Why I boycotted the National Summit on Women's Safety
By Cathy Oddie
Cathy Oddie is a part of the Victims of Crime Consultative Committee and Victoria Legal Aid's "Specialist Family Violence Court Project" steering project committee. Cathy is passionately committed to the healing, recovery and financial wellbeing of victim survivors of domestic and family violence. Cathy's piece "The Long Road Home" features in Issue One of Mona Magazine where she shares how her sense of belonging to the land where she grew up helps her heal from the past. She hails from regional Victoria.
Tuesday was the final day of the National Summit on Women’s Safety, where over 205 organisations have had the opportunity to come together in closed round-table and panel discussions as part of a call for government to commit on 12 key actions for women’s safety. Sounds great, right? Except for the fact that an intersectional and diverse range of domestic, family and sexual abuse and violence (DFSV) victim-survivors have been actively excluded from participating. Not only were we not invited to participate, but when we knocked on the door and asked to have a seat at the table, we abruptly had the door slammed shut in our faces.
Recently, an Australia-wide collective of DFSV victim-survivors and survivor advocates has formed. I am a member of this group of thirty incredible, professional women who are formidable and passionate in their commitment to addressing issues such as gender equality and violence against women and children. We speak from a position of lived experience of trauma, abuse and violence that most people would find hard to imagine.
Our Collective is intersectional in its membership and includes women who live with disability, identify as LGBTIQ and who are Indigenous or from CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) backgrounds.
Individually, members of the Collective have a wealth of professional skills and abilities. We have contributed to Royal Commissions, formal inquiries and consultations with government, not-for-profit and private sectors. We have shaped service delivery and design, been the catalyst of a range of significant law reforms and have contributed to the national conversation by raising awareness of the realities of experiencing violence and abuse. We have delivered countless speaking engagements and facilitated training to a variety of organisations. Many of us have completed advocacy and media training, and are members of a range of boards and advisory committees such as the Victim Survivor Advisory Council, Victims of Crime Consultative Committee and Victoria Legal Aid Specialist Family Violence Court Project Steering Committee. We are highly skilled and use our lived experience to inform change across a broad range of settings and audiences. It is important to recognise that many people with lived experience are also working professionally in roles where they are supporting women and children leaving situations of abuse in a variety of capacities. We believe our professional practice abilities are strengthened considerably by our lived experience expertise.
When it became apparent that victim-survivor voices were not being included at the Summit, we sent the following letter to a number of politicians, including Senator the Hon. Anne Ruston, Minister for Women’s Safety (Cth):
In response to this letter, Senator the Hon. Anne Ruston, Minister for Women’s Safety (Cth) announced at last Thursday night’s episode of the ABC’s Q+A that the members of our collective would be receiving formal invitations to participate in the Summit. The following email is what I and other group members received, otherwise known as the “non-invitation”:
Survivor advocates do not want to be spoken for or on behalf of. We want to tell our own stories of survival, hope and resilience and the impacts of trauma and systemic and structural failures have had on our lives.
The initial feelings of excitement and achievement that our Collective’s advocacy efforts had been heard and recognised, quickly dissipated when we received the “non-invitation”, and were replaced with confusion, fury and disappointment. Providing us with the link to the panel discussions which was already publicly accessible, and stating that we could provide feedback via online surveys does not equal an invitation to participate in the Summit in any meaningful way. To say we felt fobbed off and silenced is an understatement.
With these actions, the government and Summit organisers have managed to alienate the survivor advocate community of Australia and have missed the opportunity to centre the voices of lived experience. To quote Fiona Hamilton, a First Nations Lived Experience Survivor Advocate and member of the DFSV advocacy collective,
“The Women’s Safety Summit has unsettled any sense of safety that lived experience survivor advocates have managed to create for ourselves and each other.”
Whilst some panelists at the Summit have made a concerted effort to draw attention to the need for lived experience voices to be embedded within all discussions on domestic abuse and sexual violence, they have been saying that within panels by and large consisting purely of professionals with no lived experience representation.
