The 45-year-old Townsville resident has an around-the-clock commitment to helping women who have endured some form of domestic, family, sexual, or lateral violence, and her work ranges from grassroots outreach and government intervention (she recently attended a roundtable at the Office for Women with the Federal Minister for Women, Marise Payne), through to cutting edge science (working with a neuroscience brain specialist).
Her tireless efforts recently saw her become a finalist for Emerging Changemaker of the Year in the 2019 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards, as well as the keynote speaker at a Mining Leadership Summit for AusIMM.
But the problems Bernice is tackling are not minor. Domestic violence and abuse are ongoing issues in Australia, with the ABS reporting one in four women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. Further, 85% of women have been sexually harassed, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
In rural and regional areas, such as Townsville, the issue is especially acute, with statistics showing the highest rate of domestic violence offences is in rural areas.
“The issue in these smaller country towns is that women often feel they don’t have anyone they can reach out to. Whether you’re educated or not, women living in rural, regional and remote areas don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.
A lot of the work Bernice does revolves around giving women in these situations something they’re currently lacking: hope.
“Enduring domestic violence or other forms of abuse is terrifying. People on the outside say, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave him?’, but they don’t understand how scary it is. These women are literally fearing for their lives, and often they think staying is actually the easier option.
“I attend a yarning circle that is on every Friday where women have an opportunity to share their stories and release what they’re going through, and this is an important step in the healing process. Women need to have a safe space where, by relating to other women, this helps build up the courage to be able to face their demons. This is not a quick or easy process, but being able to keep at it and have a safe space where they’re supported enables them to have the strength and courage to be able to move forward and overcome anything,” she said.
Bernice’s empathy and compassion comes from a place of personal experience. She was subjected to domestic and sexual abuse as a young adult, leading her to suffer from severe depression that led to grief depression for much of her adult life. She also witnessed both of her parents falling extremely ill, with her father passing away last year from chronic kidney disease and heart disease.
Seeing her parents succumb to a debilitating illness was a big wakeup call.
“I thought, ‘They’re fighting to live for tomorrow, while I still have all of my kidney functions. I’m still healthy - maybe not mentally at the time - but I am still alive.’ I realised that I could get through what I was experiencing and make my life count for something.”
In addition to the work Bernice is doing at the grassroots, government and scientific levels, she’s also working to make changes within the family unit, which is where people learn their initial sets of values and morals. With her two boys, she sees an opportunity to break the cycle of generational abuse.
“My sons are quickly growing into young men. I have taught them from day one to respect women no matter what, and that reacting with violence is never appropriate. I’m blessed to have an opportunity to mould their belief systems and instil the right values in them, and I’m proud of the men they’re shaping up to become.”
Bernice doesn’t anticipate slowing down any time soon. She’s currently working with a neuroscience brain training specialist to put together a program for young girls and women who have been impacted by domestic or sexual violence.
She’s also been recently appointed to the Townsville Hospital Health Service (THHS) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Advisory Council (ATSICAC) to provide advice and advocacy on matters relating to the provision of quality patient care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consumers, as well as invited to to sit on the medical panel for James Cook University JCU to interview the next cohort of Indigenous medical students and future doctors.
“Being able to understand the mental processes women go through when they’re enduring domestic violence and other forms of abuse is a breakthrough development with a lot of significance. I’m looking forward to helping pioneer this space and see where it can take us. Watch this space!” added Bernice.
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