Earlier this week, I attended a vigil organised by Students for Women's Only Services held at UTS. The vigil was organised to protest against the NSW Baird government's cuts to women’s services and to call for an inquiry into the devastating effects of the ‘Going Home, Staying Home’ program.
The vigil began with a Welcome to Country by Aunty Milly Ingram and ended with a reading of the names of 39 women who have been killed in Australia so far this year. Most of these women have been killed by men, many by abusive partners. As each woman was named or called as 'anonymous' if her name was not known, the enormity of the number of deaths came home to us. Each of these woman has been robbed of her life and leaves behind a shattered family, friends and community.
This piece is an extended and edited version of my speech.
I would like to acknowledge that we are standing on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. This was and always will be Aboriginal land. And in acknowledging their elders, I would like to particularly acknowledge the past and present female elders who along with their fellow Aboriginal women have suffered appalling violence and other forms of abuse from the time of white invasion onwards.
Today is Sorry Day, a day on which the Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generations was tabled in our national parliament in 1997. The report found that through the forced removal of their children, indigenous families had "endured gross violations of their human rights" that amounted to an act of genocide..." Yet even today, we know that children are still being removed. Right now, Aboriginal women in NSW and in the North West of Australia are currently watching years of hard work building services to protect women and children in their communities being threatened by conservative LNP governments.
An enduring crisis
We are experiencing a crisis of domestic violence in Australia but not in the sense that it has unexpectedly arrived. In fact, there has always been a domestic violence crisis in Australia. It is a preventable epidemic that has been allowed to flourish in our communities through silence, neglect, a culture that promotes male power and violence and a failure by those in power to act.
Each woman’s life that is lost is a significant and grievous loss. According to the Counting Dead Women researchers, 39 women have been murdered in 2015.
We must name these homicides for what they are - in many cases premeditated murder, committed in anger or revenge. These killings are the ultimate act of patriarchal control. But let us also be clear that in failing to put in place policies that will keep women safe, our governments and our communities share in the culpability for these tragic deaths.
So tonight we also stand in memory not just of the 39 women who have been killed this year but of thousands of women and children have died at the hands of violent men over many years. We also acknowledge the suffering of those women who get up each day not knowing if they will be stalked, screamed at or have limbs broken by nightfall. We remember too the children who experience the debilitating anxiety of living in private war zones.
In remembering the suffering, we also don't forget the work of literally thousands of women who over 40 years (and more before that) have worked tirelessly to save the lives of thousands of women. No wonder we are angry about the damage recklessly caused by the Baird government as a consequence of closing domestic violence women's refuges in many regions and cutting the services offered in others. This is the program that the NSW government named Going Home Staying Home (never use the word 'reform' as the government prefers to call it).
There is nothing unexpected about this ongoing crisis. Compared to this ongoing ever-present scourge of domestic violence, threats to our community from outside Australia, the ones that our government would have us focus on, are minuscule. The massive resources that governments direct towards turning us into a fortress state only highlight the lack of action against domestic violence in homes, which too many men still regard as their private realm.
I reject the idea that this crisis has appeared unexpectedly while applauding the renewed public attention on it. You only have to scan news media from earlier years to see that governments have long known that a lack of services was putting women at risk.
Just to quote one example. Nearly a decade ago in 2006, it was reported that Adele Lynch and her son Mason were incinerated in outer Sydney and that they might have been alive if there had been more domestic violence services. At the time it was noted that domestic violence had been increasing for a decade since 1996 - and that it had increased over 7 years by 50% across NSW. During that decade millions had been cut from women's services programs.
Government advertising and communication programs too have come and gone. In 2003, the then PM John Howard cancelled the No Respect, No Relationship anti-violence campaign, despite it having been developed over two years and having attracted international recognition.
In July 2005, the Howard government re-launched its anti-domestic violence advertising campaign, Violence against women, Australia says no, spending $23 million on a Helpline, broadcast ads and a national mail-out. At the same time, there were no additional funds for services. We must watch carefully that the same strategies are not used again.
No, the crisis is not new and nor is the evidence about what solutions work. There has been a lot of research done on domestic violence. We're by no means faced with a blank sheet when looking for solutions.
Earlier this year, feminist scholar Jane Bullen reviewed the research evidence for the The Conversation and wrote,
Refuges continue to have an essential place in the response to domestic violence. While nothing keeps every woman safe, research consistently identifies two things as making women safer – going to a refuge and/or contacting a specialist domestic violence service.
