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Domestic violence package: safety at home is important, but women must also be able to leave.

Domestic violence training for hospital workers, GPs and police is welcome. But where will these front line staff actually refer women to when they need crisis accommodation, given the current shortage? Catherine Gander writes.

Malcolm Turnbull’s recent announcement of a $100 million package to address domestic and family violence through a Women’s Safety Program was welcomed across the nation.

To hear the Prime Minister take leadership and make this tragic issue facing Australian women and children a priority for governments was heartening. It is a call that Australia has been waiting for.

The package announced by the Prime Minister along with the Minister for Women aims to make women safer on the streets, at home and online. The initiatives announced are strong steps in the right direction.

However, something vital is missing.

On the positive side, the package focuses on shifting culture and changing attitudes towards women to reduce and prevent domestic violence in the long-term. Given that 25 per cent of young men still don’t think it is serious if a man hits their girlfriend after they have had a few drinks, we have a long way to go.

The package includes an expansion to the Safe at Home Programs, which support women and children to remain in their home and the perpetrator to be removed instead. This increased investment to assist more women who choose to remain in their homes is central to shifting the accountability for violence onto the perpetrator, and gives more women the option of not leaving their homes and their communities.

The Safe at Home Program provides specialist workers as well as security upgrades to homes that could be as simple as changing the locks or, in high-risk circumstances, installing surveillance cameras and panic buttons. As Rosie Batty said, it is about giving women the choice. It will not be the right solution for all women. That choice can mean the right for women to not have to uproot from their lives, and for their children to be able to remain at their schools, with their friends and in their neighbourhood.

But what is missing from the announcement is investment for those women who do need to leave, and who will need a women’s refuge, shelter or safe house.

This investment is required to give women the choice to leave, or to have somewhere safe to go while the security upgrades and legal interventions are made to enable them to return home safely.

It is about women having the choice not to remain in a violent home because all the specialist women’s domestic violence refuges are full. It is about the choice to stay in a safe place when women don’t want to return to their homes because they don’t feel safe there, or the memories of the violence are too traumatic for them and their children.

In Australia last year, 2,800 women who chose to go to a women’s domestic violence refuge could not be accommodated, and this figure does not include accompanying children.

Currently women’s refuges are included in Australia’s federal and state-funded homelessness programs. This has seen women’s refuges subsumed into the homelessness agenda, where they have not been recognised or adequately supported for the complex homicide prevention work they are required to provide. And in turn, the specialist needs of women and children trying to escape domestic violence have slowly morphed into a welfare response to homelessness — where the outcomes are focussed on saving tenancies, not lives.

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Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 has six outcome areas, the fourth one being services that “meet the needs of women and their children experiencing violence”.

How can the governments continually overlook the need for women and children escaping domestic violence to have somewhere safe to go? Yesterday’s package included domestic violence training for front line staff in hospitals, for GPs and for police, but where will the front line staff actually refer women and children to when they need specialist domestic violence crisis accommodation, given the current shortage?

The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) has developed a Women’s Refuge and Housing Program (WRAHP) proposal that clearly puts forward a well-considered and developed response to address the women’s refuge and housing pathway shortage.

The proposal recommends shifting women’s refuges and transitional housing out of the homelessness program area and into a national domestic violence program where it belongs. WEL rightly points out that escaping domestic violence is vastly different in character to homelessness, and requires a specialised program. The proposal has received overwhelming in-principle support from key national and state organisations and individuals. It is a response that many recognise is missing from current announcements.

Domestic violence is a complex issue and there are many drivers that Australia needs to grapple with and invest in before we will see a reduced need for services on the ground.

All of the initiatives announced by the Prime Minister are needed to go forward, but while we work to change community attitudes and behaviours to prevent domestic violence in the future, we need governments to provide adequate specialist services to women and children in crisis. The need is still here and the welcome investment in raising awareness will increase service demand. This has happened previously.

It is not a case of either/or. While some will say investing in women’s refuges is like having “an ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff”, in so many ways we are still at the point where we still need that ambulance there.

Leila Alavi, one of the 63 women that have been killed this year in Australia, tried over a period of months to get into a women’s refuge in NSW. According to her sister, she made over 12 attempts to get into a women’s refuge, but they were continuously full.

Women in Australia still need to be able to access the specialised support of a woman’s domestic violence refuge. When women need it, their need is no different to that of any other Australian who requires an ambulance.

One hour, one day, one week, one month later can be fatal.

Catherine Gander is a spokesperson for the Coalition for Women’s Refuges and works as the principal consultant for the NGO Consulting Group. She has over 20 years of experience and is regarded as an expert on domestic violence. You can find Catherine on Facebook and LinkedIn.

This post originally appeared on the ABC. 

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