Today is the last day that feminists run the Sydney domestic violence shelter “Elsie”, Australia’s first domestic violence shelter for women and children fleeing male violence. Elsie had its 40th anniversay earlier this year.
Back in 1974, the only place abused women and children could find temporary shelter was at a Salvation Army facility, which provided a bed for the night but banned traumatised families from residing there during the day, and provided no health, legal or social services. Most women ended up returning to their violent partners.
Feminist Anne Summers was then a 29-year-old post-graduate student at Sydney University when she saw a documentary based on Erin Pizzey’s Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, about domestic abuse in England. As a result, after a two-day Women’s Commission Conference, plans were made to start a refuge in Sydney.
From there, a gradual development of feminist-run refuges were implemented across Australia (about 300 currently), although, even today, facilities in rural areas are very sparse. Gradually women’s refuges obtained government funding, although generally at a fairly ‘bare bones’ level.
Summers recalls [Bill] Hayden’s arrival: “He decided to park his car around the corner and turn up unannounced, probably thinking he could catch us out unprepared. After Hayden knocked on the door, one of the resident mothers answered and told him he couldn’t come in because men were banned from the refuge. ‘But I’m Bill Hayden,’ he explained, ‘minister for social security.’
“ ’I don’t care who you are,’ replied the mother. ‘No men are allowed!’ She slammed the door and Hayden began walking off down the street, when one of the workers recognised him, ran after him and dragged him back. He was appalled at what he saw, seeing those women, meeting them, seeing the kids. He said, ‘I’ll do anything.’ ”
The main difference between the previous (pre-1974) scant resources provided by the faith-based organisations were that these were shelters for women, by women (feminists), and there was a ‘no men allowed’ policy.
Prior to 1974 and the development of women’s refuges, women suffering male violence would be advised by these faith-based organisations to “go home, fix the problems in the marriage”, because the ‘sanctity of marriage‘ was and is, high on the agenda of faith-based (religious) organisations. This approach did not understand the dynamics and gendered nature of domestic violence, and was effectively, no help at all, putting women back in danger.
Fast forward to 2013, and the NSW government instituted its policy of “Going Home, Staying Home” homelessness ‘initiative’. The NSW government deemed specialist (women’s) domestic violences services/shelters to come under the homelessness umbrella of funding, and in late 2013, put women’s services out to tender.
The faith-based (relgious) organisations such as St Vincent de Paul (“Vinnies”, a lay-Catholic organisation) and The Salvation Army (“The Salvos”, a non-conformist christian organisation) and others, circled like sharks at the opportunity to expand their community support projects.
Emphasising again, all these faith-based organisations are very much geared towards upholding “the sanctity of marriage” (at any and all costs, even at the expense of abused women, expected to go back and “fix the marriage”). They do not have, nor are they interested in, viewing domestic violence as a gendered crime, and the challenges facing women with limited resources to escape abuse (despite claims otherwise, the churches’ history towards women speaks volumes). Remember, these organisations were the ones providing the ‘non-service’ service to abused women prior to 1974, and they are back in charge again in 2014, of many of the women’s services. This is full circle, winding the clock back 40 years, and stealing the decades of work that feminists have done.
The alarm was raised during this process, but to no avail:
Some of the state’s longest-running women’s only services were absorbed by large religious charities when the tender process was completed in June.
Roxanne McMurray, spokeswoman for the Save Our Women’s Services (SOS) lobby group, which is attempting to save women’s services, said its analysis showed that three-quarters of the women’s services that remain open will be run by religious groups such as St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and Mission Australia.
‘‘Our latest analysis shows that of the women’s services that appear likely to continue, 74 per cent will be run by religious organisations,’’ she said. ‘‘In the past, it was a big problem and is a large part of the reason women’s refuges were set up in the first place. This is winding back the clock 40 years.’’
For Elsie, St Vincent de Paul won the tender. According to Vinnie’s press release in June, Elsie and two other women’s refuges (Dolores Single Women’s Refuge at Bondi Junction and Wagga Wagga Women’s and Children Refuge) will remain refuges for women and children. Of course, this could change in the future because of the fundamental religious nature of the organisation. Some of the NSW refuges have already closed within the last few months, some have/will change(d) to ‘all victims of dv’ (meaning males as well), and some will be converted to general homelessness shelters (again, mixed sex in the majority of cases). If these faith-based organisations wanted to create special places for males escaping domestic violence, that would be a different matter, they are welcome to. The UK used to have shelters for men, but they closed due to lack of demand. Males usually have the financial means to escape, and are not generally the primary caretakers of children.
Shame on the NSW state government and peak-body DVNSW for not ring-fencing feminist-led services for women and children as a specialist area. Members of the women’s sector subsequently issued a vote of no confidence in DVNSW, because of the closures and controversy.
