Violence against women and children an 'epidemic'

NEWS LEAD: Annie North needs funds for refuge

THE REALITY: Bashed and left for dead, domestic violence victim speaks out

SERVICES providing support to women and children are declaring men’s violence against women a national disaster, but the state government continues to ignore a project that can offer immediate support to those fleeing dangerous and potentially lethal situations.

More than one woman is killed every week in Australia by a current or former partner, in what Annie North women’s refuge chief executive Julie Oberin says is an “epidemic across our society’’.

“This is not just something that happens to some women, this is an epidemic,’’ she says.

“When more than one woman a week is killed across the country it’s a national disaster.

Annie North is sitting on plans for a new cluster model refuge and has had a feasibility study done since 2011, but needs the capital works money to build it.

The Department of Human Services has had a large parcel of land in Bendigo put aside for the project for three years.

The cluster will be a tastefully-designed walled community with seven self-contained units and room to extend.

Two units will be joined, allowing them to be opened up to accommodate large families when needed. The facility will also include counselling rooms, group work rooms, training rooms and a computer room.

A sound proof room will also allow for court hearings, so some women and children do not have to go to court and face their abuser.

Ms Oberin says if now is not the time to build the refuge, then when is?

“How many more women and children have to die?’’ she said.  “We are deeply disappointed.

“Given the high profile of the domestic murders of women and children recently … it shows how dangerous it is for these women and children.’’

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’’.

The most common location for violence against women is in the home.

Annie North has been turning women and children away every night for too long because of demand.

The refuge was originally formed by a group of Bendigo and Castlemaine women in the late 1980s.

At that time, and after a night of violence hurled by her husband, a university student and young mother found herself with nowhere to go.

 “I’d had a horrific night where I went to a motel, and the next morning went to get an intervention order,’’ Susan* said.

“I put my kids in crèche and then didn’t know where to go, so I went to uni and sat in the student union.’’

A woman’s officer working at the university sensed the young woman’s distress and asked how she was feeling.

“I hadn’t told anybody and she eventually dragged it out of me because she could see I was quite distressed and she offered for me to stay at her place,’’ Susan said.

The Salvation Army offered crisis accommodation at the time, but it wasn’t a women’s refuge run by women that focused on women’s experiences.

And so began a working group of women who set about creating such a space.

They started with a series of rented houses across the city, but received funding to purchase their first property in 1992.

“It is a lovely property but it’s now out-dated, given the facilities we know women and children require,’’ Ms Oberin said.

“It’s still fine for single women as a lot of women have never been alone before, so they like to have some company.

“Sometimes young women have never lived independently so having some company is good, but women with children need their own space and somewhere for the kids to play.’’

Ms Oberin says there are many benefits for women seeking refuge together, as the “sense of community has taught women over and over again ‘this is not just happening to me, if all these women are in refuge with me, then it’s not my fault’’.

“Women have told us over and over again that when they talk to the other women they see the same patterns and they think ‘it’s not me, it can’t be me if this is happening to all these other women and children’,’’ she said.

“There is so much victim blaming in society and women blame themselves about something they do or something they didn’t do, and to be validated and affirmed that it doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do, he is responsible for his violence and abuse of you, no one else.

“Some women start to doubt themselves and they think ‘am I choosing the wrong men all the time?’ – particularly if it happens with more than one man, but these men play on women’s sense of trust and they groom them.’’

Annie North has gone on to become a leader in its field and the organisation’s work is often used to help other service providers.

A script written by women who had used the service was made into the film Shredded, which has won multiple awards and is used by organisations such as Relationships Australia as a training tool.

The film is also used to support groups of women and in men’s behaviour change programs to educate men about behaviour.

The key messages in the film were that violence happens to women and girls in many and various ways, and affects all social classes.

Ms Oberin said the women also set out to show the difference between domestic violence and what was so-called normal couple conflict.

“They wanted to draw out the power and control aspect of it and how it erodes a woman’s self-confidence and sense of self, so they focused on that and the emotional abuse side of it,’’ she said.

