Katja felt 'stuck' in her relationship.

Katja felt 'stuck' in her relationship. Photo: Janie Barrett

Sara

Sara*, from Melbourne's western suburbs, was a migrant to Australia who came from a culture where it was frowned upon to speak out or complain about domestic violence. The shame fell on the victim.

The abuse from her ex-husband was ''controlling in every way''.

''It got worse, it was physical, he actually threatened to kill my children too,'' she says. ''I had to call police several times, I had to get intervention orders.''

Sara felt trapped by the ongoing abuse. She had two young children to care for and her performance at work suffered. ''I had extremely low self-esteem and confidence and my work started slipping.''

Her manager started noticing she was ''very unsettled'' and began asking her if something was the matter, approaches that Sara rebuffed.

''One day she sat down with me and said that my work performance was not up to standard and told me I would not last,'' Sara says. ''She was very patient and very nice and said she was willing to help me. Then I started crying and I just told her everything.''

Sara was fortunate her manager had worked in the domestic violence field and that she gave her important, timely, advice. The manager also reminded her, gently, she had a duty of care to her children to keep them safe. Soon after, Sara took action.

After getting an intervention order, changing the locks to her house and hiring a lawyer, it took two years for the divorce and property settlement to be finished. Sara now works part time, has a mortgage, and a $50,000 debt to her lawyer.

''Financially I am worse off but nothing beats the peace and happiness of being at home with my children.''

Katja

Katja was in an abusive relationship for eight years. It dominated her life. ''It was a mixture of everything, emotional abuse, physical abuse,'' she says. ''A lot of very controlling behaviour.'' The abuse started slowly after she fell ''madly in love with this guy'' while living in London in the early 2000s.

''The closer I got to him the more he would reveal things; I ended up in this situation caring for him while he had breakdown after breakdown.''

Her partner's troubles, born of a childhood exposed to violence, had left him ''extremely volatile'' and later diagnosed with mental illness.

''He went from extreme depression to extreme mania, the bipolar cycle,'' she says. ''He would threaten me and manipulate me to go along with the lies, there was a lot of control and lying.''

During their time together her life changed. Katja, now 42, spent two years out of work trying to help her partner find a job. She also experienced a noticeable shift in her own career.

''Prior to that relationship I would quite easily get promotions into other jobs,'' she says.

''Once I got stuck in an abusive relationship, I started being overlooked for promotions, I wouldn't get interviews. People in the workplace noticed I had more and more time off and I was often crying at work.''

But Katja, who works for a government organisation in NSW, was lucky in other ways. Some women are killed by violent partners, a recent example being Sargun Ragi, who was stabbed to death by her husband in Melbourne last year.

Others lose nearly everything including their jobs - often the last link to a world outside the suffocating abuse.

For Katja her problems started to intrude on her work too. After turning up late on a regular basis a new manager, a man, asked Katja why she was so often not on time.

''I basically said I can't talk to you about this because I couldn't talk to any man about my situation, so I said I will write to you and I wrote him a memo and explained everything.''

As it turned out Katja's manager was empathetic and agreed to her request for two weeks' leave. That meant she could ''go to the doctor, get some medication and basically have a breakdown''.

Later she returned to work part time, then eventually full time and continued to study for a degree.

At the time Katja's employer did not have a domestic violence policy but has since endorsed a regime that gives paid or unpaid leave and other support for victims. It is something she strongly supports.

It is now two years since the first employer in Australia, the Surf Coast Shire Council in sleepy Torquay in Victoria, agreed to a world best standard of 20 days of paid family violence leave. It was a unique and remarkably generous collective agreement.

Since that original deal, negotiated by the Australian Services Union, dozens of similar agreements have been struck across Australia from Queensland Rail, to the NSW public service, to the aged care sector and dozens of councils.

Now about 700,000 workers across Australia have some entitlement to paid family violence leave - about one in every 14 workers.

The hope from activists is that women such as Sara and Katja will now have more formal ways to obtain paid leave and support, rather than having to rely on the understanding and goodwill of managers.

The Australian Law Reform Commission earlier this year recommended the federal government consider whether paid leave be included as a right in the national employment standards, the workplace safety net.

It should also consider giving victims of family violence a right to ask for flexible work hours.

Anti-family violence campaigner Ludo McFerran has championed the issue to unions and others and is now spreading the word overseas at international conferences speaking to activists from Europe, North America and New Zealand.

McFerran says abused women are among the worst off in the job market and tend to have lower incomes. Studies also show the importance of a paid job as financial independence is vital in helping victims escape a violent relationship.

For people like Katja, work was the one thing she clung to as she considered what to do about her relationship and her life.

''A lot of people said why didn't you just leave but I never knew how to answer that question,'' she says.

''One of the main reasons is, I didn't know how to start again. The abuse took every last ounce of confidence from me, so I didn't know how to rebuild myself or negotiate a way back to being functional and confident. I was stuck.''

Losing her job was the one thing she feared most as it was a link to a world away from the ''terror'' at home and a source of independence.

''I was so afraid to lose my job,'' she says. ''Work was so important to me, it was fun being at work, and a welcome escape from home, so I was really afraid of losing that.''

* Sara is not her real name.

Domestic violence in Australia

In 2005 a detailed picture emerged from a Bureau of Statistics report that showed about one in six women experience domestic violence from either a previous or current partner.

That equated to about 1.3 million women. About one in four of those women had been sexually assaulted from a current or previous partner while more than 80 per cent had been physically assaulted.

It pointed to a society-wide problem across classes and age groups, and among both local and overseas born women. It is largely a problem of men abusing women although it also affects same sex couples.

November 25 is White Ribbon Day, Australia's campaign to stop violence against women.