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Giving a voice to the voiceless: the Women’s House empowering women

the Women's House Coordinator Cheyne Bull

8 March 2020

Gender equality is everyone’s issue; our individual actions, behaviours and mindsets can have multiple impacts on our larger society. We hold the power to make the world a better, fairer place for all. On International Women’s Day, its themes of #EachforEqual and ‘collective individualism’ are indicative of the need for change now for an equitable future for all. 

For women experiencing homelessness, gender equality and equal pay, workplace conditions, and health opportunities are shamefully much further beyond their reach. Their voices are silent in an equality debate where their rights are paramount.

Reflecting on gender equality for International Women’s Day 2020, Cheyne Bull, Coordinator for the Women’s House, talks about how her team is collectively making change happen by empowering women from marginalised backgrounds to find their voice and advocate for their rights.

The term collective individualism really resonates with what the Women’s House is all about. We are a group of individual women - women who are experiencing homeless or at risk of homelessness, dedicated volunteers, hard-working staff and generous donors - who collectively come together to make change happen and create a more equal world.

Our volunteers, staff and donors are constantly challenging stereotypes and assumptions that wider society holds about women experiencing homelessness. They challenge the mindset that women are to blame for their situation, that “one of us” could never end up on the streets, that domestic violence and drug dependency only happens to other women, women who were too “poor” or “screwed up” to know any better.

Our staff, volunteers and donors create real change by sharing their compassion and knowledge about the gaping holes in the system, the very unequal playing field for women who are living with a disability, Indigenous, transgender or otherwise socially disadvantaged and the gendered reasons why women are particularly vulnerable to homelessness and how, as a direct result of gender inequality in Australia, women aged 55 plus are now the fastest growing segment of homelessness.

However, beyond the many women who keep the Women’s House running, there is another group of women for whom the impact of gender and intersecting inequalities could not be more real. These are the service users themselves, women who may be experiencing homelessness, vulnerable, unsafe and who lack access to basic human rights including shelter, health, work, education and safety. A burden falls on all of these women to act as advocates and activists in the struggle to combat discrimination and oppression.

It is these women who truly embody the spirit of collective individualism, and it is the strength and power of these women who I want to shine the spotlight on this International Women’s Day.

What is clear at the Women’s House is the intersections of privilege and oppression are not left at the door when women enter the space, and every day we see women doing incredible work to educate their peers through respectful, loving and at times firm conversations and strong actions. I have seen trans and gay women patiently explaining to older women who access the space the meaning of the alphabet soup (LGBTQIA+) and I have heard the same older women acknowledging how much their mindset has changed since coming to the Women’s House.

I have seen trans women time and time again assert their right to be in the space as women, leading conversations about experiences of transition or using the space to try out new make-up and clothes. I have heard refugees and women of color call out white women for their colonial views, challenging them to consider their views and how they share them. I have seen Aboriginal women bring their culture into the space, playing music, contributing art and recently challenging other women’s beliefs about ‘Australia Day’. I have seen women of all kinds advocating to staff on behalf of other women, to make sure their peers are getting the support they need.

We also bear witness to the external advocacy work that so many strong and courageous women take upon themselves. There are women who are employed to speak at schools about their own experience, to help school children individualise and understand experiences of homelessness and trauma. There are incredible women who have stepped forward to speak truth to power at royal commissions related to sexual abuse, mental health and more. There are women who have previously worked as sex workers and who now work as peer workers, educating social workers about how best to support sex workers. There is the long-term street homeless woman who always kept a protective eye out for other women sleeping rough, fighting off predators who target street sex workers and young women.

There are the recovered addicts, now employed to support their peers to understand their own pathways out of addiction. There are the strident human-rights advocates who agitate to hold local services to a higher standard of service for homeless women. There are the women who have sat on the SHM client committee and consulted with other women to make sure their voices were being heard at the senior management level. There are the social housing and rooming-house residents who take it upon themselves to identify vulnerable women in St Kilda and introduce them to the Women’s House support services, changing many lives in the process.

I am proud to say that we here at the Women’s House stand alongside the most marginalised women when they speak up for themselves and others, and we hope in this way we encourage these women to continue with their advocacy. We see the strength these women possess and we feel privileged to walk alongside them and apply the learnings to our own individual and collective action to create a more gender equal society.

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