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Hundreds protest closure of women’s refuges

Hundreds gathered in Pitt St Mall to protest the closure of womens’ homelessness shelters, reports Matilda Surtees.

Hundreds attended a candlelight vigil in Sydney’s CBD last night to protest the closure of up to 20 women’s only homelessness services throughout the city, a key plank in the state government’s Going Home Staying Home (GHSH) reforms.

An estimated 300 supporters congregated in Pitt St Mall from 5.30 pm, surpassing the 200 predicted last week by Sydney University Women’s Officer and Students for Women’s Only Services (SWOS) organiser Julia Readett. Speakers included a number of politicians and refuge managers and workers.

Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi spoke briefly, stating the need for “compassion” in the provision of ”services for women,” rather than administrative efficiency – which the NSW State Government has cited as the reason for the consolidation of homelessness services.

The need for specialist services for women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds was emphasised by Daphne Lowe Kelly, the Convenor for the Asian Australian Alliance, who noted these women are “often not able to communicate with mainstream organisations” and “need particular sensitivity.”

Marilyn Fogarty, a refuge worker, spoke about the need for specific services for Aboriginal women and the insensitivity of pushing Aboriginal women into religiously affiliated services. “With the history of the church and Aboriginal women, [these closures are] not appropriate,” Fogarty said.

The importance and individual significance of “safe, gender-specific” services was reiterated by university student Summer Lea, who spoke about the positive impact such refuges have had for her: “I left home at 15 and never returned. My first placement [in a Leichhardt women’s refuge that is currently facing closure] gave me the skills and empowerment for adulthood, and the workers helped me cope with my trauma.”

A number of speakers indicated their continued commitment to the campaign. Labor MP Linda Burney declared Labor would remain committed to the campaign against the reforms until the next state election, and criticised the “dangerous” rhetoric of ‘going home, staying home’ for women who are fleeing domestic violence.

The distribution of interim funding for unsuccessful tenders – the Service Support Fund – has yet to be announced. SWOS are circulating a petition demanding the reinstatement of funding for specialist women’s refuges and services. The petition, which will be submitted to parliament upon completion, attracted an estimated 400 signatures during last night’s vigil, according to Sydney University Women’s Officer and vigil co-organiser Phoebe Moloney.

Readett was pleased with the how protest went: “The event was incredibly moving. For me, as an organiser, you can often forget the magnitude of the issue.”

“Our next step is to get as many signatures as we can once Uni gets back and continue our work as a collective,” she said. “We’ll watch what happens with the petition and continue the dialogue and spreading awareness about these devastating reforms.”