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.

Restore Our Refuge: Honouring Women event, 1 November 2019

Crowd gathered at the Honouring Women event at Fotheringham park, Taree

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.

Leonie McGuire, former manager of Lyn’s Place speaking

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, life-time committee member of MDEA speaking

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.

Attendees laying flowers to honour the forty-five women who have lost their lives to domestic violence in Australia this year.

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.  

Former workers and volunteers of MDEA and Lyn’s Place

Intimate Stories, Challenging Histories: 2019 Biennial Conference of Oral History Australia 10-13 October 2019

The State Library of Queensland is perched on the south side of the Brisbane River and is where the 2019 Biennial Conference of Oral History Australia took place from the 10-13 October. The theme of the conference was ‘Intimate Stories, Challenging Histories’ and many presenters engaged thoughtfully with these sentiments. The papers given at the conference covered a variety of topics including indigenous history, migration history, local and community histories, women’s history, racism and discrimination, trauma and commemoration and the use of oral history. Presenters and audience members came from across Australia to attend the conference, with a number of international visitors from Canada and Singapore in attendance. Presenters and attendees came from a diverse range of contexts including historians, librarians, archivists and museum curators just to name a few.

Day one of the conference begun with a keynote by Dr Katrina Srigley, a Professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University in Canada. Srigley discussed two oral history projects that she has been involved with on Nbisiing Anishinaabeg territory. The first was a project about the Nbisiing Warriors Hockey Team and the second was about Nbisiing Women’s Stories. While both projects are extremely interesting, it was the way that Srigley spoke about her oral history practice that I found most intriguing. Srigley reflected on how working with the Nbisiing community taught her how to conduct oral history with Zaagadwin (love). She argued that working with love means having both an open heart and an open mind while at the same time telling the truth about the past. Ultimately, Srigley argued that her experiences of conducting research both on and with the Nbisiing community taught her that relationships can be more important knowledge. Srigley’s keynote highlighted that the power of oral history does not only lie in its capacity to recover the past but also in its ability to foster long-lasting and meaningful relationships in the present.

An extremely insightful panel session on ‘Interview Dynamics: gender, sexuality and matrilineal relationships’ saw several oral history scholars thoughtfully reflect on their own oral history practice. Historian’s Carla Pascoe Leahy and Sarah Rood’s joint presentation discussed the lessons that can be learnt when roles are reversed, and the interviewer becomes the interviewee. In an exercise of “professional development”, Pascoe Leahy asked Rood to interview her using the same set of questions that Leahy uses to interview women about mothering in Australia. Pascoe Leahy suggested that taking part in this role reversal, gave her valuable insight into what it is like to be in the position of the interviewee. While Rood argued that interviewing a fellow oral historian made her pay careful attention to her interview technique and reflect more critically on her role as interviewer. What was perhaps most interesting about this discussion between Pascoe Leahy and Rood was how they both agreed that their personal relationship as both friends and colleagues enhanced the oral history interview rather than detracting from it.

In the same panel, historian Shirleene Robinson discussed how personally knowing an interviewee can shape the oral history given. In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 Australian same-sex marriage plebiscite, Shirleene conducted oral history interviews with members of the LGBTIQ community for the co-authored book Yes, Yes, Yes, Australia’s Journey to Marriage Equality. Shirleene reflected on how her personal relationships with many of the interviewees and her personal involvement in the yes campaign for marriage equality resulted in her being more “inside” than “outside” of the interview. Using interview excerpts Shirleene showed how interviewees would actively involve her in the interview by asking her questions about her own experiences during the marriage equality campaign. Shirleene’s personal relationships with interviewees may have resulted in her being more ‘inside’ than ‘outside’ of the oral histories being given. However, it is clear the relationships between Shirleene and her interviewees is what facilitated the production of oral histories that were emotive, complex and nuanced.

During the session ‘Women’s History and Family Lives’ on day two of the conference PhD student Nicolette Snowden discussed the interviews she has conducted with country women from the La Trobe Valley in Melbourne. She argued that why young women decide to stay or leave a country town for the “bright lights of the city” is shaped by a range of factors and is a much more complex decision than it may first appear. The oral history interviews she has conducted suggest that country women’s lives are complex and each woman’s decision to leave or remain in the country must be carefully contextualised.

In the same session, Alistair Thomson discussed preliminary findings from his project on Australian fatherhood in the 1970s-1990s. Using oral history interviews collected as part of the Australian Generations Oral History Project, Thomson argued that many of the men interviewed who were fathers during this period wanted to be more than just “absent breadwinners” instead aspiring to be “active fathers”. However, Thomson suggests that many of these men over-emphasised their roles as fathers with many continuing to be the ‘breadwinner’ in their families and very few taking on the role of primary carer for their children. Thomson’s preliminary findings remind us that we should be ‘cautious’ when using memory sources like oral histories and should interrogate the reasons why people in the present may be over-emphasising their roles in the past.

‘Remembering Catastrophes: Oral Histories of Floods and Bushfires’ brought together historians Scott McKinnon and Margaret Cook to discuss the complexities of experience, memory and commemoration in the wake of natural disasters. McKinnon discussed how the 2003 January bushfires in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) which killed four people were commemorated in the three-years after the event. Examining oral histories done with those who experienced the bushfires, McKinnon suggests that residents of the ACT had conflicting feelings towards commemoration. In the wake of the bushfires, public commemoration of the disaster emphasised the resilience of the community. However, many survivors wanted to “move on” and focus on how practical reforms could improve bushfire preparedness and responses in the future. McKinnon argues that it is important that in the aftermath of disasters, commemoration does not obscure or overshadow the lived experiences of survivors and how they wish to commemorate the event.

Following on from McKinnon, Margaret Cook examined the aftermath of the January 2011 floods in Brisbane and used oral history to record the experiences of “the flooded versus the not flooded”. For Brisbane residents whose homes and possessions were destroyed in the flood, the disaster would irrevocably change their lives. In the aftermath of the flood, many Brisbane residents who were not affected came together to form the “mud army” and travelled to flooded areas to help those affected. However, for those whose homes had been flooded, the influx of strangers into their neighbourhoods and their homes as part of a volunteer clean-up effort that was often ad-hoc and chaotic added to the trauma they had already experienced. Cook suggests that we must learn from past disaster recovery efforts and improve our responses. These improvements may include better training for volunteers and better coordination of recovery efforts just to name a few. Both McKinnon’s and Cook’s papers reveal how oral history interviews about past natural disasters can be used to practically inform the present.  

The 2019 Biennial Conference of Oral History Australia showcased the interesting and diverse ways that oral history is being used both nationally and internationally by historians and those working in the GLAM sector. I think, however, one of the most important takeaways from the conference was that it demonstrated the unique capacity of oral history to both produce intimate stories about the past while fostering intimate relationships in the present.