each other to put those stories into writing before. And they are instructive in their own way. Nicole, you’ve used your story to help educate healthcare workers on how to actually respond in a protective way, when they come across somebody who’s experiencing violence from a partner. But, I think that part of that choice was that victim survivors are often invited to tell their stories of trauma. But, they’re not necessarily invited to share their expertise that they’ve gathered from that experience and their experiences with the system. Can you guys talk to that?


Nicole Lee: Yeah. Did you want to go, Fiona? Or I can jump in with that. It was interesting, reflecting on a conversation that I had yesterday. And somebody said, “You speak differently when you present than other victim survivors. You didn’t just tell us your story.” I was like, “Well, spaces are often provided to us or we’re invited in from that perspective. So you’re not actually going to get something different from victim survivors, if all we do is open up a space for victim survivors to tell their story and just say, “It’d be great for people to hear your story.””


Nicole Lee: But on the journey of doing this work with VSAC (Victim Survivors Advisory Council), is it’s getting to sit around other advocates and listening to them and surrounding myself with other victim survivors, as well as the agenda on the was it. It was how to position your own personal story. I don’t know if anybody knows Bronfenbrenner, systems of influence that influence in, on an individual, or the things that sit just outside them. Like for me, it’s positioning your experience on that individual level and then going, “What does that represent for me and the community that I represent?” So women with disabilities.


Nicole Lee: All right, then I’ll zoom out a little bit further. What does that represent on the mezzo level, the community, the women with disabilities that we sit within. And then on the broader context of the broader community, what is the society that we’re all sitting within? And what does all of these experiences that you’ve zoomed out out out, actually represent? So, you can take that one personal experience and you can conceptualise it and start to zoom it out. And then influence out, to all of those things that push back in on us.


Nicole Lee: That’s where you get the beauty from somebody lived experience rather than just, “Here’s my horror story, go fix things.” It’s, “Well, here’s what happened to me. And this happens for other women and these are the statistics. And these are the things that I would like to have seen in the services. These are the responses I felt were necessary. These are the conversations that I’ve had with other survivors and the things that went wrong for them.” And starting to build an understanding with the services rather than just feeling we’re butting up against them, is that collaborating together from the end user, how can we do this better? What went wrong? And just conceptualising all of those things on those different levels as you go up. And it’s a beautiful recipe and we don’t actually do it enough. I honestly feel that we do not do this enough across the board. A lot of the conversations Fiona and I’ve had all around all of this… Did you want to jump in, Fiona?


Fiona Hamilton: Well, yeah. And I am actually going to tell you a bit of my story, because it’s a corker and I was telling Maria this the other day. Jess always laughs when I tell stories. As part of my journey of escaping violence, I went through a lot of services and I was moved around a lot, in services. And I think because I was fair-skinned Aboriginal woman, and because I was pretty talky, and because I was pretty good at advocating for myself, and trying to work with the workers to go, “Yeah, thanks. But I actually don’t need that. Actually, what I need right now is this.” I had a service that I was staying with when I was in the height of crisis, actually marvel at how capable I was. To the point where they asked me if I would be willing to visit their weekly case meeting, of all their staff, and do a cross-cultural training session with their staff.


Jess Hill: When you’re at the height of crisis, maybe bad timing.


Nicole Lee: Just slightly.


Fiona Hamilton: But it’s more than bad timing. A, it indicates the need within services, that should be able to access really good information about how support women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and kids. But it’s more than tone deaf. It’s about the fact that people are grabbing onto whatever people feel might be a resource, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women, who are experiencing violence are being seen, quite often by services and others as a resource. And the same permissions, I feel, that would be offered to anybody else, aren’t being offered to us. And that’s deeply concerning.


Nicole Lee: [crosstalk 00:22:47] understanding that power imbalance in those situations as well, and what they’re asking. And the position that they’re in versus the position that you were in?


Fiona Hamilton: Well, yeah. I mean, if you think about the implications for that. I mean, I obviously, politely declined that request. But, if you think about that power differential, what are the implications for me, as an Aboriginal woman, we have a small baby in a service, just to saying “No.” Is that going to play out in the services that are provided to me? Am I viewed as ungrateful or not willing to give anything? Because, I’ve certainly had experiences like that too. And the one thing I think that… And I have to say this, that Second Nations people don’t like, is Aboriginal person that says, “No.”


Jess Hill: And do you feel like that in terms of your… We’re talking about victim survivor expertise and wanting to being able to centre that, is it just… I mean, what is the difference to you, between somebody asking you at your height of a crisis, and the people that you actually need to be helping you? What is the difference between that and you offering your expertise in a forum like this?


