Survivors and advocates call for trauma from gender-based violence to be recognized as an injury

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WARNING: This story contains graphic material that readers may find worrying.

Lula Dembele was sexually abused and raped when she was three to four years old.

The memories of her abuse are not vivid, but like snapshots, including the view from her bed in the conservatory of her home, the strong presence of her abuser above her, and his violence against her mother.

It started after her mother and father separated, when her mother was courted by a charming man who she eventually moved in with.

Ms. Dembele said the man started caring for her from the beginning and the abuse started while her mother was working in the evenings.

“Apparently I started telling my mom that there were monsters in my room at night,” she said in a statement that was also posted on social media.

“I remember being taken to the children’s hospital for a check-up. I remember sitting in the waiting area with my mother and being nervous.”

She vividly remembers lying on a cold table when a doctor examined her.

Ms. Dembele says that “either that day or shortly afterwards, my mother’s worst fear was confirmed” – that she was raped.

Ms. Dembele says her mother is the heroine of her story, but she remembers the judgment she felt against her mother and herself.

“I remember feeling that I wanted to protect my mother from her judgment. My mother fought so many internal and external barriers, tried to act in my best interests and was judged anyway.”

This is part of a statement Ms. Dembele posted online to take the burden of violence and shame off the victims.

Part of telling her story, Ms. Dembele says, is to show how suburban and mundane the environment can be when these types of life-changing trauma occur.

Sixteen days of activism

Ms. Dembele is now a survivor advocate and one of the voices for a new campaign against gender-based violence and the need to treat trauma as injury.

Survivor advocate Lula Dembele adds her voice to the campaign.(Delivered: Lula Dembele)

“Trauma is a physiological response that occurs when we have a high-threat environment such as a war zone,” she said.

“And that is what happens to the bodies of women and children when they are subjected to constant abuse and violence at home, and we need to recognize this as a violation through our health and justice systems.”

The 16 Days of Activism, which begins today with Domestic Violence NSW, the Illawarra Women’s Health Center and Doctors Against Violence Towards Women, will feature eight community leaders alongside eight victim survivors.

The group wants trauma from gender-based violence to be recognized as an injury just as it is for first responders and soldiers.

The campaign calls for victim survivors to have access to a range of trauma-specific, evidence-based therapies through the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

In addition, 20 community-based trauma recovery centers for women will be established across Australia and compulsory education and training programs on trauma and gender-based violence will be ensured for all healthcare and justice workers.

It is based on an open letter from more than 100 health and education experts published in September calling on the federal government to take nine measures in response to domestic and family violence.

The psychiatrist Dr.  Karen Williams crossed her arms against a dark wall.
Psychiatrist Karen Williams hopes the 16 days of activism will remind the government of the need to do more.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Clinical psychiatrist and founder of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women Karen Williams said she hoped the campaign would highlight that family violence against women and children is another form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She said that recognition of trauma care through the Medicare Benefits Schedule is essential.

“They are really looking at a complete overhaul of our view of trauma,” she said.

“We need to recognize that it is a mental illness that sometimes requires inpatient or intensive psychological care, just like PTSD in a soldier.”

Dr. Williams said victims often feel like the health and justice systems have failed to recognize the impact the violence has had on them.

“Many women traumatized by violence forget incidents and present themselves as shaky, may overlook certain details and that is used against them,” she said.

“If the judicial system was informed about trauma, it can understand why women present themselves in a special way on the stand and do not refuse to testify.

Non-partisan support for trauma recovery centers

In April, a federal bipartisan report on family and domestic violence called on the Morrison government to allocate funding to a planned women’s trauma recovery center in Illawarra.

At the time, Queensland Inquiry Chairman and Liberal and National MP Andrew Wallace said it was too late to be included in the May federal budget but could be included in the December mid-year economic and tax outlook.

“The committee felt that this was an outstanding approach to trying to deal with the scourge of domestic, domestic and sexual violence,” he said.

“And if it works, the committee has recommended funding a five-year pilot program, and if that works, we should roll it out across the country.”

First Nation trauma healing awareness

Women Illawarra Aboriginal focus worker Ash Johnstone also supports the campaign.

She said she hoped it would also raise the First Nation’s knowledge of how to heal from trauma.

Young woman smiles at a camera
Ash Johnstone is one of the community leaders participating in the 16-day campaign against gender-based violence.(Delivered: Twitter)

“Our communities are the best experts on how to recover from these things, so it’s really important to have First Nation-led organizations.”

“Create security”

Lula Dembele said having a trauma-informed health and justice system would make victims feel safe.

“So they don’t see things as a threat, make sure you give people choices and always give people that freedom of choice,” she said.

“Because that was removed from them in the process of abuse.

“When you have access to programs and trauma therapies that will help you re-regulate your body and re-regulate your flight-or-fight response and re-regulate your emotional maintenance, you can live a more balanced life.”


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