Domestic violence victim’s compelling message

Anj Barker with Year 9 High School students Sophie McDonald, Kathleen Thompson, Keira Beaven and Nadeene McFarlane (front).
Anj Barker with Year 9 High School students Sophie McDonald, Kathleen Thompson, Keira Beaven and Nadeene McFarlane (front).

It was a heart-wrenching scene in the Tumut High School hall on Friday when hundreds of students and adults sat in stunned silence listening to one woman’s devastating and life-changing experience with domestic violence.

Anj Barker is a 30-year-old Melbournian that has travelled to numerous schools over the past ten years, delivering her Healthy Relationships presentation to over 29,000 students. She’s an incredible woman with an exceedingly important message to share.

Anj was an active, popular 14-year-old when she began dating a boy four years older than her. Anj’s mother Helen started noticing problems at the three-month mark when Dale verbally abused Anj at her high school. Despite her friends and family insisting he was bad news, Anj stayed with Dale. When it was good, he made her feel happy and loved. When it was bad, he was violent, aggressive and unpredictable.

When Anj decided to finally end the relationship at age 16, Dale flew into a rage, beating her to within an inch of her life. The shocked crowd at Tumut High heard that Anj was beaten around the head and chest, and had her head repeatedly slammed into a metal bench. After she had passed out, Dale stomped on her head with such force it left a shoe imprint.

Anj was left with brain damage, and her suffering has been immense. She was essentially locked into her body for nine months after the attack.

“Initially she couldn’t even blink properly, we had to lubricate her eyes,” explains her father Ian.

“She had her first voluntary movement after nine months, when our niece brought her baby to visit and Anj stroked the baby’s leg with her thumb.”

Anj’s recovery has been long and arduous, and is ongoing still today. Her speech has been severely affected and she is now wheelchair-bound. Her father explains the difficulties around seeing his daughter in enormous amounts of pain throughout her recovery.

“Seeing her screaming out in pain, and not being able to do anything to take the pain away … it was very difficult,” said Mr Barker, through tears.

Anj’s attacker was jailed for seven and a half years, despite the family appealing for a longer sentence. He is now out of jail, in a new relationship and has a baby. He has never shown any remorse for his actions.

Anj now travels between schools with her parents Helen and Ian, doing everything she can to ensure other girls and women are aware of the warning signs and danger of domestic violence.

Her Tumut presentation attracted students from McAuley, Tumut High, and Gundagai High, as well as representatives from Tumut Shire Council, Mission Australia, Family and Community Services, NSW Police, Department of Education, Department of Health, and other organisations. Mission Australia spearheaded the effort to get Anj and her family up for the session, and the schools were all very cooperative.

As part of the plan to educate young people about domestic violence, Anj’s parents came up with the idea of creating a short film entitled, ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’. The 16-minute video features commentary from Anj’s mother, father, brother, friends, neighbours and people first on the scene after the attack. It paints a vivid picture of exactly how violent partners have the ability to isolate their partners and the extreme difficulties in communicating with the victim of an unhealthy and dangerous relationship. The educational video provides authentic, raw and touching commentary and is an extremely effective educational tool, showcasing a number of different perspectives in the fight against relationship violence.

Anj’s presentation, which ran for over two hours, was steeped in emotion and honesty from the very beginning.

Senior Constable Matt Davenport, who is the police liaison officer for schools in the area, highlighted some startling statistics. One in six 15-year-old girls will experience physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their current or ex-partners, and one in four will experience emotional abuse.

“Those numbers are scary,” said Senior Constable Davenport.

“The emergency services are committed to breaking this cycle, and demonstrating to students just what resources are available to help them.”

Tumut Shire Council Mayor Sue Bulger provided a stirring speech highlighting the strength of women, and encouraging students to stand up against disrespect and violence.

“I am the eldest daughter in a family of 11 children, and have grown up in an environment where women need to be strong,” said Clr Bulger.

“Many families experience domestic violence in some form.”

“I have known what it is like to have to run away and sleep under a tree because Grandpa has had too much alcohol and is ready to fight someone,” Clr Bulger candidly shared.

She touched upon the many varied emotions that go along with violent situations.

“Sometimes victims feel shame, and don’t want to talk about it. Many young people may already be in this situation and have not spoken up,” said Clr Bulger.

“But it changes when you talk to someone about it. It’s a big stand for young people to make, but when you stand, others will stand with you.”

Clr Bulger’s take home message was, “You are not alone, others have experienced hardship, and rotten things. When you talk to others, you can begin to break down that isolation.”

Helen Lunn from Mission Australia praised the Barker family for their infinite strength in turning around such a tragic event.

“I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this family and now have some insight into their experience. The way they could turn such a horrific event into a positive for the community is truly inspiring,” said Ms Lunn.

One in six women experience domestic violence in some form over their life, and so far this year 76 women in Australia have been killed as a result of domestic violence.

Ms Lunn explained that domestic violence can take many forms, from intimidation, to physical violence, verbal or sexual assault, and exercising financial control in a relationship.