Fiona Hamilton: Well, I’ve got to flip that question a little bit. It’s like, why are services only able to gain expertise when they have Aboriginal woman in their service? Why can’t we actually type that need and broaden that out? And I talk a lot about kinship. Because kinship is the way that we understand connections within in our communities. And I think that’s what services actually need to do. They need to find kinship in the places and the communities that they’re working in because there’s real strength in that. And that means that people like me and others in services, when we’re in, they don’t get humbugged to train workers on how to deal with us. Which is really [inaudible 00:24:57] and frustrating and tiring.


Jess Hill: Yes, no doubt. And not to mention the fact that actually sharing your expertise as the victim survivor, it requires a certain amount of work to get past that initial trauma, and obviously the trauma is ongoing in various ways. But that really acute, heightened trauma space is not a place from which to be working as an advisor.


Fiona Hamilton: No, no. Not at all.


Nicole Lee: It takes time.


Jess Hill: You need people attending to you.


Nicole Lee: It takes time to really unpack and understand your experience on that broader level, rather than it being still that deeply personal stuff that you’re still working with. And I do find that after getting out of that, that doing this work has also helped me to unpack a lot of things. And to really understand it a little bit more deeply and put it in the context of other positions, rather than just what I experienced within own mind and my own home. It allows you to broaden your experience out and make sense of it even, as you start to unpack all the baggage, so to speak. And we bring people in, Kathy just mentioned it a second ago, some of the work I’ve done has been in and around design work.


Nicole Lee: And we have user experience design. We have customer experience design. We need to actually start working on and developing, lived experience design. And inviting people into actually relevant spaces to them. So, that designing thing, you can put yourself back into that position of being in a courtroom. And if you made all these changes, what are the things that could go wrong? And what are the things that other people would do? And you’re able to flag them and point them out earlier on. And then go out and test them with actual users. But it also has to be contextually relevant to the survivor in front of you. Otherwise, all you’re actually getting is somebody’s opinion and it’s not actually embedded in an actual personal experience. And I think that’s a really important point, that not all victim survivors can speak to all aspects of violence, as well.


Fiona Hamilton: That’s exactly right.


Jess Hill: Absolutely.


Fiona Hamilton: Pretty diverse experience.


Jess Hill: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I know we talked about not talking in great detail about your stories, but just to take it back to that agency and strategisation and resistance. One of the most amazing things that I read in the research for the book was from Judith Herman, Harvard psychiatrist, in her book, Trauma and Recovery. When she talked about the whole phenomenon of children blaming themselves for their parent’s or parent, apostrophe S, violence. And how that actual self-blame was an act of agency. Because the child in that situation is deciding that they are capable of fixing this. And just by changing what they’re doing or who they are, they’ll be able to fix the situation they’re being subjected to. It is far more crushing for that child to realize that actually it doesn’t matter what they do. It is their parents who are at fault, and it is their parents who are entirely holding the agency as to what ends up happening in the household.


Jess Hill: So, even that, what looks like the wrong response to domestic violence and family violence, that idea that a child is blaming themselves, that in itself is an act of agency and resistance and protecting oneself psychologically. And so I just wonder for you, Fiona and Nicole, what did agency within your relationships or within relationships of victim survivors you’ve worked with, what did it look like in the relationship in a way that maybe is not visible to other people?


Nicole Lee: Well, yeah. What you just spoke about then, with children and young people. And that it was easier to blame myself than it was to blame the person that I’d fallen in love with, and the person I’d married, was capable of doing those things. And there is a fair amount of… If I had have taken all of that on board and accepted everything that was happening to me, I don’t think mentally, psychologically, I would not have coped. And it was definitely a survival strategy to be very dismissive around where the blame sat. But, in that context of agency, and this is a really, really controversial thing. And it’s something that I really wanted to talk with everyone about today, is that for me, and this happens to any marginalised cohort of the community, we’ve lost trust with the services and systems around us.


Nicole Lee: We’ve been told that everything is our fault. And I was in a relationship for 10 years. So, all of my independent decision-making capacity as a disabled woman and mother, had been completely and utterly obliterated and taken away. And this is the thing I couldn’t realise at the time that every decision I made, was one that I thought was going to keep him happy. Ultimately, that actually also kept us safe. And so whilst I was in a position where I could not leave, I just couldn’t do it. I would never have left. The only way I would have left that relationship would have been, I took my life or he took it out for me. I had no capacity by that point.


