Sonia Di Mezza has been in some tough spots in her 25 years as a human rights lawyer.
She’s set up human rights projects in Pakistan, legal aid programs in Sudan and worked to end child labour in India. In Peshawar and Islamabad, she threaded her way through slums to find Afghan refugee women who couldn’t leave their homes because their husbands had died.
“Under the Taliban, these women had not been allowed to work or attend school. Many of them had been widowed because of the conflict, and they could not set foot outside their houses. So they were relying on their male children to support the family, and their daughters could not be educated,” she says.
Sonia saw women who had been persecuted, not infrequently sexually assaulted and effectively imprisoned. She worked with local NGOs to identify families who could be resettled in the United States.
It might seem a long way from her new role at the Domestic Violence Crisis Service, where she began last week as the CEO, but there is a strong common thread: giving people a right to live in safety and in peace. And that requires advocacy.
“Advocates aren’t wallflowers,” Sonia says. “When people have particular vulnerabilities, it can be difficult to stand up and articulate for yourself.”
The key is to follow the fundamental principle of self-determination so that the client is at the centre of every decision.
After spending much of the last decade at ADACAS (the ACT’s Disability, Aged and Carers Advocacy Service), Sonia was attracted to the high profile DVCS has established, not only in providing frontline services, but also in changing the conversation around domestic and family violence.
“Making a difference in people’s lives attracts me. DVCS do that every single day,” she says. “People here have that passion, motivation and dedication.”
But she’s also identified some priorities for the service including a focus on people with disabilities or from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, those with mental health issues and other disabilities. She cites, for example, the exceptionally high rates of violence against women with intellectual disabilities – by some estimates up to 90 per cent.
Her point is that domestic and family violence can happen anywhere, across all groups of people. “It doesn’t just touch lower socio-economic groups,” Sonia says.
But family violence does, disproportionately, affect women and children. Sonia is quite clear-eyed about the gender wars that sometimes surround the topic.
“Eighty-four per cent of the clients we support are women – this is the reality,” she says.
Five years ago the figure was 93 per cent: the change is due to the wider range of programs DVCS now uses to reach men who use violence but are asking for help.
“We support men, people in LBGTQI relationships, we assist everyone who is affected by family and domestic violence. But the reality is that this is a gendered issue. Otherwise, we deny the statistics. It’s not about being unfair, but reflecting the reality in the situation.”
DVCS like to use the analogy of the seatbelt campaign: it was targeted at everyone, whether they wore a seatbelt or not. If the issue can affect everyone, the message goes to everyone.
The organisation supports 5000 clients across multiple programs and Sonia says the funding is “never enough”.
“There’s been some phenomenal work done in the area, but the needs are much wider than we can provide.”
The Room for Change program, working with men who use violence has been successful, as has the federally funded Staying@home program, which provides ongoing support to women so that they can stay in their home after leaving an abusive relationship. DVCS is looking for ACT Government support to continue the program when federal funding ends.
Sonia says that practical responses like those and other programs DVCS runs are important, but so is understanding what drives violence in the first place.
“The evidence is very clear that gender inequity is a breeding ground for family and domestic violence,” she says, citing the need for awareness training to recognise the signs of an abusive relationship, attention to how children are taught about violence and equitable gender relationships.
“We must touch schools, clubs, places where people work, the community sector, politicians. We need to do wraparound service at all the different levels.”
Learn more about DVCS.
If you are in immediate danger, call 000.