WESNET INTERVIEW SERIES
There’s a harmful stigma attached to ‘being a victim’ that even today, shadows survivors of domestic, family, and sexual violence.
For the first time, the victim-survivors of domestic and family violence have been given a voice in the National Plan to end Violence against Women and Children, with a powerful opening statement prepared by a group of victim-survivors. The inclusion of the Survivor Statement, which was powerfully read by renowned Survivor Advocate Lula Dembele at the launch of the plan on 7 October, highlights how important it is to bring the voices of those affected to the fore, but at the same time start to change the way society thinks about victims and start to focus on those choosing to use violence.
To commemorate the end of Sexual Violence Awareness Month and bust some harmful myths around victimisation on the way, we talked with Lula Dembele, to bring her insights on the victim-blaming culture, the importance of including victim-survivors voices to any work about preventing and responding to violence against women, and the re-framing sexual, domestic & family violence towards accountability and naming the perpetrators. Read more below.
1. Welcome Lula, and thank you for participating in our Interview Series. Before we start, could you please tell us a bit about yourself, your career and your pathway to becoming a Survivor Advocate?
Gosh, a bit about myself…. I am a passionate person who has always had a strong sense of justice, and randomly an interest in politics since I was in kindergarten (much to my mother’s horror!). Having experienced child sexual abuse, at such a young age, and some deeply disappointing responses to that, my life has been shaped by – and I have been possibly more aware of – the systemic inequalities of patriarchy that continues to tolerate men’s abuse of women and children.
Starting a bit late in life, but I took my passion for social justice to work for the Australian Public Service and worked for almost a decade in strategic policy and national security. I always applied my gender lens to the work, supporting national efforts towards Gender, Peace and Security, as well as workplace initiatives to remove barriers to women’s (especially mothers’) workplace participation. Loving this work, I got some qualifications in Gender Mainstreaming and turned my eye towards social policy – specifically ending men’s perpetration of domestic, family and sexual violence.
In 2018, I participated in the Voices for Change program to lend my lived experience to survivor advocacy. While speaking about my own experiences of abuse had never been something I shied away from, fortunately, I was never shamed for them within my family, I realised that many people I knew had no idea I had experienced different forms of gendered violence in my life. So, I wanted to stand up and identify myself so that people may start to think differently about ‘who’ is a victim of child sexual abuse or domestic violence and begin to remove some of the stigma and shame we too often feel associated with victimisation.
2. You’ve been a vocal advocate for re-framing sexual, domestic & family violence towards accountability and naming who are the perpetrators of the violence experienced by women and children. Why is it so important to name the agents of violence and why? Why do you think domestic violence and sexual assault is not being framed and described more widely as a perpetrator’s problem in Australia?
Good questions! My answer to the first is simply that while violence is a problem for victims, it is not a victim’s problem. We need to understand the problem we are trying to solve, to eradicate, is the perpetration of domestic, family, and sexual abuse – and all forms of gendered violence and discrimination.
While violence is a problem for victims, it is not a victim’s problem.
While we continue with the framing of seeing domestic, family, and sexual abuse as a ‘women’s issue’ we continue to place the burden on victims to be the ones to drive change – to report abuse, to leave violent relationships. This is a mild form of victim-blaming and feeds into policy solutions and programmatic outcomes that wait until the harm is done, till violence and abuse have occurred. It also asks often the least empowered person, the individual who is literally being abused and having their agency controlled, their self-esteem degraded, to take empowered and bold action – action (such as leaving an abuser) that actually increases the risk of violence and escalation of abuse. This framing does not stop or reduce the perpetration of abuse, it unfairly burdens victims with stopping violence being perpetrated against them, and often puts victims into more precarious situations – whether that be escalating violence, or insecure housing, lack of income, etc…
I think there is resistance to framing domestic violence and sexual assault as a perpetrator’s problem as it challenges the social norms of patriarchy. It asks us to hold people who abuse to account, the majority of those who use violence being men. It is easier, and plays into gender stereotypes, to talk about protecting and supporting women as victims than it is to challenge male power. It is easier to feel sorry for and empathy for victims, than it is to look at perpetrators because this requires action – political action.
