On Friday 1 November at 11am, women and men gathered in the blistering sun and howling wind at the Taree Cenotaph in the centre of town to honour the forty-five women who have lost their lives to domestic violence since the beginning of 2019. The event was organised by the grassroots activist organisation the Restore Our Refuge Troupers. Members of the group include former workers and volunteers of Manning District Emergency Accommodation (MDEA) who managed Lyn’s Place Women’s Refuge in Taree. The groups aim is to ‘restore Taree’s secular, feminist, specialist domestic violence refuge’ which after over thirty years of community management was handed over to the Samaritans charity as part of the NSW governments Going Home, Staying Home (GHSH) reform.
The GHSH reform represented the biggest restructure of the NSW homelessness services sector in over twenty years. Instead of direct funding being provided to small specialist organisations like women’s refuges, these services were required to compete against larger, often faith-based organisations through a tendering process to retain their funding. Many locally run feminist women’s refuges that had been operating since the 1970s were unsuccessful in the tendering process.
Regional women’s refuges were severely impacted by this reform with eighteen of the twenty-seven existing regional refuges at the time being handed over to new service providers. As a result, experienced workers have been dismissed from their jobs and have consequently left the sector and the archives of some regional refuges have been lost in the handover process. Since the reform, women’s refuges that were handed over to faith-based charities have been shrouded in secrecy, with little information available regarding how they are currently supporting women and children escaping domestic violence.
The Honouring Women event held on Friday, saw several former workers and volunteers of MDEA come together to voice their concerns over the current state of women’s refuges in NSW. Leonie McGuire, a passionate feminist activist who managed Lyn’s Place throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, spoke to the crowd about the importance of putting the names of the Australian women who have lost their lives to domestic violence this year on the record. She discussed the current failings of the NSW government when it comes to supporting victims of domestic violence, arguing that there is “a contagion of disregard for women and children”. Leonie stressed that this event was a “cry for help” for others to listen and recognise the current domestic violence epidemic that we are experiencing. She ended her impassioned plea for support by urging other towns across Australia to hold similar events to bring attention to the lives lost due to domestic violence.
Marion Hosking, a life-time committee member of MDEA and author of an insightful history of the organisation also spoke passionately to the crowd at the event. Holding back tears of frustration, Marion reflected on her over thirty-year relationship volunteering for MDEA and her disappointment that her connection to this organisation was severed when Lyn’s Place was handed over to the Samaritans as part of the GHSH reform. Marion spoke fondly of her relationship with the other women who were involved with MDEA. She recalled their struggle and later success in securing funds to build a purpose-built refuge in the early 1990s. Marion ended her address to the crowd by discussing what Lyn’s Place could have achieved if it had been able to continue operating as a feminist, secular, specialist service for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
The event culminated in the reading aloud of the names of the forty-five women who have been murdered by current or former partners in Australia this year. As the names were read out, attendees lined up to lay flowers at the foot of a member from the Restore Our Refuge Troupers who had dressed as an angel to represent the murdered women. In some instances, the names of women were not known, so, they were described as “unnamed” and the audience was told of when and where they had lost their lives. It took around ten minutes for the names of all forty-five women to be read aloud, during which the crowd stood in silence. The time it took for the names to be read and the sight of the growing pile of flowers produced a powerful physical representation of the impact of domestic violence on Australian women.
The event was sombre, however, when it concluded there was an atmosphere of solidarity and togetherness which permeated throughout the crowd. Former workers, volunteers and supporters of Lyn’s Place could be seen standing in small groups greeting each other with open arms and reminiscing about their time at Lyn’s Place. As part of my PhD research, I have had the pleasure of interviewing several of these women and have been astounded by their strength, generosity and passion for supporting victims of domestic violence. What was made evident from this gathering was that these women will not be silenced and will continue to advocate for the reinstating of a feminist, specialist domestic violence service in the Taree area.