Young Melbourne mother’s death a grim reminder of abuse

By Indira Laisram
Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

On 14 January, Victoria woke up to the shocking and sad news of dental nurse Poonam Sharma, 39, and her six-year-old daughter Vanessa allegedly stabbed by 40-year-old Prabhal Sharma, her husband and father to the six-year-old in her Mill Park home in Melbourne the day before. Ironically, it was also the day when the federal government announced a new draft plan to end, instead of just reducing,—domestic violence.

While the deaths have caused shock and outrage among the community, domestic violence is something that many community members talk about in hushed tones. While many homes may display the socially assumed family qualities of love and bonding, women are unequivocally the primary victims of family violence, but a fact that is hidden from scrutiny.

Says Sarita (who wants to withhold her surname), “Indian women come to Australia expecting a safe environment, but they end up facing a lot of abuse as they don’t have financial independence in the first place or knowledge about the rules of the country.”

Anecdotal observations also point to women who come to the country and restricted from learning English or meeting other people and even threatened to be deported if they do not obey the rules set for them.

It is hard to gather data alone of Indian or migrant women suffering domestic violence but there is a surge in domestic violence cases in Australia and particularly during the pandemic, says Elvis Martin, Expert Advisory Panel Member of Safe and Equal, the peak body for specialist family violence services that provide support to victim survivors in Victoria.

Poonam Sharma // Source: Facebook

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey 2016, an estimated 1 in 6 (17%, or 1.6 million) women and 1 in 16 (6.1%, or 0.5 million) men had experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous cohabiting partner since the age of 15 (ABS 2017).

Women were more likely to experience violence from a known person and in their home, while men were more likely to experience violence from a stranger and in a public place (ABS 2017).

In a major survey in 2020 of approximately 1,400 migrant and refugee women across Australia, supposed to be the most comprehensive of its kind nationwide, conducted by Harmony Alliance, a migrant and refugee women advocacy organisation, it was found that  one third women have experienced some form of domestic and/or family violence.

The International Centre for Women for Research on Women states that women in India are unequivocally the primary victims of family violence, although in the last few decades, gradual improvements in women’s status due to women’s activism in various parts of the world has helped slowly to increase the visibility of domestic violence as a social problem. Despite this, violence against women within the family home, until very recently, has received little attention as either a social or a public health issue.

Like others, Sarita is of the opinion that patriarchal values and beliefs and the sense of ownership over wives prevalent in Indian society persist among families of many newly arrived Indian women in Australia. Yet minimal research has been undertaken on the broad issues faced by Indian women who experience domestic and family violence in Australia, according to Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited, an independent, not-for-profit research organisation established to produce evidence to support the reduction of violence against women and their children.

Elvis Martin, Expert Advisory Panel Member of Safe and Equal

Martin says that Victoria has a strong law and intervention programs but adds, “The Poonam Sharma case is really frightening. It shook me from the core knowing that police attended her house hours before her murder but still failed to save her. It doesn’t matter how good of a law we create around domestic violence if we don’t create awareness of violence against women and empower them to speak up.”

The question of whether a violent man can ever really change is always a doubtful one, so what can women who are trapped in their homes and living horrific lives with their abusive husbands do? How can they escape or find support? Martin says, “At the end of the day, women have to make a call. They must reach out to reliable community members and to organisations such as Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre and InTouch.”

He further adds, “Whether you are a permanent resident or nor, under the law everyone is protected, it is important they reach out for support and access services.”

The sensitivities and stigma associated with domestic violence, the perception that it is primarily a judicial and legal issue, and the lack of data on the dimensions of abuse, have hampered understanding, according to experts.

The phenomenon of violence against women is complex. The fact remains, the death of Poonam Sharma and her young daughter Vanessa is a grim reminder of the tragic times we live in embedded within a pandemic. Hopefully justice will prevail soon.

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