Sad sign sums up what Australian women really need instead of Escaping Violence Payment

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Last week, thousands of Australians took to the streets in a nationwide show of grief and fury about the seemingly endless cycle of men’s violence against women that has resulted in the deaths of more than 30 women so far this year.

The Commonwealth government’s kneejerk response was to announce $925 million over five years to make the Escaping Violence Payment permanent.

The program, which was introduced by the Morrison Government in 2021, provides victim-survivors with up to $1500 in cash and up to $3500 in vouchers for “goods and services” to help them leave a violent partner.

On the surface this might sound like a good idea. After all, financial relief is desperately needed.

But the program is subject to strict eligibility criteria that many victim-survivors are unable to meet. Data released earlier this year shows that of the 57,041 applications made between July and September last year, only 24,471 were successful.

That’s fewer than half of all the applications.

A review of the program conducted in May last year also found that some victim-survivors were unable to show the proof of financial hardship needed to access the funds because they didn’t have a bank account in their name. It’s impossible to prove that you’re in financial stress when your abusive partner doesn’t allow you to have a bank account. (This is a well known form of financial abuse).

Even if you’re able to meet the eligibility criteria, median rents across Australia have now surpassed $600 a week. $1500 won’t even cover half the cost of a rental bond.

It’s also worth asking how much of the $925 million will end up in women’s pockets, and how much will be squandered on administration and bureaucratic overhead. Likewise we should ask what those living in violence are supposed to do for the weeks, if not months spent waiting while their claims are being assessed and processed.

Why not give the $925 million to shelters and services that are providing frontline support to victim-survivors every day, such as Domestic Violence NSW and Canberra Rape Crisis Centre? Why not give it to those who have been crying out for extra funding for years?

Politicians tell us repeatedly that ending men’s violence is “everyone’s responsibility”.

The Prime Minister himself has said it, on several occasions.

It’s a cop out.

When everyone is responsible, nobody is responsible.

Least of all the politicians telling us that it’s “everyone’s responsibility”.

I am one of countless people across Australia work in unfunded, grassroots organisations providing frontline support to people who have been impacted by gendered violence. There are thousands of us.

And that’s an incredibly bad thing.

The organisation I founded, End Rape on Campus Australia, provides support to people who have been impacted by sexual violence within the higher education sector.

We have lived experience of sexual violence and some of us had experience working in the higher education or sexual violence response sectors.

But like many in the domestic and sexual violence arena, no funding means we do the work unpaid. It means we don’t have the insurance we need to have ongoing volunteers. Vicarious trauma is an ever-present threat, but we can’t pay for the support to mitigate that risk.

We are unpaid and, frankly, unqualified to be doing the work that we do.

But too often it’s us, or nobody.

We formed as a group of young women who saw huge gaps in support for student victim-survivors – gaps that exist because funded frontline services run on the fumes of an oily rag. They simply don’t have the resources to help everyone, so victim-survivors are left to depend on unpaid, unqualified people like me to get help.

Unfunded, volunteer-run organisations like mine also engage in a significant amount of public advocacy work. We lobby at state and territory, and federal levels, for improved services – something that funded services are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to do.

Organisations that receive funding from governments to provide frontline support are often subject to gag orders in their agreements. Lobbying or publicly critiquing decision-makers risks what little resources they have.

Others in the women’s sector refuse to publicly speak about government failures for fear of losing their seat at the table. Those who don’t critique the government too publicly or too loudly, are usually the ones who are invited to the table, and being at the table means you’re more likely to be supported by philanthropic donors with deep pockets. So public statements are tempered, watered down, not saying what needs to be said because for some, being in the room is more important than speaking truth to power.

The result is that just like with the frontline support work, too much of the heavy lifting to fight for better policies and increased funding is left to unpaid, unqualified people to do.

I don’t think many realise just how much of the work to address men’s violence against women is done by people like me – unpaid, unqualified people. Friends and families of victim-survivors. People with lived experience of violence, who don’t want others to experience what they did. And all because politicians have made choices.

Yes, Australia’s failure to address men’s violence against women is a political choice.

It’s a choice made by politicians who can find a spare $50 billion to add to their war chests (bringing defence spending to a staggering $100 billion over the next decade), but who couldn’t find more than $2.23 billion over five years to fund the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children.

It’s a choice that means the work of providing support to vulnerable victim-survivors is too often left to either overstretched organisations, or to unpaid, unqualified people whose best will never be enough to address the sheer scale of the problem.

It’s been the honour of a lifetime to have had the trust of the hundreds of victim-survivors who have sought the help of my organisation. But it’s unacceptable that they had to turn to us for help.

It’s unacceptable that across the country, people who have been harmed by sexual, domestic and family violence are forced to turn to friends, family members and organisations run by volunteers with no formal training for help.

They deserve better.

They deserve governments whose actions match their words, who will listen to the many incredible experts in violence response and prevention that we have in Australia, and most importantly, who will find the funding we need to ensure our safety as quickly as they could find it for their war toys.

Sharna Bremner is the founder and director of End Rape on Campus Australia.

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