Nicole Lee: And police did step in and the shifting of understanding, when they stepped in and they took that decision to leave away from me. They didn’t actually take my agency off me, they took it off him. And I was free to… And the thing that would have been really beautiful in that moment was to have had services surround me, to support me in regaining and refining that independent voice and refining my agency, again, for myself. Stepping somebody through supported, independent decision-making, whilst they rebuilt capacity.


Nicole Lee: And this is uncomfortable stuff. And everybody’s at different stages when they reach out for help. But it’s not okay to sit there and just say, “Well, if she doesn’t want to leave and she wants to stay there and keep getting abused. Then, who are we to step in. So, we’ll step in and we’ll take her children, but we won’t step in and take him.” And they’re the things that I find really confronting. And services need to be ready to be able to adjust themselves. It’s not a one size fits all that. Some women need their need to be held and carried more than other women. And it’s being able to adapt. And then just sitting with somebody in those confronting moments and going, “I know you’re petrified right now. I know you’re really scared, but you don’t actually have to do it alone.”


Nicole Lee: And they’re words that I did not hear. It was just… When I said, “I can’t leave.” “Okay, cool.” And that was it. And they just were waiting for somebody who was completely disempowered, to all of a sudden make an entirely empowered move. And then wondering why I wasn’t doing it or wondering why women don’t label.. Or that they’re failing this unwritten rule and test that’s being set for us. And the other side to that, is questioning, if it’s a free and informed choice, looking at the person and the position, like “How free are they? And actually, how informed are their choices?” You only know what you know. And especially for the disability community.


Nicole Lee: And I would definitely say there is a large percentage of disability within the First Nations community as well, is that we only know what we’ve been allowed to know in our life. We don’t know all our rights. So, you actually don’t know what it is you need to ask for.


Fiona Hamilton: That’s right.


Nicole Lee: And sometimes you need to sit with someone and tell them, “These are the things we can do. These are the things that we think that will help you.” And the best thing the police ever said to me was, “We really hope that he’s going to be one of those men that will change, but he won’t. And we’re here for you when you’re ready to take the next step.” But they didn’t dance around it. They told it like it was. It was hard to hear, but they were words I needed to hear. “He’s never going to change. And we are worried about you. You’re unsafe and we need to step in. And one day you will see.” And I did. And it’s the best thing anybody ever did for me.

Fiona Hamilton: And that’s so interesting because agency for me, looked like protecting my partner until such time as I was able to strategize, to be able to escape. Because the protecting him is what kept me safe. And I think Nick, just actually touched on a really, really important point for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Which is that we’re dealing with, whatever you want to call it, settler society, invader society, occupier society. Who in society has a vested interest in providing high quality information and support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. These services are located on our lands.


Fiona Hamilton: … this is, are located on our lands. They’re on our lands, but we’re being made to feel like getting help, we’re running towards the settlers hut and it’s packed full of settler women. And we don’t know what response we’re going to get, and that’s the truth. We don’t know what response we’re going to get when we call police. I think it’s fair to assume that a lot of us have got a pretty good idea it could go either way and that’s the truth and the reality of what Aboriginal women are living with and experiencing.


Fiona Hamilton: Jess and Nick, we talked about this earlier before. When we make it easier for women to leave than it is to stay, we’ll see change. When we remove the barriers that keep women in violent relationships because it’s easier to stay in a violent relationship than it is to leave, we’ll see change. And that is what urgency of resistance has to look like now. We have to make it easier. We can’t have women landing on the scrap heap of society because we’ve left violence. We should be getting medals.


Jess Hill: Totally. This is something that I just confront so often when I talk to victim survivors after they’ve left, obviously. The strategising, the sheer brilliance of their responses to situations that are absolutely, A, designed to make the abuse invisible, and B, designed to entrap in such a way that we see coercive control, overwhelming even trained soldiers in other contexts. I find that so remarkable and it’s so bizarre that we don’t lionise victim survivors as used to happen in some First Nation’s stories. You’ve got First Nation stories from North America where a victim of rape was actually seen to then have certain types of powers and wisdom, and actually went on to become a medicine woman and become a representative for the community, someone with unique insight.


Jess Hill: Instead, it’s like we put the shame on the person who’s gone through it and we basically feel an excess of sympathy for the man who did it and trying to exonerate and not put too tough a penalty on them. And yet the woman sort of walks away and has to bear almost that same responsibility that the perpetrator put on her, but coming from society. And I think that, I was talking to Phil Claire the other day too, Nick. And he was saying, “We talk about women having their right to independence, but actually as Fiona is saying, we don’t support that right to independence when they decide to leave.” And the number one reason that women across the board are afraid to leave a violent relationship is because they are afraid they will end up destitute. Not even the fear of physical violence necessarily, although that is obviously also present, but that fear that there will be nothing there to break their fall. And too often, it is.


