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Understanding how coercive control can harm First Nations peoples

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What is coercive control?

Coercive control is when someone close to you tries to control or be in charge of the things you do, making you feel scared for your safety and wellbeing. They might do this by hurting you or threatening to hurt you and make you shame in front of family and friends. Coercive control is almost always found in cases of family and domestic violence.

This person trying to control and hurt you can be anyone in your kinship system. It can be aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren or grandparents. It is usually a partner or an ex-partner.

Recognising the signs

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you, or someone close to you, is experiencing coercive control because it can be hard to spot. Here are some examples of what coercive control could look like from a partner, ex-partner, someone close to you or someone living in your home:

  • Trying to control when or if you see family and friends or go to community events.
  • Trying to control where you go and what you can do. They might stop you from leaving by locking you in the house or taking your keys, car, phone, wallet, or ID.
  • Bullying you to take your bank card, spend your money or not let you spend it.
  • Making unreasonable demands of you or your family, often about money (also known as ‘humbugging’).
  • Watching everything you do, including tracking your phone, or going through it without permission.
  • Running you, your family, or your mob down.
  • Getting others in community to gang up on you, fight you, or make you shame.
  • Separating you from culture, community or Country, or questioning your Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander identity.
  • Making you have sex or do sexual things you don’t want to (even if they are your partner or ex-partner).
  • Threatening you, your family or friends, threatening to damage your home, or threatening to report you to the police.

A person can do these things over and over again and the abuse can be physical or non-physical.

People who use coercive control to get what they want can also be good at hiding their behaviour from others, and their abuse can be subtle and targeted. This makes it harder to notice the abuse. Some people might also think the abusive behaviour is a normal part of a relationship, especially if it is ignored, supported or excused by friends and family.

People experiencing coercive control may not realise they are being abused. Or they may be too afraid to seek help from those around them out of fear for their safety or fear of not being believed.

Cindy’s story

Cindy went to school in the city and dreamed of going to university to be a teacher. After graduating from Year 12, she returned home to her community, where she met Michael, an older guy who played local footy with her brother.

Cindy connected with Michael on social media and he gave her lots of attention at first. Over several months, Michael’s mood changed and he started getting jealous of Cindy. He told Cindy to take all her brothers’ friends off her social media accounts, and often posted publicly about his arguments with Cindy, or her family. Cindy felt so shame and angry, she was wild because she didn’t want everyone in her family and community talking about her and knowing her business. But Michael would say he can’t help being jealous because Cindy is so pretty.

Over the next year, Cindy fell pregnant with a baby boy and didn’t go to Uni. Michael told her that now they have a baby, she shouldn’t be thinking of going to university anyway. Michael left his job because his employer didn’t support sorry business several times over the year after losing family. With no money and nowhere to live, Michael moved into Cindy’s family home, where the couple and their new baby shared the house with Cindy’s parents, nan, and brothers.

Family started to help Cindy with money as Michael started to take Cindy’s bank card when her pay day came around, taking off with his friends and leaving her and the baby at home for days with no money for formula or nappies. Cindy wants Michael to leave now, but Michael tells Cindy if she kicks him out, he’ll report her to family services for not looking after the baby, and he’ll get his sister or cousins to hurt Cindy. Cindy doesn’t want to call the police in case they report her to child services, and if they lock Michael up, she’s scared of what he will do when he gets out, or that his family might come after her.

What can I do if this is happening to me?

Everyone has the right to feel safe and no one has to put up with abuse or violence of any kind. If you think you might be experiencing coercive control, contacting a free and confidential support service for advice is a good first step.

What can I do if this is happening to someone I know?

If you’re worried that someone you know might be experiencing coercive control, or something doesn’t seem quite right, you can help by choosing a safe place to have a yarn. It is important that you choose a space away from others, so they feel safe and free to yarn without anyone else listening in.

Tell them you’re worried about them, listen without judgement, and take what they say seriously. Rather than telling them what to do, let them know there are organisations that can help keep them safe. It is important to remember that you cannot force someone to seek help. The best thing you can do is support them and be there when they feel ready to seek help.

In an emergency, call 000.

For support contact:

Chat online
Text 0458 737 732
Australia’s national domestic, family and sexual violence counselling, information and support service. Available 24/7.

13 92 76

Phone service for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities offering mental health support and advice. Available 24/7.

For more information about coercive control and the National Principles to Address Coercive Control in Family and Domestic Violence on the Attorney-General's Department website.