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FeatureLiving Well

(What if) We got to the heart of the matter (?)

Until we understand and actively commit to improving gender inequality then we will continue to see the unacceptable rates of gendered violence in Gippsland.

Jan 12, 2023


Words: Gippslandia

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Home is where the heart is.

And for those of us hailing from Gippsland, home is a slice of verdant hills abutting coastlines, rich farmland and close-knit communities.

At times, it’s a landscape ravaged by natural disasters, social disparity and changing industries placing economic pressure on families and individuals alike. And, disturbingly for many women in the region, home is far too often where violence and abuse also reside. It’s a dark underbelly of disparity and health-based inequality that belies the natural beauty of this area and the wholesome people who live here.

“Gendered violence impacts not only the individual and their family but has a devastating impact on our communities...”

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For Phillip Island’s Lija Matthews, figures and data illustrating the reality of women’s health in the region bear a very human face: that of her best friend, Sam Fraser, who was murdered by her ex-husband in 2018 after years of abuse and terror.

“Not only did I live through her horror while she was going through her separation… it’s the guilt that comes with it; and victims and survivors shouldn’t feel that guilt, it should all be on the perpetrator,” Lija said. “It’s not just Sam that was murdered. It’s like a little bit of all of us was taken that day. It’s just heartbreaking, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Gippsland has historical roots in industries such as agriculture, fisheries, power stations, forestry and timber mills. Arguably, this environment has heightened the ramifications of a highly gendered workforce: an environment where gender inequality has become normalised. It is within this context that the rate of family and gendered violence has been allowed to initially grow and then fester.

This is evident in the stark figures laid out in a recent Gippsland Women’s Health report, which shows that Gippsland has some of the state’s highest rates of family and gendered violence.

Centring on the six local government areas of Gippsland, the report noted the most significant issues affecting women were mental health, wellbeing and gendered violence. These issues and their subsequent health outcomes are compounded by a lack of access to critical healthcare services, doctors, specialists and women’s health experts across the region. Affordability, travel times, transportation difficulties and isolation add further strain to the challenges faced by the community in accessing essential services.

Of the 79 Victorian LGAs, Latrobe was placed first in terms of Victoria Police crime reporting rates in 2022. This means the region had the greatest number of ambulance call-outs for family violence incidents.

GWH Chief Executive Officer Kate Graham said men’s violence against women and women’s safety continues to be “one of the most significant challenges” in the region, along with a critical shortage of affordable safe housing for women and children, timely access to sexual and reproductive health services, and “little to no support and access to mental health and wellbeing services” for Gippsland women.

“Health literacy rates across Australia continue to be low and this is also reflected across Gippsland, which adds to the poor health outcomes women experience,” Kate said. “Until we understand and actively commit to improving gender inequality then we will continue to see the unacceptable and deplorable rates of gendered violence, low levels of women in leadership, disproportionately high rates of unpaid caring responsibility and poor health outcomes for women.”

Kate said gendered violence was the leading contributor to death, disability and illness for Australian women aged 15 to 44 years, with an average of 10 women hospitalised daily for assault injuries relating to family violence.

“Gendered violence impacts not only the individual and their family but has a devastating impact on our communities,” Kate said. “The cost of homelessness, disability, vicarious trauma, lost work and overall community liveability and safety must be understood and must become the responsibility of our entire community.”

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the breadth of women’s health issues across the region. And the GWH report is exposing something of a Pandora’s Box of issues in the region, such as limited mental health resources for an area plagued by natural disasters, shifting economic and industrial dynamics, and a short supply of health professionals able to assist. But for organisations such as GWH, at the bottom of Pandora’s Box lies hope, and opportunities to better improve circumstances for all communities.

Kate said the GWH group was working on a number of key objectives in the coming 12 months, including better representation at a government level for health services providers in Gippsland, seeking funding for efforts in primary prevention of gendered violence, continuing to improve access to health education, advocating for improved women’s health awareness campaigns, identifying opportunities to improve access to women’s health nurses in regional and remote areas, developing specific place-based projects with local health service providers and local government to improve access to services and enable women to re-enter the workforce, and delivering projects with a focus on specific sexual and reproductive health information.

Founded in memory of her friend Sam, Change for Sam is an organisation founded by Lija with the aim of providingresources and services to other women in need.

“The biggest thing would be fighting for and getting the opening of the Orange Door in Wonthaggi, which is a referral service,” Lija said. “It means that people from the Island are closer… because to travel three or four hours each way, it just wasn’t a possibility for a lot of people.”

The tyranny of distance is a key point noted in the GWH report, with access to timely, place-based healthcare services a barrier for Gippsland’s women. But a key measure moving forward, Lija said, was to reframe the role of family violence within the context of women’s health, along with continuing to challenge structures of gender inequity within society, for the sake and safety of women and their families.

For Lija, framing gendered violence as a women’s health issue is complex, as it places the burden of responsibility squarely on women’s shoulders as yet another health variable to factor into life. This needs to change, Lija says. “We can’t fix the issue without men being on board.”

“[Change for Sam] has been a part of a lot of gender equality stuff. A lot of local services that are involved…they have actually gone through their internals, read through policies and procedures and looked at how to do more for gender equality.

“It’s a problem that’s not going to go away overnight, but we can chip at it, chip at it and chip at it.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, call Triple Zero for police or other emergency services. For a list of resources and support services in your region, visit changeforsam.com.au and visit the GET HELP page. You can also call 1800respect to reach the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Line.

To show your support for Change for Sam, you can donate at changeforsam.com.au.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 29

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