The wet weather didn’t deter more than 200 people gathering at Minogue Park, Glebe on Friday 29 August at ‘high noon’. They were there to make their voices heard; voicing protests about the state government’s changes to the delivery of Women’s Services, brought about through its ‘Going Home, Staying Home’ policy (GHSH). There was widespread concern by those present that the new policy could wreak devastation on the lives of vulnerable people.

‘Speakout to Save Women’s Refuges’ was organised by the No Shelter Collective to mark the day that several Women’s Refuges closed; and from which many others will no longer be able to operate as feminist services. In Glebe, the state government has transferred management of the first women’s refuge, Elsie (1974) to St Vincent De Paul. All staff have been made redundant. Other Women’s Services that will no longer operate as independent feminist services include Delvena on the North Shore, Dolores in Bondi, Marcia’s in Campbelltown and others in Moruya, Bourke, Bega, Taree, Tweed Heads, Wagga Wagga and Forbes.

Over twenty people expressed their deep-seated anguish at the loss to women’s well-being that could result for the GHSH policy. One speaker, Christina, was a member of the original collective that occupied premises in Westmoreland St and founded Elsie as a safe haven for women fleeing domestic violence. Christina painted a grim picture, and one that no-one wishes to see revisited. Christine Bird of the No Shelter Collective reiterated that 87% of people seeking these Women’s Services were survivors of domestic violence.

An Elsie founder, Christina, rues recent changes. (Image: Janice Challinor).
An Elsie founder, Christina, rues recent changes. (Image: Janice Challinor).

Lola, formerly a volunteer at the Tempe Refuge, gave a migrant woman’s perspective. Coming largely from male-dominated, conservative communities, ‘they don’t have a choice’, she said. Other speakers included survivors of domestic violence who’d used the services, indigenous women with children who’d depended on those services and workers whose skills would now be unavailable to women at risk. Speaker after speaker identified the difficulties women seeking help and safety may face in the future under the GHSH changes.

Support for the calls to the state government to reinstate funding to women’s services also came from the Australian Services Union. Assistant Secretary Elaina characterised funding cuts to Women’s Services as an aspect of a conservative political agenda that aims to reduce expenditure on human services. Further political support for Speakout was vocalised by Jamie Parker, the Green member for Balmain, who stated there was a need to defend Women’s Services in order to ‘move forward as a country’. Verity Firth, our endorsed Labor candidate, observed the inequity that may result – inequities seemingly overcome since that great year of action, 1974 – and gains which must not be lost. The attendance by Linda Burney, the Shadow Minister, also attested to the importance of the issue. Wendy Bacon recognised that there is a public right for women and children to be safe.

Eva Cox, while noting that the general trend of larger organisations ‘eating up’ smaller ones was not confined to the services sector, stressed the need for clear demands to be made if successful outcomes were to eventuate. Eva Cox said that it is essential to ‘differentiate between ‘Women’s Services’ and ‘Services for Women’; the difference being that ‘Women’s Services’ are services run by women, with women’s welfare the prime consideration. She opined that funding must be restored and the management of these services returned to Human Services.

Further changes to services are scheduled for 31 October, at which time more action to protest the changes will be made. Future action could take the form of a sit-in or occupation of premises due to be closed. This will be determined by discussion amongst the No Shelter Collective but whatever its form, until women’s services funding is fully reinstated and the range and availability of the services strengthened to answer the specific needs of women at risk the wound will continue to fester.

Can you lend your voice to right this wrong?