Herstory

The story began in December 1976 when the NP Women’s Centre registered Articles of Incorporation and became Women’s Centre New Plymouth Incorporated.  The objects under which the Centre was established, included some key points:

  • A contact point for all women on an apolitical, non-discriminatory basis
  • To provide child-care facilities
  • To provide reading rooms, a library and a place of support for women
  • Counselling services
  • Provision of short-term accommodation for women and their children in desperate circumstances
  • A referral service for women
  • Any other such activities as may be necessary to further the interests of women

There was also provision for several elected members and office holders to administer the Centre.

Move forward to 1982 and a major problem facing the Centre was finding refuge for battered women with nowhere to go, and who were unable to stay at the Centre as it was an 80-year-old house and considered unsafe for domestic purposes.

“In the first 4 months of this year (1982), we have recorded 38 pleas from women seeking accommodation, 28 living in domestic violence situations, this compares with 42 in all of 1981 and is just the tip of the iceberg.  We only get the really desperate women who have contacted CAB, real estate agents, lifeline, church organisations and MPs.” (a note from the archives of the Women’s Centre).

In 1983 the Emergency Shelter Trust Board administered 5 emergency houses in the NP area.  In August of that year the Housing Corporation offered them 2 more houses due to the housing crisis in NP at that time!  The Board was keen for other organisations to take on the responsibility for administering one of the houses.  Discussions took place between the Trust and the Women’s Centre Co-ordinator Karen Johns and Beryl Allison who attended a meeting, became members of the Trust and began the process to take over one of these houses.  Ideas were formulated about the administration of the house and after a lot of grief, a long period of negotiation, plans for renovation and the removal of existing tenants, that the beginning of the “refuge” idea was born.

It was still being discussed in 1984.  Women were being sent to friends, relatives and volunteers’ homes, using caravans and whatever other accommodation could be found.  Ms Johns said it was hard coping with the demand.

Another issue which had to be dealt with was whether or not the group could call the house a “refuge” and thereby incorporate and join the National Refuge Collective – thus having access to the many resources of this body such as a part-time salaried worker, money and other resources.  The Trust Board was concerned that they may lose the house if it became a “refuge” – i.e. not fulfilling the criteria under which they had acquired the house (emergency accommodation due to the housing crisis in NP at this time).

The group decided to incorporate itself with a Constitution which would satisfy both the Trust Board and the Refuge Collective.  The house was to be used as an emergency shelter for women and children, focussing on women experiencing domestic violence.  A constitution was drafted; but this was turned down by the National Refuge Collective.

During this time the Emergency Shelter Group became demoralised – several of the original group left due to other commitments and the remaining members were unable to complete any practical work on the house.  A small group of dedicated women continued to meet – and after much negotiation all parties agreed that the house would be administered solely as a Women’s Refuge.

Just prior to Christmas 1984, the Taranaki Women’s Refuge was born and began operating as an independent general refuge, affiliated to the National Collective.  A part-time paid worker was employed, and volunteers operated a 24-hour phone line, thus providing a crucial service to the women of Taranaki.  It was given life by the energetic women from the Women’s Centre who saw a need for women and their children to have a place of refuge and safety as a result of the domestic violence they were experiencing.  Some of these women are still around today.  The refuge movement nationally and locally owes a lot to these dedicated and very political women who lobbied government for the initial funding to obtain safehouses.

During this time, there was also under the umbrella of the Women’s Centre, another group called Rape Crisis, who were politically active and responding to rape and sexual abuse specifically.  In the late ‘80s there were street marches and awareness raising about the sexual abuse of women and children in our community – sparked off by the recent murder at that time of 6-year old Teresa Cormack.  Banners – “Women Against Violence,” “Sisters Unite” and “Women Unite – Take Back the Night” served to remind the community that sexual abuse is of major concern here in Taranaki.

Ngaere Smith, Jenny Yuile, Sandra Morris, Julie Lambie, Diane (Ngaropi) Cameron, Jools Joslin and Beryl Allison featured in newspaper articles at this time, and there were many seminars, community education programmes and trainings that began to focus specifically on sexual abuse and rape.  Robbie Greenwood began self-defence classes for women.

This part of the Centre evolved to become the Taranaki Safer Centre and more recently Wellstop.  But that’s a whole other herstory.