Fiona Hamilton: And it’s true. And it’s true, more often than not, you are going to end up in a very, very bad financial situation as a result of leaving violence. It’s true for a lot of women and for a lot of women, they’re not going to scope that impact.


Nicole Lee: And there’s the intersect of, there’s a financial hardship and absolute poverty that you’re throwing you and your children into. Plus, for myself, I had child protection breathing down my neck as well. So the fear of then losing your children, there’s all of these things. The violence will escalate. Will I be able to keep my children because my mental health has gone completely down the toilet in this 10 years. And I have been gas licked to being the bad parent, the terrible parent, the mentally unwell parent. So I’m going to lose my children. We’re going to be in poverty. We’ll lose everything we’ve got. They will end up in care or with him. And every time I even contemplate leaving, he gets more violent. We intrinsically know that leaving is not safe.


Nicole Lee: And that is the thing. Leaving is the most dangerous point in time for a woman to be murdered. And, we somehow intrinsically know that we need to plan around that. How do I leave and how can I do this actually safely? We know deep down, something within us knows deep down that this isn’t safe. And so all the reasons why don’t we leave? Because we know we’re not safe. And we know that it’s fraught with danger at every turn. And there’s not enough trust being built within those services that the police are going to respond, that child protection aren’t going to steal your children, that the services are going to surround you or refuge is going to take you.


Nicole Lee: We need to build trust with those systems so the victims know that they can go to them. Otherwise, we’re going to keep being apprehensive and it’s a barrier to leaving.


Jess Hill: Totally. Now I want to open up to questions in a couple of minutes, so I just wanted to open it up to you, not as closing statements, but is there anything else that you’d both like to say before we go to questions?


Nicole Lee:

Did you want to go for a few minutes? [crosstalk 00:39:37]


Fiona Hamilton: Go, go Nicole.


Nicole Lee: I think for me, if you’re going to take anything away from this today, it’s all of that understanding of where does a woman’s agency sit? Who’s pulling the strings? Who ultimately is she making the decisions for? Rather than just positioning it as this is her agency. Therefore, they are her choices. And start to think about that critical realism perspective around what is the knowledge in the community? Our community will only know what we share within our community. And something away from today is to start having these conversations with other people, start sharing bits and pieces, opening up about the less talked about things like agency and how that got lost or how that got co-opted. That’s something I’d like people to take away from today is all of those things.


Nicole Lee: If it did touch a nerve with you, reach out to other people that you know, and have those conversations. We need to build that knowledge within the community, open up those conversations and really, really push back on all of the narratives that have sat around us for far, far too long.


Jess Hill: Yeah.


Fiona Hamilton: I think for me, one of the things that often happens to me just out in the community, dealing with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds is that people will try and find a way of connecting. And they’ll give you like a feather or a rock or a shell or whatever, which is sort of lovely, but it would be really good to get my country back in a more meaningful quantum of usable land. And if I bring that concept, rather than bit by bit, shell by shell, rock by rock, feather by feather, sort of thing. If I bring that over into looking at sort of violence and what we can do in our communities, I’d like to see some of the services actually hand back, providing services for Aboriginal people, to our communities and placing those in our communities where those services can actually be co-located with the people that we’re actually trying to reach. And that those services be community controlled. And by diversity of people in Aboriginal community, not just one Aboriginal organisation.


Fiona Hamilton: Groups of Aboriginal people in community coming together, agreeing yes, there needs to be something done here. And I think we got to admit that the system just isn’t working for Aboriginal people at all. And I think we’re seeing the hallmarks of that every day. And especially not for women who are experiencing violence or who have experienced violence. And I just think it’s now time to say enough, and let’s actually give it over to the people who have expertise in dealing with Aboriginal people and communities and that’s Aboriginal people.


Jess Hill: Yeah. And I think you see that really well exampled in Burke and in outback NSW where the justice reinvestment approach was initiated by an Aboriginal elder in that community, Alistair Ferguson. But he understood that it’s not okay for just one person or one group to control that, that part of the setting up of that justice re-investment process was to take the 28 different, 20 something different language groups, and start almost like a peacemaking process between all of those diverse groups and reach conclusions together on what needed to happen and start out from that equal footing or as equal as you can get.


