Five Questions for Catherine Smith

In 2011 Catherine Smith, an Australian mother of six, saw her former husband jailed on 17 charges, among them: attempted murder, assault, sex without consent, and detaining with intent to obtain advantage.

It had taken her 30 years of  appeals and petitions to the authorities, during which she and her family suffered repeated brutality. Smith was herself tried during this time (and acquitted) for attempted murder. Her case highlights the barriers that women in Australia face, particularly those living in rural areas, when seeking protection and redress for violence within the family.

Smith and her daughter Vickie spoke at the United Nations in March at the  56th Session of the Commission on Status of Women in New York, where their story resonated with many women from rural areas across the world.

Say NO- UNiTE spoke to Smith about her experiences, her advocacy, and the advice that she gives other survivors. Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission, also gave Say NO- UNiTE her insights on the legal significance of the case, and her recommendations for laws and policies to address gender-based violence in rural contexts.

1) You suffered extensive abuse at the hands of your husband. Did you feel that you had many options to respond, or avenues through which to seek help?

The first avenue for help with domestic violence is through the local police. In my case I was let down badly. Police here have a dismissive culture to women who report domestic violence. I reported serious abuse to police on 18 separate occasions between 1977 and 2005 with absolutely no charges being brought against Kevin Smith, my former husband.

I had meetings with both police and legal representatives at the department of public prosecutions on many occasions; we also wrote many letters of complaint to police ministers the Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions , police commissioner and the NSW ombudsman, with absolutely no response. We took out a private prosecution, for which the court issued 29 arrest warrants for the arrest of Kevin Smith. The police never acted on the warrants.

2) The arrest finally took place after a parliamentarian lobbied State Parliament in your support. What was the most difficult aspect of the court case for you?

There were many instances throughout the trial that were very difficult to endure, considering that I was kept under threat and control for years. He seemed to have so much control, it often felt like I was back there being mentally abused by him over again. He refused to be legally represented, and kept me on the witness stand under cross examination for as long as possible. I was cross examined for 15 days. At least three times he didn’t even turn up to court; the jury and everyone would be sent home with the hope he would show the next time. There were never any consequences for him. He was allowed to directly cross examine his own children, even though they were also his victims.

3) What do you think women experiencing similar situations need most?

Protection from police at the very first report. The community have a responsibility to help their neighbours and report domestic violence when they hear it, instead of hiding behind their curtains and closing their doors. The community needs to get over the attitude of not getting involved. Domestic violence is not a private issue; it is a crime worse than the assault of a stranger. Women and children should feel safe in their own homes.

4) Having emerged as a survivor, what would you say to other women facing similar situations?

The most important thing is to put a stop to abuse in the first instance. Leave him the first time he hits you. Don’t think he won’t do it again; it gets easier for them each time it happens.

Report any physical abuse to police the first time it happens. Thankfully there are a few good police officers these days. There is no excuse for abuse either physical or emotional in an intimate relationship. If the authorities refuse to intervene to protect you or your children, challenge them, take your complaint to a higher authority immediately. Report the inaction in writing and keep a copy in a safe place. Gather your evidence. Have your doctor keep a detailed record and be sure to photograph any injuries.

5) Although you won your case there is still much work to be done on this issue, in Australia and beyond. How are you taking this forward?

My intention is to expose the authorities’ failures. I have intentionally allowed the media to publish some of the very graphic details of the abuse, and exposed the negligence of the authorities, in an effort to bring about change. We have been the subject of television shows. In 2008 one Australian television show covered my story to coincide with White Ribbon Day. It included the story of another woman, Jennifer Brodhurst. Our stories were similar except Jennifer was murdered by her husband.

My daughter Vickie and I spoke at the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women this year, and I spoke at a refuge workers conference in Katoomba, New South Wales. Vickie and I have accepted an invitation to speak at 2012 Sustaining Women in Business Conference, in October.

To learn more about the story of Catherine Smith,  watch a documentary on her, The Courage of Her Convictions, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Elizabeth Broderick is the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission. Here she speaks on the legal significance of the Smith case, and her recommendations for laws and policies to combat violence against women in rural contexts.

“Catherine’s case highlighted the many barriers to seeking redress that Catherine faced as a woman living in rural areas of Australia: a lack of law enforcement in rural areas, and limited access to legal services and communication infrastructure and transport.

The case has been important in highlighting the importance of States fulfilling their due diligence obligations to prevent, investigate and punish acts of domestic violence. If the State had acted more expeditiously when the violence first began, 30 years of violence could have been avoided for this family.

Some of the recommendations I made at CSW for addressing violence against women in rural contexts included:

  • That national governments work closely with rural women to ensure that the necessary structures are put in place to enable their empowerment.
  • For a suitable independent statutory office to monitor and evaluate the implementation of Australia’s National Plan to be identified and adequately funded. It should contribute to the development of a national research and education agenda and promote best practices.
  • That national governments ensure that there are sufficient services responding to the needs of women and girls who are or have experienced violence regardless of their urban or rural location, including prevention programmes delivered in rural areas;  accessible and appropriate counselling services, shelters, refuges, accommodation, health care, legal services and other support services; additional services and support provided in post-disaster situations; and specific services and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically-diverse women and women with disabilities.
  • Finally there should be universal access to critical services for women, including in rural areas – at a minimum this includes meeting women’s and girls’ emergency and immediate needs through free 24-hour hotlines, prompt intervention for their safety and protection, safe housing and shelter for them and their children, counselling and psycho-social support, post-rape care, and free legal aid to understand their rights and options.”