‘We need to have a say’: New course to help domestic violence survivors become advocates

Illawarra Mercury – Kate McIlwain

There’s no more powerful way to understand the impact of domestic violence than through the eyes of someone who has experienced it.

But according to Illawarra Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre director Lula Dembele – herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence as an adult – women who have agreed to share their most harrowing personal experience have sometimes “been left with the short stick”.

“We’re the ones who are asked to delve into our most personal experiences and then we’re basically told ‘well, thank you for that, here’s 50 bucks or a $50 voucher’,” she said.

“We’re not seen as equal to the people who are academics and experts in this arena and we’re not even seen as equal to the people who run the services who are supposed to be supporting us.”

In an effort to change this, the centre – expected to open in a temporary location this year – has announced the creation of a new Australia-first program to help dozens more victim-survivors become advocates.

“We’re trying to change those attitudes and make sure that victim-survivors, those with the contextual expertise, are really driving the solutions that we need as a community, as a state and as a nation to end domestic family and sexual violence,” Ms Dembele said.

Over three years, up to 60 women will have the chance to do the ‘Experience into Expertise’ Victim Survivor Advocacy Program, which will be designed and delivered by victim-survivors and is funded by South32 Illawarra Metallurgical Coal.

Ms Dembele said the course would be the first national victim-survivor led advocacy program in the country.

Faith Labaro, a survivor who is helping design the trauma recovery centre, said the perspective of those who have experienced domestic violence should be “the pinnacle” for service providers and policy development.

“This is a service that is actually catered for us, so we need to have a say on how we want the services to be offered,” she said.

“How can you meet our meets if you didn’t ask us? The thing about this program is that they really put a value of what you can contribute, it’s not just sharing your stories here and there and then moving on.

“It’s also about building your confidence, because being a survivor of domestic violence you already have to go through so much and to even be able to stand here and have the confidence to talk to other people takes so much out of you.”

Jane Matts, a lived experience advocate who helps to run the Sisters In Law Project which supports women through the family court process, said Rosie Batty’s experience showed the powerful impact of a victim-survivor perspective.

“She really got the ball rolling on this, with lived experience advocacy,” Ms Matts, who took part in the Voices For Change program run by the Luke Batty Foundation, said.

“The experiences of people who have been through domestic, family or sexual violence add a richness to help develop policy and processes that can better manage the lives of survivors.”

Ms Dembele said the course would build on the recent inaugural Australian Domestic Violence, Family and Sexual Violence Recovery and Healing Conference, which also highlighted the perspective of victim-survivors and brought together people from around Australia.

South32 IMC Vice President of operations Peter Baker said the company, which will contribute $300,000 over the three years, wanted to raise further awareness of gender-based violence and help to prevent it from happening.

“Sadly, gender-based violence remains far too common,” he said.

The mining company also gave the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre $250,000 last year to help establish the trauma recovery centre.