Women's refuges closed in welfare reforms

September 5, 2014

Domestic violence is the only criminal charge that is increasing in NSW. In Australia, one woman dies from it every week and one is hospitalised every three hours. Under such circumstances, one would hope the political will would exist to increase funding for services proven to help vulnerable women at risk.

Instead, the NSW government is reducing 336 existing services to just 149 services run by 69 lead agencies, 75% of which are Christian organisations.

On August 29, 200 people gathered at Minogue Park in Glebe, Sydney, to protest the closure of women’s refuges. On that day, 80 women’s refuges were closed and many others ceased operating as feminist services.

This action was held one block from Elsie’s, the first women’s refuge in Australia, which was opened in 1974 and has now been handed over to St Vincent de Paul. All staff were made redundant.

This is happening to women’s refuges and Aboriginal crisis housing services across NSW. Specialist shelters are being taken over by generic welfare organisations that have no experience in the local community and no experience in running domestic violence services.

Speakers at the rally included workers and domestic violence survivors, who spoke of the way women’s only refuges turned their lives around. Workers, volunteers and survivors also told their stories to the rally.

In NSW, 87% of domestic violence survivors are women. Women are at least 2.5 times more likely to be killed by someone with whom they are in a relationship. Women want to take refuge in safe places that understand the nature and complexity of this form of violence. Generic welfare agencies will not and cannot provide the help that women escaping domestic violence need.

The introduction of competitive tendering is part of the welfare reforms. This process prefers the big non-government organisations, almost all of which are Christian — 75% of homeless service contracts were awarded to Christian organisations in June.

Christine Bird, from Crossroads Community Care Centre in Sutherland, in Sydney’s south, spoke on behalf of No Shelter Collective, a community group formed to fight these closures.

She said: “My responsibility is not to any corporation, not to any organisation, not to government. It’s to the victims of violence.”

Housing NSW, an agency of the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) offers domestic violence services through the “Going home, staying home” program. It encourages women to stay in an environment where they were assaulted and abused, hoping that the perpetrator will not return.

The department offers a homelessness service for survivors of domestic violence. Bird pointed out that this is risking lives by reducing access to women’s services. “The word refuge is significant — it's not a homelessness service. Already half of all women seeking a place in a women’s refuge must be turned away, because we don’t have enough of them.

“Women approaching, needing a women's refuge will have to stand in line with all the homeless. These people may be homeless for reasons in themselves that put domestic violence survivors and their children at risk, and also may retraumatise them.

“This policy focusing on homelessness fails to address the actual risk from domestic violence perpetrators and ignores the reality of stalking, of tracking survivors through technology. It ignores all the system failures, like for example, releasing perpetrators from prison without informing their victims.

“This policy will not provide the level of safety and access to safe accommodation that domestic violence survivors need. Last year, 28,291 domestic violence assaults were reported in NSW and 87% of those assaults were on women. This policy will force women and children to return to violent, abusive homes.

“The department seems remarkably unable to recall the evidence worldwide that feminist women’s refuges are the most effective response to male violence against women and children that has ever been devised. The department’s preferred tenders largely went to the churches that have failed to comprehend gendered violence, failed to protect children from paedophile priests, failed to protect the children they took from Aboriginal parents and failed to respect Aboriginal culture and belief.

“The department’s preferred tendering has handed most of the refuges closing today and many more closing in October to the same churches that are defending themselves at the royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse.

“Created by women for women worldwide, women’s refuges are our right and not a privilege to be taken away by government. The NSW government has a human rights obligation to provide women’s refuges.”

The changes to domestic violence services seek to keep people in situations that they would otherwise leave. Our diverse communities need community-run, independent specialist women-only services. Women fought hard to establish these shelters. They will continue to fight to keep them.

[No Shelter is holding another action on October 31.]

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