‘Maid’ is not just made for TV

An opinion piece from our client, Shine

[Trigger warning]

The UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November is raising awareness about the “Shadow Pandemic” that has emerged since the outbreak of COVID-19. Data internationally and at home shows that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, have intensified, with the UN noting “restricted movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity are increasing women’s vulnerability to violence in the home around the world.”

Shine is a national domestic abuse charity in New Zealand which also operates a domestic abuse helpline to help keep people safe from domestic abuse and family violence. Our frontline advocates are seeing this escalation in the seriousness and complexity of the situations of our clients - mostly women with children. Many have experienced lockdown trapped at home with their abuser 24/7 unable to get away from that person or make contact with anyone else.  Partners often control access to money and essential resources like food, nappies and infant formula. The impact of job losses and pressures of home schooling make these situations even worse.

This shows domestic violence is a form of entrapment, where an abuser’s coercive controlling behaviour is only the first layer. Additional layers result from unhelpful and unsafe responses, and by social inequities such as discrimination in the form of, for example, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism - discrimination against people with a disability.

The trending Netflix series “Maid,” based on Stephanie Land’s autobiographical book of the same name, is showing a wide audience the reality of how entrapment caused by coercive control can be layered over by isolation and the social inequity of poverty.

“Maid” illustrates how Land, portrayed by the character Alex, was trapped by her partner’s coercive control. At first, Alex was charmed by her partner Sean, then his controlling behaviour gradually emerged. He didn’t allow Alex to work, took away her car and her phone, controlled her movements, and wore her down psychologically.

Women like Alex often do not identify for a very long time that they are experiencing domestic violence, because there is no physical violence. In another resounding similarity to the cases we see at Shine, Alex began to doubt herself, and her self-esteem slowly ebbed away, making it incredibly hard for her to find the courage and strength to leave Sean.

Even after she left with her young child, she remained trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness, exacerbated by the judgement of people and organisations she turned to for help, based on what they thought they knew about her situation.

At Shine, we see all the time just how precarious life is for single mothers when they are unemployed or in low-wage work after separating from an abusive partner. While many continue to live in extreme danger of being killed or injured by their ex-partner, their ability to provide safety, security and a nurturing environment for their children is severely constrained.

As “Maid” illustrates, women in this situation often face choices where neither outcome will be helpful or safe. At one point Alex says, “I need a job to prove that I need daycare in order to get a job.”

New Zealand’s welfare system frameworks and processes  are just as problematic. A recent Stuff article gave insight into how and why so many women here are trapped in poverty and domestic violence.

Like Alex, many women in New Zealand who separate from an abusive partner are then further abused by a justice system which values financial stability more than safety, because the system all too often ignores the harm caused to children of parents in abusive relationships. In “Maid,” a judge awards custody of Alex’s child to her abusive ex-partner and his mother, because he is perceived by the judge as the more stable parent.

Women who experience domestic violence are often judged harshly if they leave an abusive partner but also if they stay. This judgment strips away their dignity and creates barriers to effective help.

Many viewers will sympathise with Alex’s predicament in “Maid”, without realising there are many stories like hers in New Zealand, and many that are much worse. As a young, white, able-bodied, heterosexual and cis-gendered woman, Alex was better off than many.

Alex eventually secured a creative writing scholarship, housing and day-care, saying “My experience is a very privileged one…Black and brown women, or women of colour, or immigrants, they have a much worse experience than I did.”

If you want to be part of the solution to the shadow pandemic of escalating domestic violence, you need to be prepared to respond in a way that is truly helpful to someone experiencing domestic violence. This means responding with empathy and without judgment, helping to expand that person’s options, while reducing their barriers to freedom and autonomy, and above all, upholding their dignity.

Being prepared requires an understanding of how coercive control and social inequity causes entrapment. So please, take time to learn more today. A good place to start is by reading some of the resources on Shine’s website, including this page about how to help someone you know.  

Together, this year, let’s make the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women the beginning of the end to domestic violence in New Zealand.

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