[Trigger warning] The trending Netflix series “Maid,” based on Stephanie Land’s autobiographical book of the same name, is showing a wide audience the reality of how entrapment caused by coercive control can be layered over by isolation and the social inequity of poverty. The series gives insight into how women become and remain entrapped by abusive partners and the people and systems around them, and helps people to understand how restrictive and oppressive this experience can be, even without the additional restrictions caused by the COVID pandemic.
Christmas is a time for peace and joy for many, but for those of us experiencing family violence, it can be a particularly difficult time. This year is likely to be even worse for people in this situation, as Shine’s frontline advocates have seen an escalation in the seriousness and complexity of the situations of our clients – mostly women with children – ever since the first COVID pandemic lockdown back in 2020.
This trend is happening worldwide, with the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November) focused this year on raising awareness about the ‘Shadow Pandemic,’ and the website noting “Restricted movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity are increasing women’s vulnerability to violence in the home around the world.”
Many have experienced lockdown trapped at home with their abuser 24/7 with no ability to get away from that person or make contact with anyone else. Partners often control access to money and essential resources like food, nappies and infant formula. The impact on job losses and pressures of home schooling make these situations even worse.
This highlights domestic violence as a form of entrapment, where an abuser’s coercive controlling behaviour is only the first layer. Additional layers result from unhelpful and unsafe responses, and by social inequities.
“Maid” illustrates how Land, portrayed by the character “Alex”, was trapped by her partner’s coercive control. At first, Alex was charmed by her partner Sean, then his controlling behaviour gradually emerged. He didn’t allow Alex to work, took away her car and her phone, controlled her movements, and wore her down psychologically.
Women like Alex often do not identify for a very long time that they are experiencing domestic violence, because there is no physical violence. In another resounding similarity to the cases we see at Shine, Alex began to doubt herself, and her self-esteem slowly ebbed away, making it incredibly hard for her to find the courage and strength to leave Sean.
Even after she left with her young child, she remained trapped in a cycle of poverty and homelessness, exacerbated by the judgement of people and organisations she turned to for help, based on what they thought they knew about her situation.
At Shine, we see all the time just how precarious life is for single mothers when they are unemployed or in low wage work after separating from an abusive partner. While many continue to live in extreme danger of being killed or injured by their ex-partner, their ability to provide safety, security and a nurturing environment for their children is severely constrained.
As “Maid” illustrates, women in this situation often face choices where neither outcome will be helpful or safe. At one point Alex says, “I need a job to prove that I need day care in order to get a job.”
New Zealand’s welfare system systems are just as problematic. A recent Stuff article gave insight into how and why so many women here are trapped in poverty and domestic violence.
Like Alex, many women in NZ who separate from an abusive partner are then further abused by a justice system which values financial stability more than safety, because the system all too often ignores the harm caused to children of parents in abusive relationships. In “Maid,” a judge awards custody of Alex’s child to her abusive ex-partner and his mother, because he is perceived by the judge as the more ‘stable’ parent.
Women who experience domestic violence are often judged harshly if they leave an abusive partner but also judged harshly if they stay. This judgment strips away their dignity and creates barriers to effective help.
any viewers will sympathise with Alex’s predicament in “Maid”, without realising there are many stories like hers in New Zealand, and many that are much worse. As a young, white, able-bodied, heterosexual and cis-gendered woman, Alex was better off than many.
Alex eventually secured a creative writing scholarship, housing and day-care, saying “My experience is a very privileged one…Black and brown women, or women of colour, or immigrants, they have a much worse experience than I did.”
If you want to be part of the solution to the shadow pandemic of escalating domestic violence, you need to be prepared to respond in a way that is truly helpful to someone experiencing domestic violence. This means responding with empathy and without judgment, help to expand that person’s options, while reducing their barriers to freedom and autonomy, and above all, upholding their dignity.
Being prepared requires an understanding of how coercive control and social inequity causes entrapment. So please, take time to learn more today. A good place to start is by reading some of the resources on Shine’s website, including this page about how to help someone you know.
As we head into a new year, let’s make 2022 the beginning of the end to domestic violence in New Zealand.
By Holly Carrington & Mira Taitz