Strategies for a Safer City: A one day symposium on violence against women, Friday 29 November 2019

16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence kicked off on Monday 25 November. As part of this campaign the Gender Research Network at the University of Newcastle organised a one-day symposium on violence against women with the theme of ‘Strategies for A Safer City’. The aim of the event was to bring together service providers, researchers and members of the public to discuss how violence against women is being addressed in Newcastle and how we can work together to make the city safer for women and girls.

The first session of the day was an opportunity for local service providers in the Newcastle area and researchers to share with attendees the work and research they are doing to address violence against women. The session was chaired by Professor Margaret Alston from the University of Newcastle who runs the Gender, Leadership and Social Sustainability (GLASS) research unit. Alston spoke to the audience about the gendered outcomes of climate change and how violence against women can increase after a natural disaster has taken place. She also pleaded with the audience to “not forget rural women” who experience domestic violence at higher rates than their urban counterparts and whom often have to overcome additional barriers such as isolation, gun violence and a lack of support services when trying to escape violent relationships.

Slide by Margaret Alston showcasing the impact of domestic violence in regional Australia

Other speakers in this session included representatives from Jenny’s Place Inc. an organisation that was established in Newcastle in 1977 as a refuge for women and children escaping domestic violence. However, forty-years after their establishment they are still fighting to obtain government funding for the services they provide. For the past twelve years Jenny’s Place has operated a Domestic Violence Resource Centre which acts as a “one-stop-shop” for women experiencing domestic violence and is the only facility of its kind in the Newcastle region. The centre receives no government funding. Instead it runs entirely on donations from the local community. This funding model is unsustainable and makes it difficult for the centre to attract and retain skilled staff. Representatives from Jenny’s Place used their time at the symposium to raise awareness about their fight for funding and to obtain signatures for a petition to be presented to the state government.

Slide by Jenny’s Place Inc. highlighting the diverse support that the services Domestic Violence Resource Centre provides to the Newcastle community

One of the highlights of the day was a panel titled ‘Challenges and Opportunities in Combatting Violence Against Women’. Kate Saint, director of Hunter Women’s Centre posed the question to the audience “How can we create safer cities?”. She discussed the importance of creating safer cities for all people and how doing so will inevitably make cities safer for women and girls too. She also reminded the audience that “we need men to be part of the solution”. Similarly, Sue-Anne Ware, head of the School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Newcastle asked the audience “what does a safe city look like?” And “how can we retrofit cities to be safe for ALL users?” Ware gave several suggestions for how this could be done including improving lighting in public spaces, encouraging neighbours to get to know one another and build community, designing our cities better to create visibility and improving safety on public transport. Overall, she suggested that a grounded, local, systematic approach to violence against women is needed to make our cities safer.

As part of this same panel, Trish Doyle the current Shadow Minister for Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence spoke. She opened her address by telling the audience that her key message for the day was the “personal is political”. This couldn’t have been truer as Doyle went on to speak honestly and openly about her personal experiences of domestic violence as a child. Doyle also spoke scathingly about the NSW governments 2012-2014 Going Home, Staying Home reform and how it led to the decimation of the women’s refuge movement in NSW. She rightly noted that the reform “divided a community that once worked collaboratively”. She told the audience that we must “call out” these so-called reforms for what they really are – “cuts”.

In the afternoon, a session on intersectionality brought together women from diverse backgrounds to discuss the importance of considering how violence against women can operate in different contexts. Deborah Swan spoke about the relationship between violence against women in Aboriginal communities and the long-lasting and devastating impacts of colonisation. She encouraged audience members to “decolonise our minds” and consider how our prejudices might impact the way we understand violence against women in Aboriginal communities. Jodie McGregor from STARTTS educated the audience on the traumas asylum seekers and refugees often experience before they reach Australia. She urged service providers to be considerate that when women coming from these backgrounds are experiencing domestic violence in Australia they are also grappling with the effects of past traumas.  Kali Kanivale from Scarlett Alliance informed the audience about how negative stereotypes and stigmatisation of sex workers in Australia can prevent them from seeking support when they experience violence.

In the same session Poet Kerri Shying educated the audience on how when a woman with a disability experiences sexual assault it becomes an “industrial incident” because it is often in the context of care and the medical profession. Additionally, she urged service providers to ensure that they make their services accessible for women with disabilities. Similarly, Eloise Layard from ACON urged service providers to make sure gender diverse people know they are welcome and will be supported if they access their service. This session demonstrated the importance of service providers being aware of how violence against women can operate depending on an individual’s personal context.

Symposiums are often a great way to discuss ideas. However, this symposium took one important step further and considered how these ideas might create real change. As part of the final session of the day attendees came together and brainstormed practical solutions for making Newcastle a safer city for women and girls. Suggestions included establishing a support group for local migrant survivors of domestic violence, working with local media outlets to improve how they report on violence against women, making the city safer at night by holding more family-friendly events and re-establishing a women’s centre in town. This symposium was not going to solve the problem of violence against women in one day. However, it’s possible that some of the suggestions that came out of the day can make a significant difference in the fight against domestic violence in the Newcastle region.

This symposium highlighted that domestic violence is complex and addressing this form of violence requires a multi-faceted approach. At present there are a range of dedicated services and researchers working to combat violence against women in Newcastle. However, the one question which many of us were left asking at the end of the day was “where are the men?” This symposium was free to attend and open to all, yet, there were less than three men in the audience throughout the day. Violence against women is not just a women’s problem. If this symposium is held again next year, I would hope that more men from the Newcastle community step-up, attend and support this event.

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