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What do the federal and Victorian state budgets mean for women’s health?

Women’s Health West has been looking closely at the federal and Victorian budgets for 2014–15 and we are concerned that many decisions will have a disproportionate impact on women, and will increase health inequity in Australia. It is essential that budgeting takes gender equity into account, and that decision-making reflects the different experiences, needs and concerns of women and men. This article highlights several positive commitments from state and federal government, and also outlines the potential negative impacts on women’s health, wellbeing and safety in key areas.

Violence against women

The federal government will honour important past funding commitments in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022 and the $5.2 million committed over five years for the Foundation to Prevent Violence against Women and their Children.

Disappointingly, there is no new federal funding to prevent violence against women, and the $4 million cut from family courts will cause delays to family hearings and compromise the welfare of children and safety of women experiencing violence.

In Victoria, we were excited to see just over $42 million in new funds committed to the family violence sector. This will increase our capacity to offer crisis response and counselling to women experiencing family violence. What is most significant about this new money is that it is the first time that crisis response to police referrals has received direct funding.

While new state funding is welcome, it still falls short of what is needed to meet the needs of women and children escaping violence.

Health

The $7 Medicare co-payments announced in the Federal Budget will cause additional financial stress for low income women and men. This will have a greater overall impact on women, who experience higher rates of disability and mental illness and are more likely to need to visit their GP regularly. More women than men are sole or primary carers and responsible for the health care of children and family members who are elderly or who have a disability. Census data shows that 84 per cent of single parent families in the western region are headed by women.

We were frustrated by the announcement of a $367.9 million cut to federal preventative health spending over four years, and the plan to close the National Preventive Health Agency.

The Victorian 2014–15 Budget, however, outlines several positive spending announcements for public health services (see the VCOSS State Budget Breakdown 2014-2015 for more details). This good news is tempered by significant gaps in action to redress health inequity and no increase in funding for prevention work.

Considering the recent work of the state government to engage with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities, and the development of a Victorian LGBTI Health and Wellbeing Strategy, we are concerned that no new funding has been committed to initiatives in this area.

Housing and homelessness

Australia has taken a step backwards in our national response to housing and homelessness.

No ongoing funding will be allocated to the National Rental Affordability Scheme and there is no certainty beyond 2015 in the joint funding agreement between state and federal governments to redress homelessness and increase housing affordability.

This will have a disproportionate impact on women escaping family violence, who make up 32 per cent of people seeking specialist homeless services across Australia. Women and other disadvantaged population target groups rely heavily on the availability of social housing and affordable private rental accommodation.

We applaud the Victorian Government’s commitment of $124.4 million over four years to the National Partnership on Affordable Housing, but it is unclear how the services will continue to meet the needs of people experiencing housing stress and homelessness if long-term federal funding is not secured.

The absence of new funds for social housing is a significant gap in the State 2014–15 Budget.

Income support and entitlements

This year’s Federal Budget contained a strong message that government was making ‘hard decisions’ in welfare spending to encourage greater participation in employment. Our concern is that spending decisions included in this budget will exacerbate poverty and inequity, but not adequately redress the barriers to workforce participation. Such barriers include the lack of affordable childcare options, workplace stigma and discrimination, and the lack of accessible work options for people with a disability.

It is also clear that changes to income support payments will have a disproportionate impact on women, who make up the majority of single parents and primary carers. For example:

  • An unemployed single parent with one eight-year-old child will lose 12 per cent of their weekly income ($54 per week)
  • Single parents earning two-thirds of the average wage will lose between 5.6 and 7 percent of their disposable income
  • The Family Tax Benefit B will be replaced with a $750 annual payment. This means a loss of over $3,000 per year for some parents and a shift away from fortnightly payments. This loss of fortnightly payments is likely to increase the homelessness risks for sole-parent families who do not receive child support.

Unemployed young people will experience greater financial hardship following new restrictions involving six-month delays in Newstart payments and which, once accessed, only last for a six-month period.

This has dangerous implications for youth homelessness, young families and women leaving violence. For example, we know that many women stay in unsafe situations because of financial insecurity. Women experience additional barriers to maintaining regular work due to ongoing violence and abuse.

As a positive example of support for participation in employment and education, we welcome the federal government’s commitment to rolling out the full National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Education

Vocational education is an important pathway for supporting women from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in employment, so the absence of gender equity considerations in this area of the Federal Budget is extremely disappointing.

To save $1 billion over four years, several programs that primarily support women have been cut, including a program to support single and teenage parents and a workplace English language and literacy program that supported mainly newly-arrived and refugee women.

In a backward move for gender equity, savings will be partially redirected to a new initiative to support participants in trade apprenticeships for male-dominated industries, which represents only five per cent of all students enrolled in vocational education.

The Federal Budget also outlines plans to deregulate fees for higher education, which would remove limits on the amount that universities can charge students for tuition, and plans to increase interest on student loans from approximately 3 per cent up to 6 per cent.

These decisions will have a disproportionate impact on young Australian women. Women participate in higher education at a rate 1.4 times higher than men, but earn on average only 58 per cent of what men with a bachelor degree would earn over their lifetime. This disparity is affected by the 17 per cent gender pay gap, time that many women take out of the workforce to care for children, and the systemic undervaluing of female-dominated industries.

