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Domestic Abuse: This Is My Voice

by Mingxian Zhang

Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and the musical therapy support program you run?

A. “My name is Jian Hua; I’m a child, family, & youth support worker with Relationships Australia NSW (RANSW). I’m working with Jacquely Wang, a Master of Creative Music Therapy graduate. We are running a new music therapy support group named “This is my voice” to support Chinese women who are domestic violence survivors. Through the medium of music therapy, we created a platform to support DV survivors on three levels. On a micro level, we hope that group members can be empowered to achieve growth across their social, emotional, physical, and spiritual domains by discovering and reidentifying themselves in a safe environment with respect, support, and acceptance. On a meso level, we hope to see group members influence those with similar experiences through their own transformation and growth, so that more domestic violence survivors are positively supported from the individual to the community. On a macro level, we strive for a society as a whole that says NO to domestic violence and has zero cultural tolerance for the act of domestic violence.”

Q. What inspired you to create this support group?

A. “This idea came from our 10-session Employment Pathways Program for CALD women. During that program, we realised that many woman DV survivors feel disoriented after their traumatic and painful experiences, especially women from Chinese culture, for whom stigma prevents from living a quality life again. Their self-confidence, self-identity, and mental health are all affected. Some single mothers' relationships with their children are also affected by low self-esteem and stress. We understand that traumatic experiences are hard to access verbally, which is why we use music therapy. It is a helpful tool for expressing hidden painful emotions, which may aid with affect verbalisation. In addition, we directly target the group of domestic violence women survivors in the flyer for group recruitment rather than using a more euphemistic group name, as most other support groups do. The point of this change is that we can be very open about and discuss domestic violence as a social issue, empowering women to face and acknowledge their experiences. In other words, it took a lot of courage for participants to sign up for the group, and it kickstarts a positive change. Music therapy as a form of art therapy can help people accept their experience as a milestone, strengthening self-awareness and resilience through various activities that are easy to participate in and practice. People can either tear off the label of domestic violence survivor or choose to live with that label.”

Q. Can you tell me about one unforgettable or significant experience you had running this group?

A. “We were most impressed by a song-writing activity where group members created a list of their favourite songs and changed the lyrics of a song as they wished. One single mother realised that the songs she often played were the ones her children liked, and she had not heard her favourite songs for a long time. This discovery raised her awareness of self-care. Another example is a single mother holding a picture of a wedding in her hand but not sticking it on the paper when creating a paste-up with the theme of "a fresh start". When we asked her what would appear in the blank space if she could put anything she wanted there—she burst into tears and expressed a long-suppressed desire to rebuild intimacy. We found that the group members could take some of the weight off their shoulders after being respected and listened to and would naturally flow with their own emotions and needs. The support and interpersonal strengths were evident from the beginning of the second session. We were pleasantly surprised by the power of this peer support. They strengthened their self-worth and meaning as they help and support others.”

Q. From running the group, what strength of the participants do you see?

A. “We found that each group member has unique strengths. Some are good at expression, some have a master's degree and substantial work ethic, some are artistic, emotional, or skilled at rational observation. Their shared strength is courage, including participating in this group, engaging with, acknowledging, and confronting their experiences, showing vulnerability, and seeking support. Music therapy is powerful and enables participants to feel safe and recognised. It is okay to make mistakes, and in recognising this, participants’ hidden strengths are released to find and defend ‘who I am’ and make their voices heard. For example, one woman blamed herself for being too kind, which she thought led to domestic abuse by her ex-husband, and thus kindness was a weakness. After the group listened to and supported her, she admitted she was a people pleaser. The other group members encouraged her, saying "kindness is your virtue and strength, and perhaps, based on kindness, you need to develop strategies to protect yourself, such as saying NO in interpersonal and communication situations". The woman was greatly inspired and particularly happy.”

Q. How can the participants apply what they've learned from this group to their daily lives?

A. “Many of the activities we designed in the group are positive and empowering, which can be applied to the participants' daily life and interaction with their families. For example, they can always listen to the empowering music we share and create their own song lists. Also, they can go home and write songs with their children, changing the lyrics, starting with the simplest ones, such as "I like ……" One single mother gave feedback that when she was writing a song with her son, she naturally wrote "I like durian", realising that she hadn't eaten durian for years to be mindful of her family's feelings. When her son heard this lyric, he encouraged his mother to go and buy durian so maybe he could try it too. It was a massive surprise for the mum when she realised the importance of expression. Also, one woman was embarrassed to say that she liked the type of "down" music, and we fed back that such music has a companionship and empathy function. She was inspired to consciously find the function of something she doesn't like in her interpersonal interactions, thus developing more positive and trusting communication skills.”

Q. From your experience, what strategies can benefit the survivors?

A. “Participatory design or co-design. Participants were nervous about making mistakes in the first session by not following our instructions. We emphasised at the beginning that we were only building the platform and believed that each person had unique strengths to introduce resources and had an equal opportunity to have a say. Also, they were the group owners and were invited to participate in designing the next lesson and leading the group process. This design breaks down the power imbalance between our facilitator and the participants. By the sixth session of the ten-session group, we have already seen an increase in the initiative of the group members, from passive to active, from seeking answers to supporting their peers, and from self-doubt and self-denial to self-identification. The sense of autonomy that the participants have developed from the group will gradually extend to their lives, which we hope to see.”

Q. How can the community members help address DV issues?

A. “There is much publicity about domestic violence in Australia, but there are still knowledge gaps and misconceptions for some new immigrants, such as only physical abuse is domestic violence. Therefore, the community must raise awareness that it is everyone's responsibility to stand up against domestic violence. It is our responsibility to report it. Only when children are educated in schools, when knowledge is reinforced in all communities in multiple languages, when society takes this social issue seriously, and when a consensus is formed that domestic violence is completely unacceptable will everyone be able to live a quality life.”

In Australia, domestic violence is a significant health and welfare issue affecting all socioeconomic and demographic groups, primarily women and children. Jian and Jacquely work tirelessly to empower women to make their voices heard and support them to find the confidence to live their best life. In the last three months, Jian and Jacquely have facilitated ten group sessions with six domestic violence survivors. Through several non-verbal forms of expression and accessible, easy-to-apply activities that can be carried through into their everyday lives, participants could fully express their previously repressed emotions, identify their strengths, and develop strategies to overcome difficulties in a safe group setting with non-judgemental peer support. They also progressed from victims to survivors and helpers who can openly share their stories with other women who have had similar experiences and actively encourage and support them. Whilst these individual success are vital, meaningful change can only occur when society as a whole is made fully aware of the scope and signs of domestic violence.

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