In a letter sent to Domestic Violence NSW last week, disaffected members claimed the organisation was in chaos, asserting conflicts of interest and lack of governance.
They allege that the organisation had failed to protect specialist women’s refuges from being taken over by other groups as part of the state government’s “going home, staying home” (GHSH) reforms to homelessness services.
‘‘The DVNSW board promoted, encouraged and sanctioned the GHSH reform process that has led to the majority of women’s only services within NSW closing and or being placed with faith based services,’’ the letter claimed.
‘‘The DVNSW board has not represented the membership in an honest and transparent fashion, particularly in relation to the current status of women’s only refuges/services threatened with closure and those refuges who have, in fact, closed due to the GHSH reform.’’
The reality of the tender process was far worse than women’s services not being able to ‘competitively’ compete for funding, with a large degree of favouritism directed to the faith-based organisations. In other words, a set-up that the women’s services were not playing on a level playing field (my underlining):
The first round of tenders released in November 2013, required existing homelessness services in NSW, including women’s and girls’ refuges, to compete to retain their funding and management, and women’s services were not able to tender as women-only. With the exception mainly of some services for domestic violence victims, tenders were generalist and based on ‘case mix’ models of providing homelessness services to men, women, families and young people.
On 19 March 2014 nine tender packages totalling $15.39million for the inner city were released. This represented a reduction of $6million. This money would be be redistributed across the State.
Of the $15.39million, $11million (in four tender packages) was directly provided to Mission Australia, St Vincent de Paul, The Salvation Army and Wesley Mission through a single invite-only tender system.
The remaining five tender packages were offered to the other 26 organisations within the inner city. Just one women’s package was released for the entire inner city but it was to deliver for homeless women and women with children with a focus on those experiencing domestic and family violence with $1.1 million to assist 505 women and children each year.
There were no tenders specifically for women and girls who are homeless or at risk of homelessness who have experienced childhood sexual assault, abuse or neglect, mental health and/or drug and alcohol issues, or for women leaving custody.
Definitely a rigged system. The much smaller women’s organisations did not stand a chance.
It is not the first time that governments have used the “one stop shop” or “gender neutral” approach to dismantle feminist-led services. Over the last few years in the UK, with a drip-drip-drip approach of reduced funding, and demands that existing services expand and become “gender neutral one stop shops”, has put the women’s sector in a dangerous position and in danger of closure. Faith-based organisations have stepped in there as well. I will write more on the UK situation at a later time. The main difference between the UK situation and the NSW situation, is that the UK dismantling has been more gradual, and the NSW case has been swift and brutal.
The new stewardship under the faith-based organisations will put more women at risk of violence and death. One group of women will be affected more than any other, Australia’s aboriginal women (who suffer a higher rate of domestic violence).
‘‘Domestic violence rates are going up, not down,” Ms McMurray said. “We don’t want women not seeking help because they can’t find a refuge run by women.’’
The manager of Marcia women’s refuge in Campbelltown, Marilyn Fogarty, said her Aboriginal clients were unhappy to see the service being taken over by St Vincent de Paul.
‘‘Aboriginal women won’t seek help from a religious organisation because the Stolen Generations still resonates in their communities,’’ she said.
“We know religious organisations do a lot of good work, but there is no way the government can say this refuge will be better run by a church-based group, or that they’ll be able to build up the same strong links we have with the Aboriginal community.
Australia has a disgusting track record of treatment against First Australians.
In times of economic decline and rising unemployment, the demand for women’s domestic violence services increases. Australia is heading into that climate now.
Last year at the hands of a violent male partner, 29 women and 8 children murdered in Victoria; 24 women murdered in NSW; and 18 women murdered in Queensland. That is not even counting the other states and territories, and the above represents 71 women murdered due to domestic violence only. The current estimate of ‘one woman per week’ is looking out of date, and is getting closer to two women per week (almost the same as the UK’s 2.3 per week, but the UK have 2.5x the population, and I think the 2.3 figure might need review).
At least Queensland are proactively taking steps to address domestic violence, appointing former Governor-General Quentin Bryce to head up a special taskforce. Anna Bligh, former QLD Premier, also speaking out. The current Premier, Campbell Newman, is instigated the taskforce. Newman’s mother established one of the first women’s shelters in Launceston in 1976.
“40 years ago these things were going on, and here today they still are, these horrific acts, and that is just completely unacceptable,” he said.
“Surely we should have moved on in four decades?”
~ Campbell Newman, Queensland Premier
Sadly not. Things are getting worse for Australian women and children.
Farewell Elsie, it will never be the same, and thank you to all the women over 40 years who provided specialist and caring services to the women and children fleeing domestic violence.