Nithya Reddy can still hear her father's gut-wrenching wail. She was sitting with her parents in their lounge room when the police knocked on their front door and told them the search for Nithya's missing sister, Preethi, was over. They had found the 32-year-old dentist's body in a suitcase in the boot of her own car. She had been stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in a "homicidal and heinous act" more than a year after they ended their relationship which was marred by a long history of coercive control.
"The worst moment of my life was when we found out my sister had been killed. I remember my dad's cry, his deep yelp, him clutching at his heart repeatedly saying my sister's name – Preethi, Preethi – knowing that he would never see his baby girl alive," says Nithya, reflecting on that dark day in March 2019. "I want to prevent what has happened to me and my family. I've had to see my mother go through the worst thing that a mother can go through: having to bury a child."
Speaking at the launch of Are Media's Criminalise Coercive Control Campaign, Nithya says change has to happen and it has to happen now: "Since my sister's death, the only thing that's given me purpose and meaning is to try and stop this happening to other families, to try and stop other women and children being horrifically, tragically, killed because there's no coming back from that. There's a finality that leaves a deep, deep, deep wound that can never be repaired in this life."
"It has to stop. We have to speak up. We have to take action. We have to value the lives of our women and children enough to bring justice [and] to make lasting changes. So I stand here, bearing my heart, telling my story because I really believe we're at the crux of this real change happening. We can't stop pushing until it happens, because next week another woman is going to be killed, and the week after, and the week after," implores Nithya, who worked with NSW MP Anna Watson on a proposed coercive control bill named in Preethi's honour.
Are Media's Criminalise Coercive Control Campaign is a passionate rally cry to State and Territory governments to change legislation to include coercive control, which is defined as a sustained pattern of manipulative behaviour which can include emotional abuse, isolation, sexual coercion, financial abuse and cyber stalking. Coercive control is a strong precursor to physical assault and associated with 99 per cent of cases where a woman is killed by her current or former partner.
Launched with Women's Safety NSW, White Ribbon Australia, Small Steps 4 Hannah, Queensland Women's Legal Service, Women's Community Shelters and Doctor's Against Violence Towards Women, and supported by Are Media brands marie claire, The Australian Women's Weekly and Better Homes & Gardens, the campaign is calling for coercive control to be criminalised by July 2021.
In addition to legislation, the coalition is also campaigning for a consultation period with frontline domestic violence workers and survivors to help shape the new law and the guarantee of necessary resources and reform framework to ensure the judiciary and police are equipped and trained to effectively enforce the law as intended.
The CEO of Women's Safety NSW, Hayley Foster says there needs to be a focus on evidence-to-action, "It's time the law recognised the most dangerous and damaging aspect of domestic and family violence. Criminalising coercive control, with support for police and courts to effect the new laws, will be a pivotal step in our nation's effort to reduce violence against women and prevent domestic violence homicide."
A new national poll commissioned by White Ribbon Australia shows that 70 per cent of respondents support the idea of criminalising coercive control, following the lead of countries including Scotland, the UK, Ireland and Wales, who have all made the behaviour illegal. Executive Director of White Ribbon Australia, Brad Chilcott says, "Criminalising coercive control would not only help hold perpetrators accountable, but it would accelerate the process of culture change around what constitutes a healthy relationship, how people should respect one another and it would continue to dismantle the power imbalance that makes some men feel like they're entitled to control their partner's lives."
Author of See What You Made Me Do, Jess Hill adds, "I want to make clear that criminalising coercive control will not magically fix our deeply flawed justice system. These systems – police, courts, family law – do not consistently protect victims and in fact can place them in greater danger and they must come under greater scrutiny during this campaign."
This revolution starts with education. The signs of coercive control are layered and not always obvious, says Dr Karen Williams: "The red flags everyone knows about are isolation and monitoring of behaviour, but it's also important to know that sometimes it's not the [explicit] direction that 'you are not allowed to go out,' sometimes it's the behaviour of that person towards their partner after they choose to go out with their friends, treating them terribly so they subsequently make the decision not to go out. Often women will subtly change their behaviour to accommodate the mood that may follow a decision [their partner] doesn't like."
Nithya agrees knowing the signs of coercive control will save lives: "Preethi was an intelligent and independent woman who knew that her ex-boyfriend was a 'bit controlling.' But she never saw these behaviours as deliberate and systemised, or that he was perpetrating domestic violence."
"[My sister] would be here if she understood how dangerous and pathological her ex-boyfriend was and that him not being physically abusive prior to her death was not because he was ethically and morally immune to physical violence, it was because he knew he would not get control of her that way," she says, remaining miraculously hopeful about the future. "I do believe we are at the crux of having a coercive control law passed in our country. Compared to where we were just over 18-months ago when my big sister Dr Preethi Reddy was killed on the 3rd of March, 2019, our country has come far in our understanding of coercive control, but that's only because of tragedies like hers, as well as the tragedy of Hannah Clarke and her three children. And that's what it's taken. It shouldn't be like that, but it is."
As Nithya says, we need to criminalise coercive control now because another woman is going to be killed next week, and the week after, and the week after… "Every time my family hears another story – another tragedy – it traumatises us and moves us again and again and again. It has to stop."
To help us change the law, we need you. Sign our petition calling on the government to make coercive control a crime and help us change the lives of thousands of women.
If you or anyone you know needs help or advice, contact 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Top image (from left): Nicole Byers, editor-in-chief, The Australian Women's Weekly; Nithya Reddy, advocate and Preethi Reddy's sister; Jess Hill, advocate and author of 'See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse'; Karen Williams, psychiatrist and founder, Doctors Against Violence Towards Women; Nicky Briger, editor, marie claire; Hayley Foster, CEO, Women's Safety NSW.