Anger. Anger is what motivated 58-year-old Eugenia Mora to stand up against community leaders and naysayers to break the code of silence about domestic violence in Sydney’s Latin American community.
For 13 years she had suffered at the hands of her abusive ex-husband. Finally free and safe, Eugenia wanted to raise much-needed awareness about the issue among Ecuadorian immigrants. Yet, when she approached senior figures in her community, she was met with deeply entrenched cultural resistance from both men and women.
“When you go to leaders, you believe that they will be able to help you,” Eugenia says. Instead, they told her that domestic violence “is an issue you should be quiet [about], an issue that should not leave your home so keep it down and move on”.
“Who do you tell, ‘This is what is happening to me’ if everyone says that you should be quiet?” Eugenia says. “That you should be looking after your own affairs and housework?”
Yet she knew that many Latin American women were experiencing violence behind closed doors and so, frustrated and determined, Eugenia decided to act.
On International Women’s Day in 2013 she resolved to use her platform as the first female president of the Australian Ecuadorian Cultural Association to bravely share her own story of having endured more than a decade of physical abuse. “It was the only time that I could find to say it loud and clear,” she says. “We didn’t have any funds but we managed to get a hall and everyone was willing to assist.” Eugenia’s goal was to spark a wider conversation about this hidden scourge and to help other women recognise the signs of domestic violence.
However, not everyone was impressed by her courage: she received threatening phone calls along with requests to not go forward with the forum. Uncowed, Eugenia contacted local police and social workers to help her put together an information evening. She wanted the wives, mothers, sisters and friends in the migrant community to be able to recognise the signs of domestic violence and to understand the level of support and practical help that was available to them.
On the day, Eugenia was only expecting a crowd of about 20 people to turn up. Instead, more than 60 women flooded in.
“After they heard from the police, after they heard from social workers, after they heard from leaders from the Australian community talk about signs of domestic violence and where you can go, I’m pretty sure that a lot of the women were able to realise that they were also facing domestic violence,” she says.
Almost immediately, Eugenia felt the positive repercussions of her work. The Monday after the session, a woman approached a local social worker and finally admitted that she was experiencing domestic violence. Just over an hour later, the woman’s husband was at the police station.
Her motivation to challenge the status quo was simple. “I help people because of the things that I have gone through,” she says.
Now, trying to effect change and continuing to advocate for women, “means I’m not just surviving, I’m living. It means that there is a purpose to my existence.”
The power of help has indelibly shaped Eugenia’s experience of this country. When she was finally able to leave her husband, with her two very young daughters and no way to support them, she found an apartment but, after she paid rent, was broke. The Salvation Army stepped in and helped her furnish the property. “What they gave me was more than enough,” Eugenia recalls. “And at Christmas they brought presents for my girls, something that they have never received from my husband’s family. How can you not be grateful to them when they gave you what you needed at the time?”
Six years on from Eugenia’s brave stand on International Women’s Day, the issue of domestic violence is still publicly censored by many in the Latin American community, leaving scores of women to endure their situations in silence. “Hopefully, in the future, the community will see the need to to talk about the problem and to allow men to realise that they need to change. Everything needs to start at home.”
Now, she is working with the next generation of young female leaders. Having finally found her voice, Eugenia has no intention of not speaking up. For the past five years she been closely associated with the Reclaim the Night marches and university women’s groups. “I want to be involved, I want to be part of that change. I want to be part of that message,” she says.