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Sophie masters the art of standing up to family violence

For Ruah Family and Domestic Violence lawyer Sophie, fighting injustice and gender-based abuse is a family tradition.

Sophie, whose law degree followed studies in French, Italian, journalism, and education— which saw her teach English to newly arrived refugees — was raised by a feminist mother who is also a lawyer, and who would lead passionate and progressive discussions about women’s rights at the dinner table.

“My mum has always been a strong feminist … and she raised me and my sisters that way,” Sophie remembers.

“I think at one point she was at university doing women’s studies and I remember her arguing with my dad about the studies she was doing.”

Sophie’s clients, who come from all walks of life, have experienced controlling behaviour from their partners, including physical violence, emotional abuse, and financial abuse.

Her job, which she does in collaboration with Ruah’s Key Workers and Ruah’s Support Workers, includes representing women in court, providing advice, and even objecting to restraining orders that abusers had taken out on their partners as a form of control.

Sophie said the emotional control exerted by abusers, and the fact that victim-survivors were most likely to be killed by their partners soon after leaving the relationship, meant many women were trapped in horrific situations.

“I’ve always been concerned about the escalation of violence against women as an issue in Australia and around the world,” she said.

“I think that I felt drawn to the idea that you can empower women by giving them legal knowledge.

“There’s this myth about ‘why doesn’t she leave?’… but you must think about those extremely powerful dynamics, where the perpetrator is bringing this women’s self-esteem down from the get-go, wearing her down and making her feel worthless.”

Each week Sophie attends Ruah’s women’s refuges to meet clients and chat over breakfast.

She said being able to help women during one of the most vulnerable times in their lives was humbling.

“To be able to walk into that space is a real privilege; and at Kambarang, building a rapport with Aboriginal women and having them accept and invite me into their space, trust me with their legal issues and let me learn about their culture is a huge privilege,” she said.

“I had a client the other day: we were doing sentencing and she was worried about going to jail, and there was a very high probability that she was going to jail, but she was prepared for that.

“But she didn’t go to jail. She stood at the bar table, holding my hand and gave me a big hug afterwards.

“Those moments to me are delightful.”

When she’s not practicing law, Sophie creates abstract art pieces, having picked up painting during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown.

“It was a funny situation; I had resigned from my last job and was going to take a few months off and get back to work and then COVID hit so it was like, ‘what am I going to do with my time’, because suddenly all the jobs dried up,” she explains.

“My mum is an artist and she said, ‘come over and I’ll give you a lesson in abstract painting’ — I had dabbled here and there but I didn’t really have many skills in it — and she gave me a lesson and away I went.

“I sort of treated it like a job; I woke up and would go into the studio, my spare bedroom, and painted every day and did some exhibitions and it all took off.”

Her first solo exhibition will be held at the Gallows Gallery in Mosman Park from 16 to 22 December.