Australia

After several women suicided, this Melbourne community is addressing family violence

Regular activities for South Asian women in the Whittlesea area are now allowing them to connect. Source: SBS News

Almost a year since a cluster of suicides among South Asian women in one area of Melbourne was first reported by SBS News, the community there is pulling together to tackle social isolation.

In 2018 and 2019, seven suspected suicides in Melbourne's City of Whittlesea left local authorities deeply concerned.

The incidents had disturbing similarities and there was evidence some of the women had experienced family violence prior to their deaths.

SBS News was the first to report on the cluster in June 2020 and a subsequent coronial investigation into the deaths of four of the South Asian women urged for more to be done to help vulnerable women in the community.

As SBS prepares to air landmark documentary series See What You Made Me Do this week - which looks at domestic abuse and references the Whittlesea deaths - SBS News revisited the community to see what has changed.

Safe spaces created

Since the suspected suicides, local community groups, particularly frontline domestic violence services providers, say they have been working tirelessly to do all they can to make sure another life is not lost.

They say work at the grassroots level is key to tackling the main concerns facing migrant women in particular. 

Madhuri Maskey runs a series of events and workshops for South Asian women in the Whittlesea area.
Madhuri Maskey runs events and workshops for South Asian women in the Whittlesea area.
Supplied

When it comes to domestic and family violence, social justice organisation the Brotherhood of St Laurence, in partnership with the Oorja Foundation, has been running a safe space that women can drop into each week to speak about their experiences. 

The Oorja Foundation is a not for profit organisation focused on issues affecting the Indian migrant community in Melbourne. One of its key areas is domestic violence. 

The groups say tackling isolation in the community is crucial. 

“What we know is that being isolated plays a big role in intensifying family violence, and we realise this is a key issue, so we are trying to get women to come out of their homes and engage with one another,” said Madhuri Maskey, the coordinator of the organisation's family violence prevention group.

What we know is that being isolated plays a big role in intensifying family violence ... so we are trying to get women to come out of their homes and engage with one another. 

- Madhuri Maskey

They have also organised a series of events such as picnics, education sessions and mindfulness sessions focused on helping South Asian women to understand family violence in the Australian context. They also help the women to learn about their rights in Australia and what services are available to assist them, should they need it. 

The groups also run financial literacy and money management workshops in various languages to raise awareness of financial abuse and enhance the safety and empowerment of South Asian women.

Women encouraged to speak up

The Whittlesea municipality, which includes the suburbs of Epping and Mill Park, had the second-highest reported number of family violence incidents in Melbourne in 2018 behind only Hume, with more than 3,100 reports, according to Victoria Police data.

It is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Victoria with almost half of all local residents speaking a language other than English at home.

Baljinder is one of the women taking part in the events in the community. She said they have helped her connect with other women in similar circumstances to her, as well as allow her to learn about the basics of Australian law. 

“With this group, I learned how important it is to talk, even just to talk makes a difference."

“A lot of the families came here from overseas. Over there, violence happens only when someone hits you, here the organisers try to make us aware that fear or control are also all part of it as well."

A working group spearheaded by the Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network, which involves groups such as the local police, council and community legal service, has also been meeting regularly to find ways to tackle the issue.

“We've been working closely with women in those South Asian groups, particularly the family violence women's groups, doing suicide prevention training,” said Rachel Hughes, the senior program officer for suicide prevention at the network.

“But on the ground, we are working with the women’s groups to look at ways to reduce social isolation so women have the power of knowing each other to help those solutions to carry forward into the future.

More work to be done

But Chris Howse from the Whittlesea Community Connections Community Legal Service, who first brought the apparent suicide cases to the attention of the Coroners Court of Victoria, says more needs to be done. 

He is urging Victoria Police to apply the coroner’s recommendations handed down seven months ago.

In Coroner Audrey Jamieson’s judgment, she recommended Victoria Police allocates family violence investigation units to investigate suspected intentional deaths of women in the local government area who are from culturally and linguistically diverse communities in circumstances where there is an indication that prior family violence or social isolation may be contributing factors.

In all four cases, Ms Jamieson ruled the evidence did not provide "a comfortable level of satisfaction to find that family violence was a precipitating factor" in the deaths. She did though acknowledge in two of the cases the serious allegations in the coronial brief but said in one case the allegations could not be reconciled with the statements of the deceased's husband and his relatives and that there had not been any formal corroborating evidence presented by Victoria Police.

In another case, Ms Jamieson said the allegation of family violence could not be reconciled with statements from the deceased's husband, son, niece and other family members and that there had not been any formal corroborating evidence presented by Victoria Police.

“It simply isn't good enough,” Mr Howse said. “There is just too much at stake." 

“One of the reasons the coroner recommended Victoria Police use the family violence investigation units in these circumstances is to rule out possible murder. If they do rule it out, it’s critical for the unit to at least be aware family violence is associated with that death.”

In a statement, a spokesperson from Victoria Police said it “welcomes any opportunity to improve the police response to family violence” and is "reviewing the coroner’s recommendation to assess the practicality of varying the existing current model for investigating intentional deaths, including suicides”. 

They did not provide any reasons for why the recommended change is yet to be made. 

Ms Jamieson also recommended Victoria's Department of Health reviews current support services for the health and wellbeing of South Asian women in the City of Whittlesea, including engaging with "service providers and other stakeholders, to identify opportunities to improve South Asian women's access to and engagement with such services" which has been agreed by the department.

See What You Made Me Do premieres at 8:30pm on Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. Find out more at sbs.com.au/see

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. 

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at BeyondBlue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.

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