‘Hush up is still the biggest hurdle in battle against DV’

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Despite harnessing volunteer-driven efforts, police help and government-run crisis centres, award-winning Domestic Violence campaigner Nalika Padmasena says ‘taboo’ is the reason she sometimes feels like she is fighting a losing battle

After decades helping South Asian origin communities tackle domestic violence, Nalika Padmasena has learned a lot – how to get wary community leaders onside, how to set up crisis centres, how to train volunteers, doctors and even police.

She’s finally gaining recognition for her efforts, receiving the prestigious Stepan Kerkyasharian AO Harmony Award from NSW Premier Mike Bairdin March. But accolades are bittersweet when, as Padmesena sees it, one of the biggest hurdles allowing family violence to retain its death grip on ethnic communities hasn’t been knocked down: the taboo.

“If something happens within your four walls then it has to stay within your four walls, that’s the concept,” Padmasena told the Indian Sun. “Nobody can talk about it and if somebody talks about it then that person is ostracised by the community… that happens to me you know, because I’m talking about domestic violence.”

And so Padmasena’s battle to get people talking openly about domestic violence continues.

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With one woman dying every week from family violence in Australia last year, the pressure is on for federal, state and local leaders to find solutions fast. Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, which began its work in February, is expected to shed light on how programs and services can be improved.

But when searching for solutions to an age-old problem, the greatest insights and inspiration sometimes comes from looking back on the good work that’s already been done. Which is why the Indian Sun spoke to Padmasena about her efforts over the years.

Padmasena started working in migrant and women’s services soon after moving to Australia from Sri Lanka with her husband in the early 1990s.

Although she had been partner in a law practice belonging to then leader and founder of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Party, Alhaj Mohamed Hussein Mohamed Ashraff, working on human rights cases, in Australia her qualifications weren’t recognised.

Facing years of study before she could practice law, Padmasena worked part-time in a migrant resource centre before shifting to a women’s health centre near her home in Parramatta. Working initially in administration, she found herself fielding many enquiries about family violence, particularly from Sri Lankan and South Asian women.

She realised newly arrived Sri Lankan women needed help accessing information and services. But when she started approaching local communities to find out what was needed, it became clear it wouldn’t be that easy. “When we talked about domestic violence they didn’t want to even talk to us,” said Padmasena.

“All the Sri Lankan community organisations got together and had a meeting, and when me and the worker from the other organisation [who was helping with the community consultations] went to this meeting, they asked us to leave,” she said. “It was difficult.”

Eventually it was decided that a Singhalese language telephone information service would be beneficial. The call centre was launched in 2000 with then immigration minister Philip Ruddock cutting the ribbon, and some 15 volunteers trained and ready to man the phones.

As this project was being set up, Padmasena noticed that there were certain people women approached when they had problems at home: “Their doctors, or either their community leaders – someone elderly in their community, so that includes religious leaders.”

With their privileged position as confidantes and mediators in family matters, these community figures had potential to be indispensible foot soldiers in the fight against family violence. This realisation led to Padmasena’s next project on ‘Religion and Family Harmony’.

As soon as she started approaching religious, ethnic and other community leaders for the Harmony project, Padmasena found she was facing the same tiring hurdles. “Again we were rejected, they didn’t want to talk to us,” she said.

But Padmasena refused to be put off. Recognising there was misapprehension about domestic violence advocates “separating families”, she came up with a different approach. “We said, ‘No this is not about domestic violence, we want to talk about like how you keep the family harmony, and how you can support both parties if someone brings up violence issues,” she told the Indian Sun. “Instead of separating families, we are talking about keeping the family together, but it is in a healthy manner.”

“Slowly they started talking to us,” she said.

The hard work paid off in 2005 when all the religious and community leaders came together for a domestic violence training program. “That was a big achievement,” Padmasena noted. It led to significant federal government funding, for which then Prime Minister, “John Howard came to western Sydney to give us the certificate of grant.”

Nowadays, Padmasena still works on family violence through her role as chairperson of Boronia Multicultural Services, in Toongabbie. Having gained her Australian law qualifications, she works full time as a solicitor for The Aged-care Rights Service.

But taking stock of her achievements and how far the battle against family violence has come, Padmasena knows better than any, how many of today’s challenges remain stubbornly the same.

It doesn’t matter that the South Asian Diaspora has changed dramatically – from women often being dependent on their husbands with little education, to boasting impressive qualifications and high-flying jobs. “Whether the person is with education or without education, or with enough means or not, and where they live [doesn’t make a difference], the domestic violence is an issue,” she said.

“Lots of programs and education has happened with various community groups and religious leaders,” Padmasena said. But the problem remains how they respond, “still it is a taboo issue”. And still people get marginalised if they speak out.

This is why – aside from ensuring services are in place and workers sensitive about the cultural side of family violence – Padmasena believes getting people to talk about it in the first place is still one of the most critical factors.

When we talk about taboo, Padmasena said we have to talk about the impact that it has on families and communities – locking these matters behind the four walls of a family home can be fatal. That’s why, “that dialogue needs to happen all the time”.

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