It is easier to feel sorry for and empathy for victims, than it is to look at perpetrators because this requires action – political action.
The biggest challenge socially, though, is that perpetrators are often, indeed almost always, people we already know, people we like, and people we love. It is hard to grapple with the idea that someone you know and love may be choosing to harm and abuse others. It is difficult to know what to do, indeed it may challenge your own sense of who you are. This work is both political and deeply personal, and when we talk about perpetrators we have to confront some very hard truths and take meaningful action. It is easier to talk about victims as ‘poor women’ and it is easier to look away or think it is not my problem. It is deeply uncomfortable to think that every one of us knows someone, who probably loves someone, who is capable of abusing women and children in their lives.
3. How does victimisation focus data on domestic, family, and sexual violence impacts how these issues are measured and addressed? We are starting to see some research happening around perpetration. What benefits do you think research into violence perpetration will bring to the prevention and response sector?
Until we are measuring and directing interventions at stopping perpetration, we do not have a reduction strategy for ending violence against women and children.
We need to put perpetrators in the picture and not white wash their accountability through a narrative that hides their agency. Unfortunately, while incredibly important to understand the impact of victimisation, the statistics we quote, such as “1 in 6 women experience violence from a current or previous partner”, remove the perpetrator from the discussion. Where are men in these statements? Where is the person responsible for perpetrating violence?
Where are men in these statements? Where is the person responsible for perpetrating violence?
We need to be talking about how many people are using violence (prevalence), against who, and the impacts of the abuse and violence. If we want the suffering of women and children to end, if we want people to have respectful relationships, if we want to limit to on costs of domestic, family and sexual violence on mental health, on productivity, on our hospitals and justice systems we have to reduce the amount of people who choose to use abuse and violence in their relationships. No perpetrators, no victims.
4. Research tells us that while false allegations do occur, they are rare, accounting for approximately only 5% of the cases reported. However, the NCAS Survey found that 16% of Australians believe that ‘many allegations of sexual assault made by women are false.’ This myth about false allegations is harmful to society and harmful to victims of sexual offences, contributing to the under-reporting of abuse and the belief that victims should look and behave in certain ways to be deemed credible sources. We saw this play out very publicly in the recent Depp vs Heard defamation case. Why do you think the ‘victim-blaming’ narrative is still strong in the broader community psyche when all evidence points in the opposite direction? As a society, how are we failing victim-survivors for these narratives to have greater precedence over the evidence and the data?
Again, it comes back to patriarchy and the uncomfortable situation of realising someone you know and like is capable of behaviours we have deemed morally wrong. Women have long been portrayed as manipulative, and not as credible as men. This is one of the ways patriarchy operates to limit women’s agency and legitimacy in public spheres – including paid work, politics, and legal systems. Basically, anywhere there is access to power and control of assets, women will be undermined so that men can maintain their status and exercise power over women.
Women have been painted as weak and vulnerable, in need of men’s protection. So this narrative of women as victims fits a patriarchal model. Conversely, men have been portrayed as protectors and providers, so when you turn the spotlight on men who are failing this standard it challenges ‘men’s roles’ in society. When there are so many men choosing to use abuse and violence against women, it undermines the legitimacy of men’s claim to these privileged roles and superior status.
Women have been painted as weak and vulnerable, in need of men’s protection. So this narrative of women as victims fits a patriarchal model.
We fail victim-survivors by continuing these narratives because it continues to excuse men’s responsibility for their behaviours that harm women and children. It continues to treat women and children as less than men, as belongings of men to treat and dispose of as they want. It fails to hold men and all of society responsible to account for tolerance and prevalence of men’s violence against women and children.