Fiona Hamilton: And that’s exactly right, because what you’re going to find is that Family Violence, as we call it in Aboriginal communities a lot, it’s going to thrive anywhere where there is a really high tolerance level to violence in general, in that community. Now, I don’t see anywhere in Australia that has higher tolerance levels to violence than in Aboriginal communities, and we need to do something about that. And it’s not enough to fund an Aboriginal service provider and go, “Yeah, look, we’re going to do something about family violence.” And then tolerate the very high levels of elder abuse and lateral violence and other kind of violence and child abuse in our communities.


Fiona Hamilton: If you’re going to say, “We’re going to do something about violence,” it’s at all levels. And it starts by looking internally at the service and how that’s been delivered. I just can’t take another service that actually can’t deal with Aboriginal people because they can’t deal with the nature of the relationship between them as non Aboriginal people and me as an Aboriginal person, that’s kinship. If there’s no kinship, I might as well just fight it out on my own.


Jess Hill: Yeah. Absolutely. Now we could talk about this for another 10 minutes, but I think maybe we should go to a question and one particularly popular question here. We’ve kind of talked about it a bit, but how can we challenge the pervasive victim blaming that continually crops up in community and media discussion of gendered violence? And just as a journalist, very, very quickly just offer my advice, which is that journalists need to have a much better understanding of coercive control and not come at domestic abuse and family violence as an incident based phenomenon.


Jess Hill: And as such, they need to be able to portray women’s agency or women, men, non-binary people’s, agency in those relationships as part of the story. And rather than just trying to present what seems like a very clear dichotomy between victim and perpetrator, so that it’s not confusing for anyone, because I think actually those dichotomies are what have led us to a very unnatural understanding of how domestic abuse actually looks.


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah, absolutely agree with that. I don’t think there’s much more that I can add to that, Jess.


Nicole Lee: Just, I guess when it comes to how to shift those things is to constantly be pushing back on those narratives, not accepting that kind of reporting from the media. And I think that has been a shift lately around… People are calling out an article where there is victim blaming, especially after the Hannah Clark murder. People did call that out and that is good because that pushes journalists to do better.

Nicole Lee: And the one message, I guess, in current campaigns that I have actually liked is that the whole, there is no excuse for abuse, but then actually calling out what are those excuses? So the nagging wife trope, which is one that I’d love to write about and how women made almost play that role of the nagging wife because it suits the agenda that the violent partner has. And pushing back on some of those everyday kind of things that we sort of use in our vernacular and just not accepting it. Sorry, I’ll move on but yeah, it’s that whole pushing back when you see these things because that has power, if the community keeps speaking up, that actually speaks volumes.


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah. Look, as Aboriginal woman, it’s also about a diversity of voices. What I hear is closing the gap, closing the gap, closing the gap, and then I see track lights of academics run into that space ahead of communities. I’m not sure who they’re speaking for. Are they speaking for the institution? Are they speaking for their research? Whatever, because when I’ve seen academics talk to people about violence, particularly in the refuge setting and service setting, the reciprocity in ethics comes from, “you talk to us about your experience of violence and we’ll give you a Coles card”.


Fiona Hamilton: And that’s what it feels like with the media at the moment. It feels like, we’ll tell your story but we’re not going to negotiate the ethics of that with you. That’s not yours. We’ll keep that at the high level and so it kind of feels voiceless and it feels like people with lived experience, aren’t getting the opportunity to really speak about what change might look like from the ground up for Aboriginal people. Now, how we rebuild the significant impacts to our communities, by addressing this, what that looks like.


Jess Hill: Yeah. Some part of that feels… Sorry, Nicole, you go.


Nicole Lee: Yeah. It was just sort of within the media and telling people’s stories, there is definitely a recipe that gets used and it’s the triumph over adversity. And we talked about this as triumph over adversity, that all of these things happen to this woman, but it will work out in the end and she’s kicking goals. That one, doesn’t actually speak to the experience of violence that we had. And two, it doesn’t actually speak to the genuine nature and the way we recovered. Recovery is not linear. We’re not all of a sudden just over it one day and we’re out there kicking it to the pricks and fixing the world. [crosstalk 00:49:37].


Jess Hill: You’re so inspirational.


Nicole Lee: And that inspiration, motivation sort of almost tragedy porn way that stories are told needs to shift. And we need to actually show the true picture because we also send a message to other victim survivors that they haven’t recovered right. Or their recovery isn’t as good as ours, but I’m telling you right now for every victim survivor that’s listening today. There’s good days. There’s bad days. It’s up. It’s down. It’s not pretty. And then you’re on top of the world other days. And if we keep putting out this model of the survivor that overcame, we keep telling other victims that they haven’t recovered the right way. And it’s just not true. It’s really not true.