Legal support

Community legal services have warned that the funding cuts announced in the Federal Budget and over the past year mean they are likely to close their outreach offices. This means there would be fewer lawyers available to provide legal support and advice, including court support to women who have experienced family violence.

Services and programs affected include the Legal Aid Commission, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and the Community Legal Service Program.

Our examination of the budget suggests there are a number of decisions that will increase inequity and disadvantage in Australia. However, many of the decisions outlined in the Federal Budget are yet to be finalised, as they must be drafted into legislation and put to a vote in the Senate. Work toward a fairer go for Australian families is already underway, such as the #BusttheBudget rallies. And if you share your story about how the federal budget will impact on you and your community, Fair Agenda will share it with key senators before they vote on the proposed changes.

In Victoria, the state election in November presents an opportunity to call on all parties to prioritise women’s health, safety and wellbeing. We suggest you contact your local member of parliament and let them know that this is your priority too!

From February to June this year, Women’s Health West spoke with women across our region about how they get involved in community and how they would like to engage with us in the future. Many women told us that they would like to be more involved in influencing social and political change, so watch this space for activities in this vein.

Family violence services demand immediate funding to protect women and children

22 July 2014

Latest figures reveal that family violence reports to Women’s Health West have increased by 54 per cent in the last year, while funds have increased only 2 per cent.

‘This is the most severe spike in demand we have seen in the twenty years we have provided family violence services in the western region,’ said Women’s Health West CEO, Dr Robyn Gregory.

‘Family violence services desperately need additional funds to keep women and children safe.

‘The sector welcomed the May announcement of $30 million in new funding to protect women and children experiencing family violence. This was to be rolled out in June.

‘Despite 29 family violence deaths in Victoria last year, including the devastating murder of Fiona Warzywoda in Sunshine in April, not one agency has received the promised funds.

‘The much smaller but more visible problem of public transport crime was allocated $300 million in new money and we have already seen a marked increase in the presence of Protective Services Officers on trains.

‘Women’s Health West urgently calls on the government to follow through and deliver the committed funds.

Welcome changes to police practices in 2008 require Victoria Police members attending family violence incidents to link every family to a women’s service or a men’s service.

As police respond to more family violence incidents, services like Women’s Health West experience a corresponding increase in demand.

‘In the last four years alone we have dealt with a 286 per cent increase in demand with only 25 per cent more funding. This cannot continue. It is time to move family violence up the budget priority list and release the pledged funds.’

MEDIA: For more information contact Nicola Harte, Communications Manager on 9689 9588 or email nicolah@whwest.org.au

What to expect when you talk to a crisis response worker

When police are called to a family violence incident they are legally obliged to refer the victim to a family violence service. In the western region that service is Women’s Health West. We have three crisis response workers who receive an average of 550 referrals per month. One of those workers is Angela and this is her day:

On a typical day, we assess the L17s based on the code assigned by the police. Codes range from one to twenty. One denotes a serious assault and twenty means no threats, no assaults; a family conflict. The crisis response team handle all the criminal offences; serious assaults, breaches, threats, anything resulting in a charge. We refer cases involving verbal, emotional or financial abuse to our intake team.

How many police referrals do you receive each day?

It differs, we get about 60 on Monday mornings because of all the weekend referrals so we arrive quite early… but by Friday we might get about a dozen. We ring each woman and offer supports.

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Housing shortage for single women: a refuge worker’s insight

By Amanda, Crisis Accommodation Services

Most of us have experienced the challenge of sourcing and securing affordable private rental accommodation. Very few of us were fortunate enough to be successful first time round – even if we speak English, have a reasonable income, are employed and have a good rental history. This article highlights the barriers single women face when leaving our crisis accommodation service to move into the private rental market.

Across the western region, women report a lower individual weekly income than their male counterparts. In particular, 21.3 per cent of female residents and 14.7 per cent of male residents report an individual weekly income of less than $300. Low incomes have significant implications for women’s ability to access resources to improve their safety and wellbeing, and we see the reality of this when assisting single women in refuge.

Government housing stock for single people in the western metropolitan region is scarce, almost non-existent, so the only option for women with no children leaving refuge is to search the private rental market. Women with no children on Newstart or Special Benefit Allowance receive around $250 per week. Unfortunately, the median rent for a one-bedroom unit in this region is $240 per week. This is unaffordable for women receiving these benefits, so they must explore shared accommodation within the private rental market.

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Sunrise Brought Me New Hope

Sunrise women’s groups are social groups for isolated women of all ages who have a disability and want to meet other women and feel connected, here is one woman’s experience of the group:

I have suffered intermittent periods of debilitating depression and social anxiety for many years.

The doctors, psychologists, books, therapies and pills could only help so much. I had lost touch with most of my friends and felt unable to interact with people most of the time. I felt desperately lonely and trapped in my house by anxiety and increasing agoraphobia. My physical health deteriorated. I had become morbidly obese and had to deal with all the health issues that come with that: mobility, high blood pressure, diabetes, low self-esteem and so on.

One day I realised, anxiously, that I couldn’t bring myself to walk out the front door to my letterbox. I could not leave the house on my own. Thank god for my mother because she took me to appointments during this period. I don’t think even she realised how much it meant to me especially as she did not really understand my depression or anxiety and was more inclined to tell me impatiently to just shake myself out of it. (more…)