“We need to start a conversation about what a healthy relationship looks like,” said Ms Lunn.

“We must reverse the statistics, and make sure Anj’s story is never repeated.”

Ms Lunn called on the community to be the change they wish to see by challenging society’s habits.

“We must have the courage to call out behaviours and attitudes in our community. We must change gender stereotypes and challenge dangerous statements like, ‘Women like men to be in control’.”

“Good relationships are always based on respect and equality.”

Ms Lunn finished with the strong statement, “I hope your generation does a better job than mine has.”

The hall was decorated with posters that students from the Mossvale painted to express their feelings towards domestic violence and sexual assault. They were completed on the students’ completion of the ‘Love Bites’ course.

After the enthralling and incredibly thought-provoking ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’ video screened, Anj took to the stage to resounding applause.

Anj delivered a short speech. The effects of her attack are still prevalent, and her words are difficult to understand. Anj also uses a computer-to-voice device called ‘Lightwriter’ to communicate, and transcribed her feelings associated with the attack and its aftermath.

“I am your sister, your best friend, the girl next door, your teacher, and I could even be you.”

Anj describes the educational video as a tool “to help young girls from being as blind as I was”. She urges young women to “listen to friends and family that love and care about you” and said that her ex-boyfriend “isolated her and turned her against her friends and family.”

She explained her ex-boyfriend’s control over her.

“I thought I was in love. He would continuously bring me down and destroy my self-esteem. He would tell me I was lucky to have him.”

Mr Barker added to this by saying, “He was constantly turning Anj against her friends and family by saying, ‘they don’t like me’. Anj was always defensive of him, and eventually shut everyone else out.”

“But he could be charming, he could make you think he was a great guy,” said Mrs Barker.

Anj encourages young girls in this situation to immediately leave and go straight to the police station, “to show him that you’re not stuffing around”.

She wanted the audience to know their strength, and said, “You are Number 1. You don’t have to tolerate someone treating you like this.”

“Love and control are not the same thing.”

“If your boyfriend makes threats, you need to get out. It’s not worth it, regardless of what happiness he brings you on a good day.”

Anj is living proof of the strength of the human spirit. Her ability to turn her current situation into a positive is truly inspirational. And the role her wonderful parents have played should not be overlooked.

Anj now works two half-days a week at NAB and has received numerous accolades for her role in educating young people about healthy relationships. She was named Victorian Young Australian of the Year in 2011, and was listed in the Top 100 Influential People in Australia by Westpac Bank and Fairfax Media. Anj was put forward by the American Embassy as the Australian candidate for the International Women of Courage ceremony held in Washington. She has won a Rotary Award, as well as been named 2012 Inspirational Melbournian. Anj attended the coveted International Women’s Health Coalition in New York in 2007, and has also met the Queen.

“We haven’t nominated her for any of those awards,” said Mrs Barker.

Anj’s presentation certainly struck a chord with the target audience. There were a number of questions from young women in the audience including, “what has been the biggest struggle”, “How long did it take you to accept your new life?” and “Will you ever forgive him?”

To this final question, Anj answers, “No, he doesn’t deserve it. I have this disability for life, and all the crap that goes with it. He should still be in jail. Instead he’s in a relationship and has a baby. It’s crazy.”

To a student’s question of, “Did his parents help with medical bills?” Mrs Barker answers, “No. His mother has always been in denial. She said she didn’t know what was going on in their relationship, although she must have been the only one in town. She used to blame Anj, his mates, and his boss for his behaviour. Now she goes to work and tells everyone all about her beautiful grandson. It’s hard to hear and has really divided the town.”

Mr and Mrs Barker had plenty of advice for the captivated audience members.

“If someone you love is in this situation, keep reinforcing that it needn’t be this way. There are great resources like the ‘Love Hurts’ website. These people destroy the emotional self-esteem and the victim believes they deserve it. Please don’t put up with it. You’re all special individuals and should be treated so,” said Mrs Barker.

“Violence doesn’t solve problems, it causes them. Words go to pushing, then shoving, then a punch. Violence is never the answer, and sometimes all it takes is one punch to change someone’s life forever. You don’t want to be responsible for that,” said Mr Barker.

When the session concluded, several students stayed back to get a chance to talk to Anj. Four Tumut High School students were awe-struck by her presentation, and were honoured to meet her.

“I’ve been wanting to meet Anj for years, I’ve been following her story,” said Year Nine student Keira Beaven.

“It really is a heart-wrenching story.”

“I’m sorry for the pain she went through, no one should ever have to go through that,” added fellow student Kathleen Thompson.

“One of my friends went through a similar situation, and I’m very protective of her.”

Anj’s message is effective in not only educating others to avoid dangerous situations, but also to prove the power of perseverance.

“I do not have wealth or power. I have the knowledge of my own personal experience,” said Anj.

“Life is not always fair but it can take you anywhere if you work hard enough.”