Safe refuges for women crucial to changing the story of domestic violence

ChristineSafe refuges for women crucial to changing the story of domestic violencePosted by Anne Summers on 11 November 2015

Illustration by Simon Bosch

by Anne Summers     Illustration: Simon Bosch

It has been a big week for raising the profile of Australia’s deadly domestic violence toll with the launch of a major new prevention initiative and with Rosie Batty, the 2015 Australian of the Year and a high-profile campaigner on this issue, one of the exclusive group invited to dine with Prince Charles and his wife Camilla at Admiralty House on Thursday night.

Finally, the issue is getting the high-level attention it needs, if we are ever to make Australia safer for women and kids.

There are now only 14 refuges in the entire state that specialise in dealing with domestic violence. Previously, until the Going Home Staying Home “reforms” of 2014, there were 78.

Lest we forget: that toll of Australian women dead so far this year from violence of all forms, as reported by the Counting Dead Women initiative of Destroy the Joint, stands currently at 76, with 80 per cent of those deaths estimated to be as a result of domestic or family violence.

In addition we need to count in the grim fact that every three hours a woman is hospitalised somewhere in Australia for injuries sustained as a result of domestic violence. Many of these injuries are serious, often permanently debilitating, as with the three women a week who are hospitalised with brain injuries caused by violence from a partner.

This is the context in which, thankfully, all Australian governments are now taking urgent and comprehensive action. As are several key non-government agencies, among them Our Watch, which this week launched a program called, Change the Story.

Described as a “world first”, and developed in concert with the Victorian Health department and ANROWS (Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety), the initiative aims to “change the story that ends in violence against women” by working to remove, or no longer reinforce, the societal forces that cause this violence.

Women’s lack of equality and agency is identified as a primary driver in causing violence. This is a point that has been argued cogently by both Rosie Batty and the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick who said in an address to the National Press Club in September to mark the end of her tenure: “What we do know from the research … is that those men who believe fundamentally that men and women are equal, their propensity to commit violence against women is almost zero”.

‘Change the Story’ might sound complex and even somewhat bureaucratic, but it is trying to harness similar multi-agency and society-wide efforts to those that saw previous massive changes in behaviour in Australia: reducing the road toll and stopping smoking.

There is a lot that can be learned from both those campaigns, as they demonstrably changed dangerous, life-threatening behaviour, and we have to hope ‘Change the Story’ will be equally successful.

But while prevention of violence has to be an utmost priority, it is a longer-term goal and we cannot afford to overlook the daily emergencies that see too many women running for their very lives.
Each day police around Australia deal with 657 domestic violence incidents and some of the women involved in these will need to flee, often with children.

They need somewhere safe to go and it is this part of the picture that is being neglected by policy and funding. Increasingly so, it seems.

The $101.1 million Women’s Safety Package recently released by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull allocates only $5 million, or less than 5 per cent of the funds, to the provision of crisis accommodation.

It appears that NSW is doing more, with one-third of the $60 million Domestic and Family Violence Package announced by Premier Mike Baird last month allocated to crisis accommodation support. But on closer inspection, women needing refuge from domestic violence in NSW are not being well served.

An audit of every refuge in the state conducted in October by the lobby group SOS Women’s Services, discovered the horrifying fact that there are now only 14 refuges in the entire state that specialise in dealing with domestic violence. Previously, until the Going Home Staying Home “reforms” of 2014, there were 78.

Most of these refuges are now “generalist services” which means they cater for women who are homeless, are substance abusers or have mental health issues as well as for women and children needing to be safe from violence. People with these different needs – all of them legitimate and deserving of assistance – should not be housed with traumatised people escaping violence.
Fewer than half the refuges now provide 24 hours on-call services, which means you better arrange for your violence to occur between 9 and 5 if you want to get help from a refuge.

It is an untenable situation.

It is clear that women’s refuges need to be de-coupled from homelessness policy, where they have sat uneasily for the past three decades, and have their own dedicated policy and funding program. The opportunity exists for this to happen with the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which currently funds refuges, ending in 2017.

A new commonwealth/state funding model, called WRAHP (Women’s Refuges and Housing Program), has been designed by the Women’s Electoral Lobby to address this policy need. The main driver behind the proposal is Helen L’Orange, a former head of the Office of the Status of Women in Canberra, who is now trying to engage federal and state leaders to take a sympathetic look at it ahead of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in December.

That meeting will consider a report from the COAG Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence Against Women and their Children headed by former Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay (Rosie Batty is the deputy chair) dealing with law reform, perpetrator programs and a national advertising campaign.

But, so far at least, there is no plan to look at funding for specialist emergency services for women.

We know women’s refuges save lives. L’Orange describes them as “homicide prevention services”. It should not be too much to ask that while we do the necessary work of ending the violence, we make sure we make available the money to provide shelter to the women and kids who are suffering as a result of it right now.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 14 November 2015