Comment

Women's stories and faces are missing from Canberra's domestic violence discussion

We didn't know Tara Costigan a month ago.

Now she is a household name in Canberra. Her terrible, senseless death renewed concern about the abuse and violence happening in our suburbs every day.

Mother of three Tara Costigan, 28, was killed in February.
Mother of three Tara Costigan, 28, was killed in February. Photo: Supplied

She was not merely another statistic, even as she is recorded among the dreadfully large number of Australian women allegedly killed by a partner or ex-partner. She was a face, and she had a story of family and love. She was a person we felt we could know. And that had a great deal of power, bringing not just new attention to an old problem, but drawing out thousands of Canberrans to walk in her name.

The reality though is that Tara Costigan is an exception. Missing from what's often called the "silent epidemic" of domestic violence is usually the face and the voice of its victims.

A fundraising walk at Lake Burley Griffin was held in honour of Tara Costigan. The walk also represented more than just ...
A fundraising walk at Lake Burley Griffin was held in honour of Tara Costigan. The walk also represented more than just her tragic death, but many others. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Three times in the past fortnight, as we have reported on Canberra's domestic violence issues in a series Behind Closed Doors, we have tried but been unable to bring other women's stories and faces forward into the discussion.

The first instance was the shocking murder of Sabah Al-Mdwali, who just like Tara Costigan was a 28-year-old mother of three.  Her husband is set to face trial over her stabbing murder at their home in Gordon. Unfortunately, that's about all we know about her.   

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Her family has chosen to keep her story, and her image, to themselves. This is entirely their right. Who could imagine what they're going through? Who could know what any of us would do in their place? But it means she remains virtually anonymous beyond her close circle.

This has troubled some Canberrans. Indeed, there's been criticism from some who've assumed her story has been deliberately minimised in the media because of her nationality (she is presumed to be from Yemen). You can see how some have reached this conclusion given the attention paid to Tara Costigan. The difference is in Ms Costigan's case, her family elected very quickly to tell her story, at first to eulogise and then to empower her name in forming the Tara Costigan Foundation.

Jewles Woodhouse of Toora Women's House attending a fundraising walk at Lake Burley Griffin in honour of Tara Costigan.
Jewles Woodhouse of Toora Women's House attending a fundraising walk at Lake Burley Griffin in honour of Tara Costigan.  Photo: Jamila Toderas

A second instance of us being unable to tell a victim's full story related to a woman who volunteered as a Behind Closed Doors case study. Like Ms Al-Mdwali and Ms Costigan, she is a 28-year-old mother of three.  Her own mother had called her in a panic when each of those alleged murders had been reported, fearing she was that woman. 

It is her former partner's violence that looms over her. She fears he could kill her, and much as she wants to stand strong and speak out against domestic violence, we couldn't publish her real name or even a disguised photo for her safety's sake. We've had to change details of her story to further protect her. It was a powerful story but there is always a certain abstraction to a personal story when identity has to be so carefully masked.

A photo from outside the scene of the death of Sabah Al-Mdwali.
A photo from outside the scene of the death of Sabah Al-Mdwali. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

The final situation of us being unable to give full voice and identity to a domestic violence victim has been the most frustrating. And the reason might come as as surprise. In the past two weeks - and on a number of other occasions in recent years - we've been in contact with strong women wanting the opportunity to speak out about their experiences in abusive situations and their troubles seeking protection via the courts.

Unfortunately, and usually against their wishes, we've had to withhold their identities and other details because of the risk of defaming their former partner. Think about that for a second. We've had to say to a woman who has suffered years of violence that we can't let her tell her story because it might damage the reputation of her abuser.

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Of course defamation laws exist for good reasons, and not every claim or case is what it seems. It isn't the media's role to sort out claim and counterclaim, it is the role of policing and court processes, as imperfect as they may be. This can be frustrating but it's a reality, especially in the great number of cases where a partner has not been convicted.

"What if you just don't name him?," some of these women have asked reporters. That's even worse, the lawyers say. It could mean that any of her former partners could be presumed to be the abuser. Rather than lessening the defamation risk, it could greatly increase it.

Families and friends attending the funeral for Tara Costigan on March 11.
Families and friends attending the funeral for Tara Costigan on March 11. Photo: Melissa Adams

But explaining this to a woman who has bravely decided to speak up, and assuring her that we don't doubt her story, is deeply frustrating and feels like failure.

Worst of all, it means another woman who could become an advocate rather than an anonymous victim is left in the shadows.

Tara Costigan died tragically earlier this year.
Tara Costigan died tragically earlier this year. 

John-Paul Moloney is acting news director at The Canberra Times.

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