5. When the broader community (and the media) gets involved in discussions around victim-survivors of gender-based violence, conversations often gravitate to victim-blaming narratives. But there’s so many other complex aspects that are not being taken into account. What should we be talking about? What is missing in the broader conversation that should be front and centre?
The thing that should be front and centre in media coverage and narratives is perpetrator accountability. Too often focussing on the victim turns into a sort of ‘trauma porn’ where people almost enjoy the shock or tragedy of the ‘story’ being told. In doing this we reduce victims to a sound bite or a headline or limit their entire person to the harmful experiences they have had – it can be quite belittling.
The story being told should be focused on why someone chose to use abuse or violence – often against someone they claim to love? How come so many men use coercion, control, threats and violence against their partners? Where did they learn this, and why do they feel their actions can be justified? How come people and systems did not intervene to stop someone from using abuse or violence? And here I mean beyond people leaving relationships, and having children removed from protective parents – which is yet another form of institutionalised victim-blaming and punishing women for men’s violence perpetrated against them.
What I mean is, if someone has the pattern of using abuse and violence in their relationships, then how are we working with that person to reduce those behaviours? So they desist and stop using abuse in their current relationships, and also any potential future relationships. If we aren’t working with people to reduce using controlling and abusive behaviours to get what they want, then they will simply continue to do it in multiple relationships and we have not only not stopped the abuse but potentially are exposing more people to harm, creating more victims. We must be focused on reducing perpetration.
6. Women’s Specialist Services, by their very definition, have always worked from the intersectional feminist premise that violence against women and other forms of gender-based violence is driven by gender inequality, and that response and prevention need to address the larger systemic issues as well as assist individuals that are affected. Can you talk about some of the work that you have been involved in with trying to raise the importance of this issue and including survivors’ voices?
I have used my own personal lived experience of child sexual abuse and domestic violence to inform policy, both working within government and advocating to/advising governments as well as contributing to research. I was told many times in my career, in good faith, not to reveal that I was a victim survivor as I may be judged as biased or unable to make sound decisions about work involving these topics. However, I felt that wrong and silencing, and that it was a process that continued to shame me for the abuse that someone else was responsible for.
I also felt it meant that our policies and services were not being designed for the ultimate end user, and this sat at odds with how other work and products were developed through co-design and user testing. My awareness of work in international development which highlighted the benefit of working with and for communities who were intended to be recipients of aid or capacity building, also made me question this idea that victims of violence were somehow not trusted enough to work on the solutions to the experiences that they had intimate knowledge of.
So, I thought the best thing I could do would be to role model how I could use my lived experience to bolster my professional performance, demonstrating the value of my insights that could only be gleaned through personal experience. I also really wanted to strip away the stigma attached to ‘being a victim’ and recognise that victim survivors are credible and capable people, many of whom we already know and work with every day by identifying myself as one.
I also really wanted to strip away the stigma attached to ‘being a victim’ and recognise that victim survivors are credible and capable people.
Beyond my own contributions of lived expertise to policy, research and advocacy, I have worked with other survivor advocates to propose that the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032 have a formalised structure and deliberate inclusion of lived experience throughout the life of the plan and in decision-making for the plan. With these amazing smart victim survivors I collaborate with, we are founding the Independent Collective of Survivors (ICOS) to promote and support victim-survivor advocacy for systems change, and work with organisations to prepare them to work safely and effectively with victim-survivors. I have been fortunate to work with the incredible team at the University of Melbourne Safer Families Centre for Research Excellence on the WEAVERS network of victim-survivors and am a co-author on the World Health Organisation ‘An Australian Framework for the ethical co-production of research with victim-survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence’ which will be published soon.
Most recently, through my work at Women’s Health in the South East, I participated in organising the first “Aligning the Personal with Professional” conference, which was all about how the family violence sector in Victoria can better recognise, respect and harness the value of the lived experience that already exists in the sector. It was wonderful to come together with other advocates, practitioners, and academics to share experiences and think deliberately about how our sector can be a more safe, supportive, and welcoming employment environment for people with lived experience. We are working on avenues for lived experience pathways into the sector, which would be great!
