After more than three decades in the public eye, former MP Helen Sham-Ho has revealed for the first time the harrowing violence she suffered at the hands of a partner.
Australia’s first Chinese-born parliamentarian Dr Helen Sham-Ho has revealed for the first time she was a victim of domestic violence as a young mum.
The former New South Wales Legislative Council member told SBS Cantonese of being violently physically abused by her partner but, despite often sustaining serious injuries, police refused to help her and dismissed it as a “domestic squabble”.
“It was a long time ago... It was over 35 years ago. At that time domestic violence was not an issue,” Dr Sham-Ho told SBS Cantonese.
“When you had domestic violence, people don’t say anything.”
It was during the 1970s, she explained - a time when Australian society and authorities did not treat family and intimate partner violence with the seriousness they do today. Under a Gough Whitlam government in 1975, family violence was defined for the first time under federal legislation, but it would be decades before it entered national dialogue as a social issue needing to be addressed.
"The smallest thing would provoke him, and he’d get violent."
Back then there were no refuges for women nor support services. Victims rarely sought help and when they did from the police, they were not assisted - as was Dr Sham-Ho's own personal experience.
“I actually went to the police first [for help],” she said.
“The police said, ‘[it’s a] domestic squabble, so you go home and talk to your friends and your family. It’s your own problem’.
"They didn’t even take any notice of me, didn’t have any record of it. So I left.”
Dr Sham-Ho had migrated to Australia in 1961 as an 18-year-old to study. A decade later she was the mother of two young girls and was in a relationship with the man who became her abuser - as is the case with the vast proportion of domestic violence. Australian women are most likely to experience violence in their home, at the hands of a male current or ex-partner, according to anti-violence against women advocacy group, Our Watch.
“When he came home, the smallest thing would provoke him, and he’d get violent,” she recalled.
At the time, Dr Sham-Ho was working as a social worker and living in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Her line of work made her acutely aware of the likely consequences her daughters, who were both under the age of ten, faced if she did not escape.
On one particularly violent night, the young mother had sent her daughters out into the street to get help from the neighbours. Other times, she had contacted her friends to step in.
“At that time there was no agency - not [a] government [or] community agency [to] look after this kind of domestic violence… It was an issue that nobody thought was serious,” Dr Sham-Ho said.
After Dr Sham-Ho was able to get herself and her daughters away from her abusive partner, she returned to university to study law, during which time she discovered that domestic violence was a criminal offence in Australia. Her own experience with the police had led her to believe otherwise.
Australian society and authorities minimised and trivialised domestic violence
Australian law enforcement’s lax response to domestic assault was prevalent during the 1970s and 80s, according to a 1994 research paper by law professor Patricia Easteal. The author wrote that police exhibited a “less than enthusiastic policing of domestic violence”, while magistrates and judges did not treat violence against women as a criminal assault.
“Research has shown that, at least until very recently, many service providers brought an overwhelmingly negative or at best ambivalent response to victims of domestic violence,” Ms Easteal wrote.
“A number of studies in the early and mid 1980s indicated …. that police had fairly ambivalent attitudes about domestic violence calls. More recent investigations have not shown any significant shift in beliefs.
“Although the laws may be in place and lip service is paid, a general attitude of minimising or trivialising domestic violence exists that translates into limited legal intervention.”
In 2018 domestic violence continues to be dramatically unreported in Australia, but according to the most recent analysis of homicide statistics collected by Our Watch, one woman on average is murdered a week by her current or former partner.
A 2018 study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that one in 6 Australian women had been victims of physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former partner.
Life after violence
After obtaining her law degree in the mid-1980s, Dr Sham-Ho began working as a solicitor in the Fairfield region where she educated women, particularly those from migrant non-English speaking backgrounds, about their rights and Australian law.
In 1982 she joined the Epping Branch of the Liberal Party where she continued to lobby for law reform around violence against women – advocating for tougher laws for abusers and more community support for victims.
As a member of NSW Legislative Council, which she was elected to 1988, she campaigned for victims of domestic violence to give evidence in court via video link.
Dr Sham-Ho subsequently resigned from the party in 1998 when then-Prime Minister John Howard refused to denounce what was considered to be Pauline Hanson's anti-Asian rhetoric.
Four decades on from Dr Sham-Ho’s own experience of living through and then escaping domestic violence, the police response may have vastly improved, but violence against women and their children is still major health and welfare issue in Australia.
The former MP said the reason she decided now, after more than three decades of being a high-profile public figure in Australian politics, to talk openly for the first time about surviving domestic violence was her need to address an issue that "nobody thinks is serious".
"Go to the police.... the police will direct you... These days they are trained. So trust the police."
“I’m passionate about it because I can feel for the other women [in violent relationships] who are not like me - I am an assertive person, I have education,... I speak out. But many women because of their [cultural] upbringing … they may not come out to get help and talk to people," she told SBS Cantonese.
Unlike in the days when she was experiencing domestic violence, now there is help available for victims and their children.
“Go to the police, the police will direct you. Because these days they are trained. So trust the police, go to the police station if something happens.”
Women's shelters and refuges were also safe places for those fleeing abusive partners, she added: "They won't tell your husband where you are."
Anyone needing support against domestic violence can contact the 1800 RESPECT national helpline on 1800 737 732.
If in immediate danger, call 000 (triple-0).