Stabbed in the Heart – Feminism and the Demise of Women’s Refuges in New South Wales

Embrace the base


Second wave feminism has its symbolic roots in the women’s peace camps at Greenham Common in the 1980s.


Women gave up their ordinary lives to camp out in appalling conditions to protest against nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. What took place in the camps were not only protests such as Embrace the Base depicted above. Through their very existence, the source of inspiration for women around the world, came the reinvigoration of a feminist discourse concerning the manner in which patriarchy condones and reveres violence, particularly violence against women. Greenham common peace camps were a symbol of women’s empowerment. Women’s refuges, which have their genesis in the 1970s (the first women’s refuge was opened in 1971 in Chiswick, UK), along with rape crisis centres took on fresh significance as the front line of the women’s movement, supporting women fleeing violence. Women”s refuges have been a front line service ever since. And now, in the new age of neoliberalism women’s refuges are being shut down.

The title of Wendy Bacon’s article in New Matilda ‘ – The Gutting and Gagging of Feminist Women’s Refuges in NSW – gets straight to the heart of the matter.  ”More than 25 feminist women’s refuges in NSW have lost their government funding,” she says, ”with their buildings being handed over to religious or other charities. Many shelters will no longer focus on providing specialist services for domestic violence victims. And the attack on services for Aboriginal communities has been especially savage.’

Outsourcing to the lowest bidder is a rationale that is as much ideological as it is economic. Services run for decades by dedicated women fully conversant with the feminist discourse on domestic violence, with a deep understanding of and empathy for victims, will now be provided by charities such as Mission Australia or The Samaritans, charities whose business model is little different from that of a corporation such as Serco or Transfield dedicated to securing government tenders in the service sector.

Having spent time in three women’s refuges so far, and through the services and resources they provide or are linked to, received ongoing support, I can say that the closure of women’s refuges is a much bigger loss than simply losing safe havens. Along with the bricks and mortar, what is being closed down or re-packaged under the auspices of corporate-style ngos  is feminist discourse itself and the insights this discourse provides. We are witnessing the decimation of the very language of domestic violence, language critical of abuse from physical to verbal and emotional, an understanding of the damage that is done to women and children, the bringing to light of the injustices of domestic violence. We are also seeing the demise or sidelining of the support and campaigning of feminists behind the scenes on behalf of victims – from court support, transport, help with re-housing, counselling to financial assistance. The closure of women’s refuges is the gagging of feminism itself.

Why is this happening? I contend because feminism is dangerous. Feminism threatens to undermine corporate-led neoliberal ideology. Feminism must be hollowed out and re-packaged corporate-style, as is happening with the Beyonce-led Gucci funded campaign Chime for Change, launched in 2013 at a TEDx Women luncheon in California.

I visited the Greenham peace camps many times. I joined in the protests. I was young then and had yet to comprehend the devastating personal consequences of domestic violence. Now I do know. Which is why I can’t sit back and say nothing while the heart of the women’s movement is being slaughtered and Gucci places itself at the helm.

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