There is a growing interest in researching the challenges and opportunities for women who choose to leave a violent relationship. University students, however, have largely been absent from the literature, especially women who embark on university study in the aftermath of domestic violence. My research is focused on the experiences of these women, addressing a clear gap in the current literature.
Domestic violence in Australia
Domestic violence is control over a relationship partner in the form of physical, verbal, emotional, financial and/or sexual abuse. It is a widespread, gendered problem. Within Australia, the publication of statistical information points to increases in the incidence of this form of violence. Approximately 17% of women and 6% of men in Australia experience such violence – a glimpse into an underreported crime.
Many who leave such relationships embark on career changes and education.
In response to the gap in domestic violence literature, for my doctoral research I analysed the narratives of nine women, enrolled at universities across New South Wales, Australia. Fitting the research criteria, all were currently enrolled in university studies, over twenty-one years of age, and had left a violent relationship at least three years prior to the research. Their narratives focus on educational experiences during three key periods of their lives – before, during and after the experience of DV. (For those interested – Bourdieu’s concepts of capital, habitus and field provided a conceptual lens to understand their resources and position within society.) Most of the women were from middle-class backgrounds.
After the experience of DV: Engagement with university study
When the women were freshly separated from their relationships they continued to feel controlled by their ex-partners and experienced a reduction of capital, particularly economic capital.
He scared me out of asking for money that he owed me, he scared me out of going through with the charges with the police. The police had found evidence and everything. He convinced the kids that I was having him charged and the police had no evidence, and they [children] to this day they believe him (Lynda, 55, Bachelor of Psychology)
After leaving her suburban family home, land and horses, Lynda relocated to her parent’s modest rural home. There she paid child support for children, whom she had lost contact with, whilst she concentrated on her university studies.
A new sense of self
A new sense of self was a shared theme within the interviews.
University gives me confidence; it gives me a goal that I could actually achieve. It makes me feel like people will see me differently and that I will also have some kind of recognition… (Sophie, 44, Bachelor of Psychology)
It was also in journals. In Rachel’s written words:
Coming into uni to do a research degree taught me
1. About a topic
2. About how to do research.
It also took me to real points of ‘sink or swim’. I had to do it all. And on my own b/c [because] that’s how it works- either I learn or I don’t. And in undertaking this mammoth task- the degree – I saw me A woman who doesn’t give up.
A woman who can find/ask for help when needed.
A woman who is neither overbearing nor a door mat.
I learned to juggle…& sometimes to juggle with grace.
And I’ve received recognition for my efforts.
And all this in a safe environment Safety is paramount.
Being able to rebuild! I guess for most students, they are building- for me I got to re-build!
…Of course, ‘education’ is not the magic bullet. It’s a combination – my personal traits, my strong Christian beliefs, a loving Mum & kind children. But I think taking time to study allowed me time to think, to achieve & to rebuild – where I could build a reputation, a past & friendships. The safety of uni cannot be underestimated.
BUILDING PROFESSIONAL KNOWLEDGE & UNDERSTANDING & CONFIDENCE & EXPERIENCE… (Rachel, 51, PhD)
An opportunity to support other women in similar situations
University study was chosen over other forms of education by the women as a pathway to professional careers and financial independence. Most women explained that their qualifications would also enable them to support others in similar situations.
You can work [in domestic violence support services] with all the passion in the world but until you get the theory it can be really dangerous (Dawn, 51, Master of Social Work)
Helping women is a passion of mine. When I met my [second] husband, he got me to write a goal and one of them is helping women, I am still finding out exactly how. When I started uni, I lived day to day, learning how to cope. Going to uni helped. You find out a lot about other people’s lives and that made me think that it was wrong what happened to me. And the whole feminist thing. It made me realise that everyone has rights and mine were violated (Tamson, 34, Bachelor of Arts)
For the youngest woman in the study Amelia (27, Bachelor of Social Work), the decision to support other women, was made while she was seeking support at her local police station. There she noticed a poster hanging on the wall advertising a job for a domestic violence worker. Amelia described this as a pivotal moment, instrumental in inspiring her to help other women in similar situations. She asked the police officers how she could become a domestic violence worker herself. From there she went to TAFE and then university.
Choosing not to socialise
In an effort keep their backgrounds private, most women avoided socialising beyond the classroom. In the words of Amelia:
I don’t know, single mother in housing commission like, you know it’s not something you just tell people, you know there is a lot of judgement around that and yeah with domestic violence too, people just think it is your own fault so I am very careful with what I tell people at uni as well.
University as a place of support
Those who sought university support for matters relating to their circumstances (e.g. leave to attend Family Law Court) were fearful of retelling (and reliving) their stories, and not being believed.
I think it would have been nice to have a little bit more understanding and not have to go into detail, so to say ‘I have to go into family law court, I won’t be there this day’, and for them to say ‘ok well you don’t have to be there this date’ but maybe there needs to be a little bit more understanding that maybe there is a bit more going on, it would have been probably helpful, but that is in the individual level (Claudia)
My research sheds light on a cohort which has been largely overlooked within the literature. Although open to women of all demographics, most were from middle class backgrounds – with the ambition and comfort in the education setting to succeed. As such, my research did not capture women who lacked the capital resources to attend university, or those who withdrew early from university. My research provides a platform for future studies to understand such women and how they might be assisted.
Dr Kelly Lewer is an Honorary Fellow with the University of Wollongong School of Nursing and an Honorary Affiliated Researcher with the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute. Since completing her Doctor of Philosophy in 2019, she has turned her attention to understanding the intersection of women’s education and health, particularly in relation to domestic violence trauma recovery.