Jess Hill: Not to mention that the right choice is to leave as though that would necessarily end the abuse and that it’s a clean out. And then you go on to bigger and better things. And for some women that will be the case. For some women and men, and others, that will be the case. And then for others, it will be a lifetime going through the system, going through the courts, going through the family law system and the perpetrator using whatever they can get to keep that person entrapped.


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah, absolutely.


Jess Hill: Now there’s a question here from Lisa Testart, which is, how do we stop the idea that women have to be good, nicely spoken, polite, not aggressive or angry, in order to be treated well by services and police and the judiciary. As a woman who experienced this, I had to be always mindful of my tone, my presentation, and I had to always manage how I behaved, so that the men and even women would like me as a victim and want to help me. How can this be changed so women can be angry?


Nicole Lee: Well, my one for that one is services understanding the nature of trauma, that when somebody is afraid or they’re not being listened to, it very much can come across as aggression. And then we get labeled as difficult to work with. Or-


Fiona Hamilton: You’re just [inaudible 00:51:36].


Nicole Lee: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t like that tone, but not actually … Services and police and courts need to stop and reflect on what needs aren’t being met for this woman? Why does she sound agitated? And actually reflecting on themselves, rather than just putting it on the person who has gut loads of trauma, who’s struggling with so many different things.


Jess Hill: Yeah.


Nicole Lee: And I know, from quite a few other survivors, is that fear very much looks like aggression, and it’s completely not spoken about, never hear that acknowledged within the services, certainly not while I was going through it, myself. And it’s around that education piece. And that’s where all of those education pieces have to be done in conjunction with victim/survivors, so we can explain these things. We know that we’re holding our tone and that we’re moderating ourselves when we speak, so we don’t get these labels, but there’s no responsibility on the other side of the services who are actually meant to be surrounding and supporting us. Instead, we’re actually managing them, half the time. And that is exhausting, as well.


Fiona Hamilton: Absolutely. Absolutely. And understanding hyper vigilance, where you are just so traumatised and so heightened, and, look, it took me two years to come down off hyper vigilance, two years after I left. And I still felt it even then, at times. This is not a quick journey. And it’s really, really hard when you know that you’re being treated badly by police, or you know you’re being shunted off by a service who just really doesn’t have the capacity. I would say be honest with people, just be honest with people and straight up and say, “You know what? We just don’t have the capacity to deal with what you’re asking us to do, at the moment. But, you know what, here’s some things that you could try, or here’s some places that you could try.”


Fiona Hamilton: What I found really aggravating and really distressing was when I knew I was being bullshitted to. And that’s what’s triggering because your hyper vigilant mind is sort of going, why are they doing that? What’s behind that? And you start running a hundred miles an hour, and that’s when it’ll actually self perpetuate, and you’ll become more heightened. So what you just need is calm honesty. And that’s a basic respect.


Nicole Lee: Yeah, expecting victim/survivors, also, to be able to identify that that’s the reason why they’re responding in that way and putting a lot of responsibility on the person who is in the middle of dealing with all this stuff, in the middle of crisis. And I couldn’t identify that, back then, and I couldn’t articulate it. But I could in hindsight, now, but it took a while for me to realise what was going on. Why am I getting angry? Why am I getting frustrated?


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah.


Nicole Lee: And that responsibility shouldn’t be on the victim/survivor. The services should understand trauma, should know those responses, and should know how to respond to somebody, in that moment, that doesn’t further escalate that person, as well.


Fiona Hamilton: Well, that’s right. It’s like we were talking about earlier, the cycle of violence, that white fellow cycle of violence, it’s just about useless to many Aboriginal communities because we’re consistently in crisis, in all sorts of ways. There is no honeymoon period. There is no beginning and end. It’s just this continual experience and journey, and that’s what we need to kind of intervene in because Aboriginals could have had better lives.


Nicole Lee: Yeah. Yeah, and then the flip side of that, for disabled women I know, and I still do this as well, in all sorts of settings, is that some of us actually revert to being very passive-


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah.


Nicole Lee: … in those situations where there is a lot of people in positions of power, police, courts, services, is that we will revert to, and I have, and then just not say anything at all and just agree with everything that’s being said. And that’s also another dangerous position that people don’t recognise or understand.