Survivor advocates do not want to be spoken for or on behalf of. We want to tell our own stories of survival, hope and resilience and the impacts of trauma and systemic and structural failures have had on our lives. When I speak about enduring two, long-term abusive relationships, rape by a stranger, the death of my baby daughter due to the actions of my second perpetrator and the ongoing financial hardship I experience as a result of the financial abuse I have been subjected to, it is not from a theoretical, academic perspective, it is because I have lived it and am still suffering every day as a result. When other victim-survivors courageously disclose how their lives have been destroyed in family court, how they are living in poverty or facing homelessness, how they are suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression but cannot afford trauma specialist psychological support, this is because this is the reality most of us are facing on a daily basis.
What kind of message does it send when TV breakfast show presenter David Koch, is given preference to participate in this Summit when the majority of survivor voices have been silenced and excluded? Surely it would have been more appropriate to have included men whose lives have been significantly impacted by domestic abuse and who have played strong leadership roles in this sector such as Tarang Chawla and Ben Bjarnesen!
The time has come for the sector to stop infantilising victim-survivors and treating us in the paternalistic manner it traditionally has. Our advocacy movement has evolved and matured here in Australia and we demand to have equality of representation at all events and consultation processes which are relevant to any issue impacting the lives of those impacted by domestic abuse and sexual violence.
If the Summit’s organisers had consulted with the many lived experience survivor advocates who exist in Australia prior to this event being held, we would have been able to tell them which voices were most critical to be included. We could have told them it was absolutely imperative that the DFSV victim-survivors living with a disability, identifying as LGBTIQ, who are from Indigenous or CALD backgrounds should be represented within the panels and roundtable discussions at the Summit. If we had only been asked, we would have been able to tell the organisers that through elevating the voices of marginalised communities, everyone benefits.
Unfortunately, the gatekeepers of this event have now caused significant harm which has retraumatised many members of the victim-survivor community. This Summit has reinforced the existing power over rather than power with dynamics through not centering lived experience voices and instead focusing on using professional and academic panelists. There is a sense of complete cognitive dissonance when participants of the Summit wax lyrical about the need for victim-survivors to be included at every stage of the continuum of co-design through to co-production, at an event where those with lived experience have been actively excluded apart from a couple of tokenistic cherry-picked voices. What this Summit has felt like for most victim-survivors is that there is an important family event happening which we wish to attend, however when we get there, we’re told we can’t sit on the table with the ‘adults’ (academics/DFSV professionals) and instead we have to sit in a different room on the ‘kiddies’ table.
The time has come for the sector to stop infantilising victim-survivors and treating us in the paternalistic manner it traditionally has. Our advocacy movement has evolved and matured here in Australia and we demand to have equality of representation at all events and consultation processes which are relevant to any issue impacting the lives of those impacted by domestic abuse and sexual violence. This is particularly important as the needs of victim-survivors are not always in alignment with organisational service delivery priorities. We are fed-up to the back teeth of only being consulted when it is convenient, when it is a ‘tick-a-box’ exercise, or for our stories to continue to be used in exploitative or voyeuristic ways.
There is a saying in the disability sector which is applicable in this context, “Nothing about us, without us.” It is not clear who is responsible for the deliberate exclusion of people with lived experience from the Summit, but I cannot state strongly enough, that this has to be the last time that this ever happens.
Going forward from here what needs to happen? As the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children begins to be drafted, our Collective asks that all contributing governments support:
1. The establishment of a Victim Survivors Expert Advisory Panel for the next national plan to guide its development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
2. Embedding victim-survivor lived experience expertise through the principles of co-design and co-production in all DFSV policy, program design and service delivery, funded by or contributing to the national action plan, across primary prevention, early intervention, crisis response, and recovery.
Furthermore, we would like to make a call to action to any state government who would have the courage to host a DFSV Lived Experience Summit to give the opportunity for all victim-survivors to be able to participate in discussion on the issues impacting them and be in a safe, peer-led space. If the Federal Government will not invite us to the table, then we intend to build our own!
This blog was originally published to Cathy Oddie's Medium blog space where you can see more of Cathy's writing and advocacy.