7. At WESNET, we often have requests from survivors wanting to share their stories and/or get involved as volunteers to support other victim-survivors. As a Survivor Advocate yourself and one of the co-founders of the Independent Collective of Survivors (ICOS), what recommendations would you give to other victim-survivors who are wanting to get involved in the sector but don’t know where to start? What things should they look out for when approaching an organisation to ensure their safety and that they are provided with adequate support?
The first thing I would recommend is to understand your why for wanting to get involved, and what you wish to achieve. There are many ways you can contribute to the work across the sector, so understanding your reason for doing so will help direct where you may wish to engage. Sharing your experiences publicly can be very rewarding for part of your own healing, but it can also come with the costs of public scrutiny and attack. You may not feel comfortable with having everything about yourself out in the public domain, which can rarely be taken back once it is out there, so think carefully about what you do and don’t wish to share. Know your own boundaries of what you feel comfortable with, and remember it is your life, and you don’t owe details to anyone. If you wish to speak publicly, then there are legal considerations, and you may wish to use a pseudonym or work anonymously for your own safety.
Know your own boundaries of what you feel comfortable with, and remember it is your life, and you don’t owe details to anyone.
A really great program that works skillfully and respectfully with victim-survivors is Insight Exchange. Through this program, you can share your experiences anonymously, and be supported through the process of retelling and capturing your experience to be shared for systems change and knowledge building.
Other things to consider if you are wanting to participate in lived experience advisory panels (some peak bodies and organisations who work in the sector, as well as the Victorian Government, have these) is to learn about the history of the organisation, what is their policy on lived experience, have they adopted the Experts by Experience Framework or principles from the DV NSW Voices for Change report for working with victim-survivors? Also, always good to ask other survivors about their experience working with organisations.
There are also more traditional routes into the sector, not specific to survivor advocacy but a good way to put your experience to use, such as completing a Graduate Certificate in Domestic and Family Violence through universities such as Monash, QUT, RMIT and Chisholm. I have heard many victim-survivors say that completing such a course helped them understand better and situate their own experiences of abuse in a broader context.
Whatever you may choose to do, it is important you know yourself well and have good support around you personally.
Whatever you may choose to do, it is important you know yourself well and have good support around you personally. You can receive backlash from family and friends for speaking up, or even choosing to work in the sector, so knowing who you will be able to count on and, if needed, what counselling or therapeutic support may be available to you – and how to access it when you are feeling low/impacted – is important.
8. And lastly, what change are you hoping to see in the near future that will help amplify and strengthen victim-survivors voices? And what are you looking forward to right now?
I really want to see the sector itself embrace its lived experience workforce. I want the stigma of being a victim, that this somehow makes you less credible or capable, to be challenged at every opportunity we get. I think the change toward valuing lived experience of gendered violence as an important knowledge base is happening in many organisations, but it still requires deliberate work. We have much learning and evolution to do in how we work with lived experience in the sectors and services relevant to domestic, family, and sexual violence.
I am looking forward to working with the new Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Commission on establishing the formal mechanisms to include lived experience in the implementation of the new National Plan, and so many other exciting projects with lived experience co-design.
Mostly I am excited that more and more victim survivors feel it is ok for them to acknowledge publicly they have lived experience, to speak up, expect to be treated with dignity, and to be taken seriously when it comes to contributing to the solutions of ending violence against women and children. As we should. Asking victims to be silent, only protect perpetrators.
About the series: The WESNET Interview Series brings an array of diverse opinions, perspectives and insights from different professionals, practitioners, experts, and advocates on violence against women and girls and other forms of gender-based violence. We aim to share the full diversity of voices to help inform and expand the narratives around ending violence in all its forms. Not all the voices will agree on every aspect of what to do and how to do it, but all the voices are from those committed to ending gender-based violence. You can read the rest of our interviews here.