Fiona Hamilton: That’s right. Or avoidance, it can really, for [inaudible 00:04:56], really become a pathological avoidance of anything at all to do with police or whatever. And it’s very understandable. It’s trauma based.


Nicole Lee: Yep. Oh, you’re muted, Jess.


Fiona Hamilton: You’re muted, Jess.


Jess Hill: There’s a question, here, I think is really good, and it’s not just for services, necessarily, but for the justice system, more broadly, and our understanding of this. How do we empower and support women’s agency and decision-making, when those decisions may be inconsistent with service responses, like the decision to stay with the relationship for emotional or structural reasons, when, for example, you might be facing a situation where the children are in clear and present danger, and the victim parent either can’t see that or refuses to see that. How do you sort of respect the adult victim’s agency, but when you may know that they are in serious danger and that that agency almost needs to be overridden or redirected?


Nicole Lee: Oh, for me, I was somebody that needed that agency overridden and directed, and people did step in and remove my husband from the house. But the thing is, all the things that I didn’t think I could survive without him here, and that was from a disability perspective, from a mental health perspective, but nobody had ever bothered to sort of come in and show me a different way. And this is where giving somebody all of the information and all of the resources and all of the supports that are available to them, at their fingertips, so that they actually can possibly even conceptualise the possibility of another way of living. It wasn’t until child protection got in, disability services, eight weeks later, that I realised, oh, hang on, I actually … They showed me another way to live.


Nicole Lee: And I was able to see that I didn’t need him here for all of those reasons that I sort of just talked about. They showed me another way to live. And, like I said, you only know what you know, and that was the only way I knew how to survive. So it was somebody actually just sitting there and walking me through it. It was like, well, what is it you’re afraid of? Okay, well, we can get this person to come in, and we can get a support worker, and we can put these things in, and we can get some settlement money, is informing somebody of all of the things that are available for them to work with. But then, also, and this was some of the really horrible things that happened for me, is there was these unspoken tests that I had no idea what the consequences were.


Nicole Lee: So I didn’t realise that if I had have gone to that very first court hearing and said I wanted the order lifted, which I very nearly did because I was so petrified of saying that in front of him, that I would have lost my children. And nobody informed me of what that decision would have resulted in. So it’s giving somebody the information that sits around all the choices that are at their disposal, rather than sitting there and waiting for them to be able to navigate some unspoken test and not actually informing them of what all those decisions meant. And it’s giving somebody information is power. And you can’t expect someone to make a choice on something that they have absolutely zero information on, as well.


Jess Hill: A hundred percent. I think what Nicole’s saying is so right because it’s like you have people who, and that’s not saying that everyone who stays in a relationship is doing so for lack of information, but I guess that sense of at least laying it out, that here is what it will look like, here’s how we can protect you, here’s how we can make sure that you don’t descend into a state of poverty or in a worse state than you’re currently in. If those things, as Fiona was saying earlier, if it was easier to leave than it was to stay, then you would have probably women making different choices and choices that would protect their own lives, their children’s lives, and their sense of independence, first, rather than feeling like they need to protect their perpetrators, in order to protect themselves. Fiona, do you have anything extra to add?


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah, I do. I mean, the whole concept of leaving, too, can be a fairly sort of difficult concept for Aboriginal women because leave where? Our country, our communities, our culture, our cultural connection for our children, our extended family, our mob, our law? Think about what you’re asking us to give up, in leaving a relationship, sometimes, and really understand what that means and plan around that, so that the woman is actually able to separate from that relationship, if that’s what woman wants to do but still maintain her cultural agency, which is really, really important. And I think that, more and more, this will become a native title issue because there are so many women who are traditional owners, who are not able to live on country because of violence. And that’s alienation.


Jess Hill: Yeah.


Fiona Hamilton: And you would have to think that the native title industry is starting to consider and think about this.


Jess Hill: You would hope, but it is also largely run by men. But I wonder what you think about the town of Yungngora, who had that three strikes and you’re out policy, which it was sort of devised by the Council of Seven First Nations women. And they sort of based on traditional law, where it was like, if you violate three strikes and family violence, you’re actually exiled from the community as the perpetrator.


