101 East examines why domestic violence touches so many Australian women and asks what is being done to turn the tide.
She was beaten with electrical cords, had a gun held to her throat and was stabbed in the leg with a knife.
But it was what happened to Sandy Wolfe on a remote property in Western Australia that finally convinced her that she needed to leave the man she once loved or she would lose her life.
Mark Burt, the father of her three children, tied a rope around her neck, attached the rope to his car and started the engine.
“He says, ‘I want to see you run …. Come on dog – see you run’,” says Wolfe.
For all its horror, the type of violence Wolfe has survived is shockingly common in Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
Here, one in four women experiences domestic violence from an intimate partner, half a million children witness it and more than 50 women are killed each year as a result of it.
Rich or poor, city or country, no postcode or social sphere is immune from the menace that is killing women across this country.
“Violence against women is one of the great shames of Australia,” says Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose government has pledged more than $70m to help tackle the crisis. “It is a national disgrace.”
Decade of violence
Wolfe came dangerously close on numerous occasions to being included in the toll of women who have died at the hands of their partners.
A decade of violence came to a terrifying climax when she left her husband following the rope incident.
Having sought sanctuary at a women’s refuge in Albany, on the Western Australian coast, she was driving to pick her daughter up from school when Burt tracked her down, pursued her at high speed and ran her off the road, causing her car to roll over.
She survived and Burt was charged with more than 20 offences – 17 for breaching a restraining order and two for intending to do harm, which each carry a maximum jail sentence of 20 years.
He agreed to a plea bargain, pleading guilty on all counts and was sentenced to five years in prison with parole after three, meaning that he could be free as early as mid-2017.
Wolfe, like many victims, believes the justice system failed her.
“This is a complete joke. This bloke – he tried to kill me,” she told Al Jazeera.
Anne Moore, the chairwoman of the Women’s Council of Domestic and Family Services, says the sentencing did not reflect the severity of Burt’s crimes.
“There was very little insight into the actual depth of the violence that had happened … the extreme terror that woman had felt and experienced over that period of time,” she says.
‘Violated by the system’
Moore gives a grisly account of the injuries inflicted on the women who turn up at the refuge she runs in Albany. She has met women who have been shot with spear guns, hit with baseball bats and stabbed with knives.
“I just am astounded at the extent of the violence that we witness every single day,” she says, adding that this violence often extends to children.
One of Wolfe’s sons, Aiden, also bore the brunt of his father’s rage.
Aiden says his father would beat him with a belt and lock him in the bathroom for hours for biting his fingernails.
No two cases of domestic violence are the same, but like Wolfe, Angela Ivancevic barely survived her husband’s brutality.
A nurse in the New South Wales town of Newcastle, Ivancevic describes how one night she tried to wake her husband after he fell asleep on the floor.
“He just started hitting me and punching me and slapping me and I got away and I got into the cupboard,” she says.
From there she managed to call her mother, who called the police, but that was not the end of it.
“He pulled me back out by my hair and he kept hitting me again and then he stomped on my head …. I knew if I didn’t get out now, I’d never get out. So something in me just made me push him and he went flying over the coffee table and that’s when I got out.”
The abuse continued on the street, with her husband hurling beer bottles at her.
By the time the police arrived, her face was swollen and bruised. Ivancevic was unrecognisable.
Her husband was arrested and a restraining order was issued against him. In April 2013, he was convicted of assault and received a six-month suspended sentence.
Like Wolfe, Ivancevic says she feels “violated” by the system. She expected a jail sentence.
“There was no justice because it just means that anyone can do that and get away with it, especially if it’s your partner,” she says.
While society debates the best way to protect women, Jerry Retford is adamant that the only way to put a stop to domestic violence is by helping perpetrators to change their behaviour.
He speaks from experience.
“The worst point was the realising that I could actually really hurt my wife physically, having a hand around her throat and holding her against the wall and screaming at her … turning around and saying, I should have … stabbed you and really feeling that,” he told Al Jazeera.
“When you feel how frightening that rage is, you never want to go there again. It is the most terrifying, out-of-control place to be.”
After Retford’s marriage ended, he enrolled in a six-month programme for perpetrators, but stayed for two years, confronting the realisation that he alone was responsible for his violence.
He now makes educational films with a strong message that violence is a choice and that men need to take responsibility for their actions.
“It’s really politically unattractive to offer support to people who use violence – abusers – but until that’s done, I don’t think anything’s going to change,” he says.
Wolfe has a message of her own for women who may be suffering in silence.
“It’s such a daunting thing to just walk out the door with nothing, but it can be done and it’s not that you have nothing,” she says. “You walk out with your life and you walk out with an inner strength that you end up finding and a peace, finally.”