Bullen identified several features of women's refuges that are key to assisting women and children fleeing violence,
First, refuges’ specialist understanding of domestic and family violence and their emphasis on the right to safety is particularly important. Their approach that treats women escaping violence as partners, and which emphasises justice, strengths-based advocacy, respect and empowerment, is another important factor in enabling women and children to move forward.
So refuges with specialist and coordinated services are essential. Ad hoc solutions or solutions which try to make domestic violence disappear under the umbrella of homelessness are not the way to go.
But faced with this evidence what did the NSW LNP government do?
The then Minister Community Services Pru Goward who is now the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence launched a program that was not based on community need or evaluation of long established domestic violence services. In fact they ignored the well established evidence, all the while claiming that their policy was 'evidence-based".
Mid North Coast - NSW government trashes decades of valuable work.
Up until mid last year, Kempsey and Taree, two substantial towns on the Mid North Coast of NSW both had strong community-based refuges.
But all that changed when the government announced the results of its Going Home Staying Home tender. Around that time, I called in at the Kempsey Women's Refuge.
Kempsey is one of the poorest towns in NSW. It also has a strong Aboriginal community. Its twenty-five year old refuge was purpose- built with a garden for women and children that was maintained by volunteers. In 2005, local member and ex-LNP Deputy Premier turned merchant bank consultant Andrew Stoner described the refuge as an "essential service". The refuge had strong community partnerships and its staff were respected by local residents. But as a result of last year's tender, the refuge was handed over to the Samaritans, a Newcastle charity that had no experience at all in running domestic violence refuges.
On the day I arrived all the refuge workers had been sacked, including the Darghutti Aboriginal worker. Forty-five years of combined experience was tossed aside.
You may well wonder who would make a destructive decision like that. It appears irrational but was not irrational. The decision flowed from a policy that was aimed at putting more homelessness and other services in the hands of big charities. So ideologically driven were political and government decision makers by their neoliberal model that I doubt they gave much thought to the damage they were doing.
Despite a protest rally in Kempsey, the refuge was taken over by the Samaritans. This same charity with no experience in running a refuge was also given the very strong refuge Lyn's Place in Taree, 120 kilometres down the road towards Sydney.
Lyn's Place was the subject of a book by feminist Marion Hosking. Now in her late eighties, Marion spoke bitterly on International Day in Newcastle this year about what she and other local women see as the wrecking of their refuge. In 2005, in the introduction to Hosking's book, Anne Summers wrote:
Over the last twenty-one years, Lyn's Place has become an integral part of the social landscape of Taree. It provides safe haven for women who need to escape violence at the hands of their partners. It is a tragedy that the need for such a haven is not diminishing. Throughout this country, the need seems greater than ever before. But while the violence continues we need Lyn's Place and all the other refuges, and we need the heroic women who keep them going.
A decade after Anne wrote those words, the refuge was taken away from the women who ran it. Amazingly, these same women who just like the Kempsey workers, had between them many years experience in providing specialist domestic violence services, were handed the management of the local Youth Refuge.
As with most refuges all over NSW, 24-hour support, either in a refuge or close by, is essential for women in crisis as a result of domestic violence and it has now gone in Taree and Kempsey. Even at refuges that have survived, staff have been stretched across refuges. While many say that the need has increased, services have been savaged. The Samaritans, for example, now manage the Kempsey refuge from Taree. The charity is reluctant to talk to the media but when I did manage to talk to them, their spokesperson was a man not a woman.
Make no mistake. Every day that women are turned away from refuges, those responsible for those decisions that remove services are risking lives.
Last week on Sunday night, a woman in the Taree area wanted to find out if there would be any accommodation available for a friend in danger. She got a number from a front door of the tiny office in a back lane which houses the Samaritans' Homelessness Hub.
The women rang that number and got another number and eventually got a man on the end of the phone. He referred her onto to NSW domestic violence line, which is the government -sponsored 24/7 phone service with counsellors available. She eventually spoke to a helpful woman but unfortunately she wasn't sure if there is still a women's refuge in Taree. She said, "Well there used to be. The whole thing is up in the air at the moment. The whole state is different now. We have been trying to get information." She did say that there are quite a lot of calls coming through from Taree and Forster, a nearby town where there is no refuge.
The woman making the calls managed to get the actual number of the Taree women's refuge, but this was answered by a woman in Maitland, 165 kilometres away who said the local refuge would answer after 8.30 a.m. on weekdays. The woman in Maitland was 'not 100% sure' if the Taree refuge was a women's-only shelter. She did say that it may be possible to organise a night's accommodation for someone homeless. She recommended ringing 000 if in danger or the NSW DV Hotline which had already been tried.
