In 1974, a group of women formed the Women’s Liberation Halfway House (WLHH) in Victoria to provide support and accommodation for women and accompanying children fleeing from domestic and family violence. Forty years on, the need for high security refuge services like WLHH has not diminished and, with the incidence of domestic and family violence rising by 400 per cent in Victoria over the last ten years (Bucci 2013), the need is only increasing. Yet in the context of the increasing corporatisation and privatisation of NGOs, small, feminist-based organisations such as ours are under threat. Our precarious position has been recently highlighted with the merging of our sister organisation, Elsie’s Women’s Refuge, in Sydney with the Catholic St Vincent de Paul (Summers 2014). In this context, The Board of Management of WLHH has begun writing a herstory of our small organisation. The purpose of this project is twofold: to mark our forty-year anniversary; and to map the distinct and important role WLHH has carved for itself in the sector. We hope this herstory will raise public awareness of our organisation and the importance of feminist analysis and organisational principles in the ongoing struggle to combat and deal with the effects of domestic and family violence.
Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay has recently condemned the State’s figures on domestic violence—predicted to be a whopping 60,000 in 2012-3—as ‘insidious. It reaches across all of our data, and we’ve still got a way to go’ (Bucci 2013). Australia’s first female Governor General, Quentin Bryce, similarly drew attention to the global rise in violence against women in her second Boyer Lecture (ABC Radio, 10/11/2013), linking this to the ‘reality … that women do not have nor are they acknowledged as having, equality of power and rights with men’.
Issues of gendered power, first raised by feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s are still at the core of domestic and family violence. WLHH is now the longest continuously run feminist refuge in Victoria that has resisted amalgamation, either with large charities or within the DV sector, giving it a critical role in the ongoing struggle to run feminist services managed by and for women. But very few Victorians know of our existence or of the obstacles that face our organisation.
The major issue currently facing WLHH is fighting for our own survival in the face of government attempts to reform the homelessness sector. In Victoria, services like ours are funded under the gender-neutral category of ‘Homelessness’. There is no sector funding specific to the women and children who seek protection from domestic and family violence. Inadequately classed as ‘homeless’, funding is given only to provide services to women, with services expected to stretch costs to cover their dependent children. Tony Nicholson, executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, has described current sector reform efforts, based on the review by former Howard government bureaucrat Peter Shergold, as follows: ‘[T]he changes could result in some voluntary organisation and charities merging into large businesses and becoming mere “extensions of government” with many smaller groups “sidelined and left to whither”’ (Tomazin 2014). Opposite spokeswoman Jenny Mikalos similarly warns: ‘Under the Liberals, service sector reform has become code for commercialisation of our NGOs, and privatisation of government services’ (Tomazin 2014).
In a climate where the government is bent on following their business-oriented ideology and refuses to see the value in small feminist domestic/family violence organisations, recovering the history of Victoria’s first and longest-running refuge is incredibly important. In taking on this project, the small group of women who volunteer our services to the Board of Management are following in the footsteps of the original members, who documented the first four years of WLHH in a similar project in 1978. Luckily these women and their successors had the foresight to collect together records of their work and preserve them in the archives of Melbourne University. Although much of this archive is embargoed until 2070, the current Board has generously been granted access. Archival research will be supplemented with interviews from the women who have used and ran our service and secondary material, including Jacqui Theobald’s dissertation on the beginnings of refuge services in Victoria (Theobald 2011). This is a large project—to begin with there are one hundred boxes of archival material in need of thorough investigation, issues of how to treat material that is embargoed, and the ongoing issues of safety for women who give their permission to be identified in our history.
Our story will highlight the difficulties that continue to face women and children who need to utilise WLHH to protect and improve their lives as well as the women who run the service. Women and children have the right to safety and freedom from violence. WLHH is a small but crucial element in this core feminist project.
We thought the WHN would be interested in our project, but we also welcome any offers of assistance—in terms of publicity, funding or research work. Please contact us on 1800 811 565 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org for any enquiries.
WLHH (c) October 2014
Nino Bucci (2013), ‘Domestic Violence Drives State Crime Rate Higher Victoria Police Say’, The Age, 28 August.
Anne Summers (2014), ‘Prue Goward’s Tender Touch Brushes Women Aside”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 26.
Jacqui Theobald (2011) A History of the Victorian Women’s Domestic Violence Services Movement 1974 – 2005 (PhD, RMIT)
Farah Tomazin (2014), ‘Fears Charities Are Doomed’, The Age, 25 May.
Women’s Liberation Halfway House Herstory/history Project