Fast forward to 2003:

At this time the Refuge was “On Notice” which meant it was under the statutory management of the National Collective.  There had been complaints regarding the service provision and that they had not met their operating standards to the satisfaction of the CYF auditors.  The National organisation’s Core Group decided to employ someone to “manage” the organisation’s return to full operational capacity for a period of 12 weeks, if that were even possible.

Lee Haskell took on the role of Refuge Manager on a short-term contract reporting progress weekly to the Core Group Chairs.  It was clear on day one that this would be a huge job requiring a massive culture change – the mandate being to move the old collective into a more structured and credible organisation so that sustainable funding could be sourced for what was clearly a growing need – and that they could come off Notice.

The town office operated out of one room in Egmont Street, with a part-time Administrator, 2 advocates (a job-share situation) and quite a few volunteers. The Safehouse was in Bell Block and one advocate was semi-living there with her own family and using the safehouse facilities and power.  Everyone was claiming expenses for every time they accessed their own vehicles for all sorts of reasons, including personal use of the refuge vehicle and petrol for all manner of personal travel. Lee did not have a desk, a chair, a phone or anything with which to begin work.  The bank account was in the red and there was no money to pay anyone anything the following week.  To say it was a challenge was an understatement!

First job for Lee – a trip to the bank to arrange an overdraft and a commitment to them that things were changing immediately.  Obtaining new town premises was also a priority.  We shifted into a bigger suite of rooms up above The Engraver.  A new safehouse was also vital given that everyone knew where the old one was (this involved extensive negotiations with Housing NZ).  A new vehicle, phones, furniture, computers, stationery (which necessitated preparing umpteen funding applications) from wherever funding could be sourced.  Removing all of the existing volunteers and writing  new Policies and Procedures, processes, employment contracts and updating the Constitution.  Lee’s initial employment contract was only for 25 hours per week however she found herself working at home late into the evening for many more hours than she was being paid.

The Core Group Chairs visited to follow up on the weekly reports and immediately extended her contract for the balance of the year, on the proviso that she obtained independent funding for the role.  The auditor was visiting regularly to check progress and things started to feel OK.  More money was secured to employ 2 new part-time advocates, enter Megan and Moira.  Denise was contracted to assist with fundraising and some good volunteers began to surface including Helen and Donna, which allowed for a clean start to the rostered after-hours crisis line.  Lorraine from the original collective continued as the office administrator for a further couple of years with new software to manage the payroll and updated accounting software for managing the accounts for the auditor.

The inaugural Board of Trustees was established.  By now we were firmly operational and were able to hold the first of our major fundraising events, a two day “Deck the Rooms” event, raising the staggering amount of $25k.  This was followed by an Art Auction which raised approximately $15k.  Both were indicative of what has become outstanding and continuing community support.  Throughout this transitional period, the one constant was Corrine Joseph.  She had been a volunteer since the days of the Women’s Centre and had tried to steer the ship though those troubled times mentioned above.  Corrine was invited onto the Board of Trustees and held an honorary place there until her passing some time in 2005 or 2006.

In 2004, we realised that it was 20 years since the organisation’s birthday, so it was decided to commemorate this milestone by planting a Kowhai tree on Marsland Hill.

The golden kowhai (this symbol is still used by refuge today) is about hope and healing.  Hope – in knowing that spring brings a fresh start even after the cruellest winter.  Healing – for the body and the spirit through traditional infusions of the kowhai bark and flower.  Refuge offers Hope and Healing, Shelter and Support – for victims of family violence.  In 1988 Beryl Alison and Jenny Yuile planted a kowhai tree in the Women’s Centre grounds to mark the start of Women’s Refuge Awareness week. (ref Women’s Centre archives).

Refuge was getting some great publicity by now, with requests for comments in the newspaper about the growing incidents of domestic violence and the impact on women and families.  The headlines were similar to what is still seen now – rising numbers, severity of violence, mental health issues, breaking the cycle, and so on.  Women and children were, and still are, dying at the hands of their abusers.

We were now being recognised as the experts that we truly were, and were able to provide credible contributions and education to the community.  There were invitations to speak to other groups and organisations and strategic planning was possible instead of purely reactive responses.

Lee Haskell