Demand for the service was strong from the outset, which resulted in a partnership with Haven; Home Safe that provided eight other properties as medium security refuges and safe houses.

“But it’s still not enough,’’ Ms Oberin said.

“While we are getting better at responding, the police are getting better at responding to this there’s no doubt, and women are reporting more – when they’re reporting more, that’s when they’re most unsafe.

“When they have the courage to actually tell somebody and to seek help, the worst possible thing they can hear is there’s no room for them.’’

Centre for Non Violence chief executive Margaret Augerinos says the system is stressed and stretched.

“We’re struggling to respond to the numbers needing high security refuge across the state which is impacting on the safety of women and children,’’ she said.

Women are in danger for up to 18 months after they leave a violent partner.

“We know it can take women up to seven or eight attempts before they leave and by then there are experiencing significantly higher levels of control and lethality risks,’’ Ms Augerinos said.

“The violence is escalating to a point where they feel physically threatened and that their lives and the lives of their children are in danger.

“If the support is not forthcoming, we could be sending women and children back into lethal or very dangerous situations.

“The system needs to be able to respond immediately, appropriately and effectively.’’

Ms Augerinos says the capital funds for a new refuge would be a small investment in comparison to the cost to the Australian community.

The National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children 2009-2021 report states that without appropriate action to address violence against women and their children, an estimated 750,000 Australian women will experience and report violence in 2021-22, costing the Australian economy $15.6 billion.

Added to that is the cost to a woman over her lifetime, factoring in all aspects of her life.

Annie North board chair Robyn Trainor says the new cluster model would give more regional women escaping violence access to emergency accommodation and support.

The model would also give organisations such as the Centre for Non Violence and Victoria Police immediate options when working with women seeking a safe place, where they could have accommodation and safety assessments done at the same time.

 “Currently we can’t do that, we have to find alternative accommodation and then wait until the next day to try and organise other refuge accommodation or short term emergency accommodation,’’ Ms Trainor said.

Those working with women and children try to keep them in their own communities, allowing children to stay in school and women close to their support networks.

But in the current climate, where every crisis accommodation provider across the state is at capacity every night, that is difficult.

Australian Homelessness statistics state one in every two women with children in the homeless service system is escaping domestic violence. Children make up 27 per cent of people experiencing homelessness, and they are almost always in a family group and most likely with a single mother.

Ms Trainor says of the women and children seeking housing, only a small percentage require high security refuge and are taken out of their region through the statewide Women’s Domestic Violence Service. This can sometimes mean they are taken interstate, depending on their safety needs.

“Most women don’t go to high security – high security refuge is for those women where it’s unsafe for them to stay in their local community and it is an extreme response because it needs to be based on the risk and safety,’’ Ms Trainor said.

Ms Trainor says the Bendigo cluster model would allow some of those women to return to their own community sooner, depending on safety assessments.

“Where possible, it is much better in the long term to keep women and children in their local community and that’s what this model offers,’’ she said. “It offers short term accommodation and streamlining in terms of after hours support.

“With this new model of refuge, it will mean that women who are seeking that accommodation and support when it’s not safe to say in their own homes, and the criminal justice response can’t provide enough safety for her to stay in the home, those women could potentially go into refuge within their own community to start to get some support for the criminal justice response.

“Whether that’s applying for intervention orders or going to court or organising security in their own home so that they can go back to their home if the accountability response to the perpetrator creates enough safety for her to return to the home she is not displaced as much as what she would be if she had to go to Melbourne for example and them come back for court hearings and those sorts of things.

“It wouldn’t replace the need for secure refuge, but provide an opportunity for women to have safety and support who fit the cluster model, which is those women who need short term support or longer term who fit the medium security risk.’’

Ms Oberin says while there is a dire need for the refuge, the issue of men’s violence against women needs to be on the national agenda.

“We need to work on primary prevention we need to work on gender equality,’’ she said.

“We need to work on attitudes towards women and attitudes towards abuse and not just focus on physical violence.’’

For help, phone:

Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service: 1800 015 188

 1800 RESPECT / 1800 73 7732

Annie North refuge needs funds

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