This week, as large parts of the country continued to battle coronavirus, decision-makers at all levels and across numerous sectors turned their heads to another significant epidemic taking lives in Australia - violence against women.
As politicians, service providers, policymakers and advocates attended the online National Women's Safety Summit, many like myself who work in the sector supporting women experiencing domestic violence were eager to see meaningful outcomes to address this urgent issue.
But despite the gravitas associated with the summit's title, I must admit a level of scepticism when it came to my assessment of the potential impact of the meeting. As the chief executive of a leading provider of housing support, including supported housing for women and their families experiencing violence, I knew that one of the biggest issues affecting women's safety is access to secure accommodation.
And if my experiences over the past several weeks have shown me anything, it's that this fundamental issue is languishing in the hands of (predominantly male) bureaucrats, with decisions driven by factors that aren't grounded in providing a safe landing place for women in need.
As a delegate to the National Women's Safety Summit, I was eager to see how housing was addressed in the context of the dialogue.
It is a well-documented and acknowledged fact that the critical lack of affordable and secure housing options for women is a fundamental factor in a woman's decision to leave a violent relationship. Many women are forced to decide between making themselves and their children homeless or staying with their perpetrator- an awful choice with no safe answer. The shortage of affordable and safe housing sees nearly 8000 victims of violence a year return to their perpetrators.
The eye-watering increase in property prices and market rent in the aftermath of a very difficult year in 2020, and an unsettled economy still coming to terms with the impacts of COVID-19, mean there is a vacuum in housing options for vulnerable women across the country. Both older women and those trying to leave or rebuild lives after leaving a violent relationship are the most vulnerable in this national housing crisis.
Solutions are being sought. While I acknowledge $60 million in funding has been provided by the Commonwealth government through the Safe Places Emergency Accommodation program, it is simply not enough. YWCA Canberra is nevertheless excited to be a recipient of some of this funding, with a grant of $1.2 million to contribute to building homes for women with children and older women who have experienced violence. The ACT was awarded a total of $2 million from the program for two projects. Our housing project will be built on a block of land purchased by YWCA Canberra 30 years ago, and we still need to fund the other $1.2 million to complete the project. The project will deliver 10 units.
This is an important contribution to a problem that affects everyone in our community, and one that needs not just a government response, but a whole-of-community commitment to finding solutions. Although many may not wish to acknowledge it, domestic violence does not affect one cohort of society. There are women and children living with violence in every suburb of Canberra, from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and education levels.
Sadly, despite receiving approval from the ACT Planning and Land Authority, our supported housing development has hit a roadblock, with a group of locals opposing the project on the premise it is not suitable for the site.
In responding to this opposition, I have been exposed for the first time to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal system. The experience has left me reeling at the realisation that our project - driven by women for women's safety - is now in the hands of predominantly older white men. That includes the parties representing opposition to the development, the senior members of the tribunal, and the ACT government's counsel. YWCA Canberra is also reliant on an all-male team of experts, and I thank each and all of them for their contributions.
However, during the five days of tribunal hearings, I was required to be silent - apart from 45 minutes being cross-examined on what support we provide and how much road traffic the development would generate. I was not even permitted to read a letter from a recently housed woman on her experience finally securing safe housing through YWCA Canberra, to demonstrate the potential impact of our development. I was silenced, and the women who I hope will eventually live in our YHomes units were silenced.
Throughout the process the men made sports analogies, batting away curveballs and continuing each others' innings, none the wiser of the experience of what it is like to make a decision to stay living in a violent relationship or to leave in the hope a service like YHomes will be waiting to give you back your dignity, hope, and a safe place to call home.
While we debate and explore the status of women's safety in Australia, it is vital we turn that gaze inwards, and examine the systems that control the delivery of key resources, like housing, to women experiencing violence.
- Frances Crimmins is chief executive officer of YWCA Canberra.