So there you have it. Lyn's Place is gone. There is now the Taree Women's Refuge which does not mention domestic violence in its short description on the Samaritans' web page. This explains why the woman at the DV Hotline wasn't sure what to advise. Many refuges that previously catered for domestic violence victims now have to offer refuge to a much wider group of women, some of whom have drug and alcohol problems or are homeless because they are coming out of prison. Every domestic violence worker I know tells me that merging homelessness with domestic violence will not work.
Of course, we can be sure that there are still many domestic violence workers offering valuable help in surviving refuges. But the overall situation in NSW is unacceptable. If the Going Home Staying Home program wasn't so dangerous and serious, it would be farcical.
There is a DV crisis but the failures of the government's disastrous program is also a crisis. And we must remember that these events are happening in a context of an affordable-housing crisis in NSW and attacks on the incomes of single women with children by both Labor and Liberal governments.
Silence and fear
There is something that is also dangerous and that is silence. In my reporting, I've found that many refuge workers have been too frightened to speak publicly for fear of losing their jobs. Some were even threatened that they would get no redundancy pay if they complained or that their surviving services would be defunded. There are also funded peak organisations that I expected to speak out, which have remained silent or even put a gloss on the situation. While we may understand their apprehension, we need to find a way around the fear to make sure the public knows the truth. As feminists, we can't turn away from the loss of so many valuable services.
There've been successes in the fight against the Going Home Staying Home program. Inner Sydney refuges were initially cut but funding was restored after an intensive lobbying campaign by Save Our Services, support from the Greens and Labor and protests by Students for Women Only Services and the No Shelter collective. But even in inner Sydney, not all was restored. For example, In Newtown where I live, funding for a one-day-a-week outreach DV service disappeared. Many wonderful refuges such as Elsie's were taken away from feminist organisations and handed over to large Christian-based charities.
With the LNP back in power for another term, we face not only more years of the Going Home Staying Home program but also the added risk that more specialist women's services will be lost. Public hospital and disability serves will be put out to tender to the lowest bidder. More services could also be lost in future homelessness tenders.
We need strong campaigning to insist that domestic violence services are restored and strengthened. Refuges for women should be run by women in community-based organisations. Research has shown that the early vision that inspired the women of the 1970s is the most effective one, which is not to say that the delivery of services cannot be strengthened as women gain more insight and empower each other. No amount of communication campaigns or technological fixes can substitute for essential support services.
We must be as public as possible. We must document the gaps and failures and celebrate what survives. In the words of an old feminist song (which many of you would find very daggy),"don't be too polite girls, don't be too polite. Show a little fight girls, show a little fight."
My speech at the vigil ended on that note. Other speakers included Anjana Regmi from Immigrant Women's Speak Out, Students for Women Only Services Freya Newman and Drew Henderson, Greens spokeswoman for women, MLC Mehreen Faruqi and domestic violence worker Christine Bird.
Faruqi ended her speech by reminding us that despite all the current talk about domestic violence,
In the federal budget we saw money actually cut from services that help people facing domestic violence, and no new money for programs or initiatives to combat it.
Here in NSW, the chaotic Going Home Staying Home program showed a real ignorance for the needs of women facing domestic violence and a disregard for their safety. Women need safe spaces, publicly funded and supported, that will be there for us when we need it. Denying us these spaces constitutes a complete misunderstanding of the issue.
There is a way we can make this better, though. We can reach out to each other and strengthen our calls for real action on this issue. This means new funding for specialist women’s only services and refuges. This means new funding for education programs, anti-violence initiatives in schools and workplaces. This means investing in skills and training for community workers who are at the frontline of this fight.
Violence is about power. It is about the power that some people feel they need to establish over other people...Women throughout history have only made progress and advanced gender equality by challenging the power structures that exist to work against their rights and liberation. Now we must do it again.
Mr Prime Minister and Mr Premier: how many more women have to die before the government acts? We want serious action. We want it now. And we will do everything we can to end violence against women
Save Women's Refuges is organising a protest on Wednesday June 3 at noon at Hyde Park Fountain. Full details here.
This story is part of my investigation of the women's refuges. I'll be doing more stories. I apply the MEAA code of ethics which means when requested, I maintain strict confidentiality for my sources.
My interest in domestic violence in Taree was stimulated by my investigation of the miscarriage of justice of Roseanne Beckett who was a domestic violence victim in Taree in the 1980s.
*More photos of the vigil can be found here