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah, those are exactly the sort of community responses that I’m talking about. And, look, when I was in Tennant Creek, the state government had this whole program of supporting what they were calling LAGs, local advisory groups, popping up in [inaudible 01:02:07] sort of regional communities and stuff like that. And one was established in Tennant Creek. And this is exactly the stuff that the LAG in Tennant Creek was starting to talk about. We don’t want to be sending the message to Aboriginal men, in particular, that it’s okay to be doing this to your family, that it’s okay to be doing this to women. What can we do? There were people on that local advisory group who were very, very traditional liners, who were very hard-line about this, that people should be basically sent out a community, if that’s occurring, and that there should be very distinct pathways back into community, to train and support people out of that behaviour. So it’s not a banishment, but it is a you’re not going to be here like this. And-


Jess Hill: We’re not going to penalise your partner-


Fiona Hamilton: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Jess Hill: … for your actions.


Fiona Hamilton: Exactly. What we want is for you to be a whole, functional family, and we’re going to work with you to achieve that. But it’s going to take a long time, and so they were really grappling with those issues. Wadeye has been grappling with those issues. I mean, it’s right across Australia, basically. I mean, this is an issue of self-determination and sovereignty. It’s about Aboriginal people being able to take what the issue is for us and custom make responses for us that fit our community need. And if we can be supported to do that, and we’re not expecting you to do it for us, but just get out of our way, just get out of our way, so that we can fix our people.


Jess Hill: And it’s but, I mean, not even just your own people. It’s like whenever I would see a strategy that really worked in Australia, more often than not, it was underpinned by either First Nations people or First Nations principles. It literally is a better way to come at this problem, which is largely a problem that was introduced to Australia, as I say in the book, like an invasive pest. The tradition of family violence and domestic abuse in this country has a very British heritage, and we’ve both introduced the actual type of violence, the type of patriarchy, but also the type of wrong-headed responses. And I absolutely agree that not only in the Indigenous communities, but across Australia, just as we’re seeing that, in situations where we need to do back burning, well, cultural burning works better than the wrong-headed way we’ve been going about reducing hazard. This is just, across the board, First Nations wisdom, honed over more than 60,000 years, is kind of useful.


Fiona Hamilton: Well, yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s certain types of therapy that’s used for trauma, for example, and particularly compound trauma with rapid eye movement and stuff like that, that is not unknown to Ngangkari healers, to traditional healers.


Jess Hill: Wow.

Fiona Hamilton: So, I mean, yeah, holotropic breathing, you name it. We’ve been doing it.


Jess Hill: Yeah. Well, I love it that when you read about Indigenous child rearing, it’s like, oh, that’s attachment parenting. It’s like we’re suddenly rediscovering all these natural ways to be that actually focus around nurturing and growing strong individuals, as opposed to our Western, patriarchal view, which is to make people strong and independent, you have to sort of punish them. You have to teach them that they can’t be too emotional and vulnerable, all that wrongheaded thinking that we do.


Jess Hill: But, look, we have come to the end, and I’m getting bells. And so I just want to say thank you so, so much to both Fiona Hamilton and Nicole Lee, who, honestly, I just treasure so much. Your expertise is just blinding. For me, it has absolutely reframed the way I think about this issue, on so many occasions. And I hope we see a lot more of you in other public forums, as I hope that we see a lot more other victim/survivors representing themselves and their expertise.


Jess Hill: Also to our Auslan interpreters, [Angela McClain 00:01:06:31] and [Glenda Judd 00:15:31], you were excellent. Thank you so much. And to all of you for being here. We had over 400, sometimes upwards of 500 people here, today. Thank you so much for being here with us. And we really can change the story on domestic abuse now, for this generation, working both individually and collectively with the help and expertise of victim/survivors. Thank you so much.


Nicole Lee: Thank you, everyone. Thanks Victorian Women’s Trust for putting, for hosting this for us. And we got to finish up our conversation that we didn’t get to finish before. And, yeah, Jess and Fiona for jumping on board, yeah, when I first sort of threw this out to you and, yeah, being part of the conversation and actually making it more broader than how I’d first envisioned it.


Jess Hill: Awesome.


Fiona Hamilton: Thanks, everyone.


Nicole Lee: Thanks, everybody.


If this topic raises any issues for you, help is available:

1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732
LifeLine 13 11 14

For more support services, visit:

Read next

Feminist Fridays live with Jess Hill & Clare Wright

Feminist Fridays live with Jess Hill & Clare Wright


Feminist Fridays are fortnightly conversations between two feminists, broadcast live on the Trust Facebook page.

Read more
Zooming in on our inner worlds

Zooming in on our inner worlds


"It was about connection: a reminder that within this isolation we’re not alone. And while our individual worlds may be contained within our homes, we're building bridges to link them back together."

Nicole Lee Read more
Anti-Racism Resources from Australia and Beyond

Anti-Racism Resources from Australia and Beyond


Books, podcasts, films and more to support self education.

Read more