Domestic violence: Why doesn't she leave?

Lawyer Catriona MacLennan says asking a domestic abuse victim why they don't leave the relationship is the wrong question.
Image / iStock
Image / iStock

People talking about domestic violence victims often ask "Why doesn't she leave?"

That is the wrong question to ask. It places responsibility for the situation on the victim, rather than the perpetrator.

What we should be asking is "Why is he beating her?" and "When will he stop?"

Placing the burden of stopping the behaviour on the victim removes responsibility from the violent partner and makes her responsible for his actions. He's the one who's being violent. He's the one who's breaking the law by assaulting his partner. He's the one who needs to change his behaviour.

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The question "Why doesn't she leave?" also ignores the reality of domestic violence. It assumes the women and children can just pack up and walk out the door.

They can't.

Separation is actually the most dangerous time for the women and children: the risk of a woman being killed by her partner quadruples when she tries to leave.

I know this from the statistics. But I also know it from sitting in my office one day. The room was full of the weeping family members of a woman who had been stabbed to death the day before by the husband she had recently left. They held a large photo of her as they asked for help with custody of the children.

That woman had separated from her husband, but went back to their home to collect children's clothes and toys. She was fearful of her husband, so asked a friend to meet her there. The fried was slightly late arriving, and the husband had stabbed the woman to death by the time the friend got there.

Men who are violent to their partners exercise a high degree of control over all aspects of the women's lives. This does not suddenly end when the women and children move out.

If the woman goes to a Women's Refuge or into hiding elsewhere, the man will use all endeavours to track her down. This can include using associates to hunt her down in computer systems if she applies for a benefit or other help. It also involves stalking friends and family members to find the woman's location.

As we give such low priority to domestic violence in this country, there is never enough accommodation for women and children seeking safety. Every bed in refuges in Auckland will commonly be full almost every night.

This means there are few places for the women and children actually to go to. Women fleeing violent relationships almost never have more than a tiny amount of money. The violent partner controls the family's money and the woman will accordingly lack the financial resources to pay for accommodation elsewhere.

Family members may be reluctant to offer her sanctuary for fear of the repercussions from the perpetrator. Often, domestic violence victims are estranged from their families as the man works to cut the woman off from contact with her family and friends so he has total control over her.

Women's Refuges don't take animals, so fear of what will happen to family pets left behind when the woman leaves is another major barrier to women getting to safety. The 2012 New Zealand study Pets as Pawns: The Co-existence of Animal Cruelty and Family Violence recorded in graphic details the threats, torture and killings of family animals by domestic violence perpetrators.

They often injure or kill animals as a warning to the women and children of what will happen to them if they are not compliant. Since that research was published, the SPCA and Women's Refuge have run a pilot to foster animals while women are in refuges, in the hope that the animals can return to the women and children once they are safe.

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It is also common for violent partners to threaten not only the women, children and animals, but also wider family members. The woman and children might be able to pack up and move elsewhere, but it is impossible for every member of her family to do so. Threats against family members are therefore an effective way of preventing women from leaving.

New Zealand is a very small place, and it is difficult for women to achieve safety simply by moving to another part of the country. Trying to stay hidden is extremely hard. If the man finds out where the women and children have gone, he will be speedily on her doorstep to drag her back home.

Some women and children are relocated offshore. This costs money and involves a huge amount of organisation and also cuts the women and children off from families and friends, support systems, and jobs.

Perpetrators exercise psychological control over the woman. She will be told that she and the children will be killed if she leaves, or that he will seek custody and take the children away from her and she will never see them again. The violent partner will also say that the woman will not be believed when she reports the violence - and, sadly, that often turns out to be true. Our police, legal system and judges frequently disbelieve or diminish domestic violence.

So, when you hear people asking "Why doesn't she leave?" please ask them "Why is he assaulting her and when will he stop? And what can I do to make him stop?"


• Always ask if you can help. Your voice might be the support the woman needs to leave. It is better to ask and be rebuffed than to keep silent and fail to protect someone.
• Donate to Women's Refuge.
• Lobby politicians for a detailed plan to eliminate domestic violence and proper funding for Women's Refuge and other survivor services. It only takes three minutes of your time to tweet, email or Facebook the Prime Minister.
• Call the police if you hear a woman being assaulted.
• Foster animals for women in Women's Refuge.
• Speak up when men are disrespectful to women. Your silence condones their behaviour.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and journalist.

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