Locked in a prison

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2021, Rachel Neary encourages us to consider the women often forgotten or dismissed in their experience of family and domestic violence.

Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, I want you to consider a cohort of women who experience some of the highest rates of domestic violence, close to 90 % in some cases, but who are often forgotten, or their experiences of family or intimate partner violence dismissed, minimised or ignored.

This group of women are women in prisons and women caught up with the criminal justice system. According to statistics collated in an article by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson from 2019 “Why are our Prisons Full of Domestic Violence Victims?

"An overwhelming majority of women in prison are victims of domestic violence, with evidence suggesting between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of incarcerated women have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused as children or adults — an experience experts say frequently leads to their offending and criminalisation. And once in the system, they are likely to return"

I have been working as a specialist in the specific area of domestic, family and sexual violence for over 10 years but recently I have moved to working with incarcerated women. I currently coordinate a program that supports women both in prison and post-release. My time in this area and the stories of women that I have heard tell me that the figures are closer to well over 90%, in terms of women who have had both recent and historical experiences of domestic abuse perpetrated by their partner. Just yesterday during a group discussion on domestic abuse as part of a course on trauma, one of the female participants spoke up and said, “Some partners can make you feel like you are living in a prison” this comment coming from a woman who is currently in prison.

Women who have grown up with violence or who have experienced domestic and family violence for an extended period often reach a point where their resistance to the violence they are experiencing takes the form of fighting back. These women are more at risk of further control or violence being used against them by their partner but also there is another risk many of these women face, being misidentified as the aggressor when in fact they are often the person most in need of protection.

A recent report found that women—especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women—are being misidentified as perpetrators on protection orders and the effects of this are far-reaching. This report also states that:

Current evidence suggests that women are more likely than men to use violence in self-defence or resistance, or in response to current or past trauma (Boxall, Dowling, & Morgan, 2020). Women’s use of violence can be helpfully understood through a lens of coercive control. A victim/survivor experiences tactics of DFV cumulatively: women’s use of violence, if not seen as a response to ongoing coercive control, can appear as an “overreaction”, or the woman herself can appear as—or can be made out to be—an instigator of violence.

I have come across many women in my work both inside and outside the prison whose story closely resembles this research. Women who have reached the end of their capacity to be a ‘good passive victim’. Women who have experienced their partner be controlling and violent for many many years, and then in one moment, with no pre-meditation, they have fought back and committed a crime they deeply regret and face many years in prison in an environment not generally conducive for addressing criminogenic behaviours, nor heal from trauma(s).

Some women though are not incarcerated due to being violent towards their partner but still regardless have the issue of a violent partner to contend with on their release and feel that their safety is jeopardised due to their legally compromised status. “Why would I call police if he gets violent?” they often ask, “They won’t believe me, I’ve been to prison.” And perhaps by talking about this issue, we come full circle. Because this day, the 25th of November, was originally commemorated about the Miribel sisters from the Dominican Republic, who were killed in a state sanctioned murder, for resisting violence and fighting back.

This Christmas you may want to consider donating to your local prison ministry or getting involved. You may wish to donate items to agencies supporting women and their children post-release. And you may like to pray, for justice, for healing, for Grace, for safety, for women that Jesus has not forgot, women for whom many know His sweet grace and mercy more than we ever could dream to.



God of justice, love and mercy,
We bring before you our sisters in prisons across this nation.

We bring before you their pain, their trauma, their hurts, their remorse, and we pray for healing and ongoing safety.

And we thank you, that you do not forget them, you know their pain.

We pray for justice and we pray for the dismantling of systems that persecute the persecuted, for systems to be reformed and overhauled that misidentify those who are experiencing violence, as primary aggressors.

We pray for paths to healing in our hearts, minds and bodies where there might be racism, prejudice, blind spots and bias.

We pray that we can be a healing community that resists violence in all forms both
interpersonal and state sanctioned. 



Do you need support? The following Domestic and Family Violence support services are available:

1800 RESPECT National Helpline: 1800 737 732

Women’s Crisis Line: 1800 811 811

Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491

Lifeline 24 hour crisis line: 131 114

Rachel Neary is a domestic, family and sexual violence specialist living in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) as an uninvited visitor on Arrernte land. Rachel currently works for an Aboriginal justice agency, coordinating a program for incarcerated women supporting them both inside and outside the prison.

Domestic & Family Violence