By Kirra Grimes

A GROUP of domestic violence survivors is calling for more support for South Gippsland women experiencing hardship, with a proposal to open a women’s centre in Leongatha.
Members of the Leongatha-based ‘Wonder Women’ family violence support group are exploring funding opportunities to open a centrally-located facility run by women, for women, offering easily accessible education programs, counselling services and work experience opportunities.
They envisage a model in which casual and full-time staff employed at the centre would partner with existing community and health organisations including community houses, employment agencies, medical practices and not-for-profit groups to help female family violence survivors become “empowered, confident, and capable of entering the workforce and moving forward in their lives”.
Once established, the centre would extend and vary its services to cater to the needs of children escaping family violence, as well as adult females.
Family violence counsellor Marianne Ruff, facilitator and founding member of the Wonder Women support group, which is based at the Leongatha Community House, says the group came up with the proposal in response to the lack of services in South Gippsland geared towards addressing the long-term health and wellbeing needs of female survivors of trauma.
Ms Ruff said although the 2016 Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended more be done to address the long term needs of women and children who’ve experienced family violence, not much had changed in the intervening years, with the majority of services in South Gippsland still focused on immediate and short term needs of those in crisis situations.
“A lot of money goes to crisis management- making sure the victim’s free from physical harm and has access to food, clothing, a roof over their head. But we’re talking about the next level: health and wellbeing, and education so it doesn’t become an intergenerational problem, and so women don’t fall back into abusive situations.
“There’s a big gap there. For women in recovery, post-crisis, there’s virtually nothing. Our group’s lucky to get access to some funding from the Leongatha Community House, through the Shire, but that’s only about $2000 a year, shared between all the groups that use the house.
“So this is an idea that’s come from the bottom up, and I’ve spent the last two years working with women, crystallising the idea,” Ms Ruff said.
The Wonder Women support group itself was born, in 2017, out of its founding members’ frustrations with the lack of long term supports available to women in recovery, said Ms Ruff.
And although members agree the group continues to enrich their lives and support ongoing wellbeing, they regularly find themselves searching for a suitable place to meet, as they compete for space with other users of the Leongatha Community House.
“When the rooms are all booked, we’ve got nowhere to go. So we don’t feel like we have a stable and safe home,” said group member Bec.
The Wonder Women say a dedicated women’s centre would not only address their group’s need for a safe, reliable meeting place, but would encourage more women to engage with services they previously found difficult to access.
And with their proposal, for the ‘Awaken Brighter Futures Family Violence and Trauma Recovery Centre,’ ready to go, they’re now seeking the funds to purchase a suitable building in Leongatha.
After reaching out to Danny O’Brien, representatives of the group, including Ms Ruff, were granted a meeting with Family Safety Victoria’s principal project officer, on behalf of the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, but were not encouraged by the response their proposal received.
“For about a nine hour round trip via public transport, we got a one hour meeting, where it just felt like we were being patted on the head, and they were ticking a box,” said Ms Ruff.
“It’s hard to know know where to go from there.
“I’ve written a lot of letters to people in government, people like [family violence campaigner] Phil Cleary, and most of the time I feel like I’m bashing my head up against a wall because everything moves so slowly.
“But I know it’s a fight that needs to be had. It’s a local issue but it’s also a national disaster that’s been hidden and entrenched and accepted for too long.
“So, we’re putting the call out and exploring all avenues. We’re not giving up and we’re not going away.”