Back to base

TINA IS BEAUTIFUL and hopeful, but she tells me she checked herself into hospital at the age of nine to escape her stepfather's sexual abuse. She says she had no idea this desperate cry for help would lead to many years in foster care and eventually to living on the streets. Her teens were full of worries about where she would live, often fearful of becoming homeless again. Short stays with relatives frequently led to fights, so she'd move on. Later, when Tina was in a relationship, there were fights with her boyfriend, which at times led to physical violence. They were now working this out, she tells me assuredly.

Her big break, her second chance at a normal life, came when she received a placement at a youth accommodation service in Liverpool, which provided enough stability for her to finish high school and get a job in a childcare centre. Now, despite all the trauma of her twenty years, Tina is studying at university to realise her dream of becoming an early childhood teacher. She and her boyfriend volunteer with the State Emergency Service and she imagines a future in which she will give back to a society where, she says, there are still so many things going wrong for girls.

DESPITE ALL THE progress for women and girls in Australia that has occurred in recent decades, there is a vast gulf between women at the vanguard of change and those who have suffered the most. It might be more comfortable to consider Tina's story is an isolated anomaly, but the statistics paint a bleaker and more sordid reality.

The Portrait of Women and Girls in Greater Sydney, a 2012 report by the Sydney Women's Fund, a philanthropic venture for hundreds of women and men who pool their donations to support grassroots projects to benefit the most vulnerable women and girls in Sydney, reveals this gulf. The Portraits hows that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is greater than ever in Australia and that women and girls living in poverty suffer the most.

Wealth creation and concentration has increased significantly in Australia over the past two decades. The most tangible impact of this has been to make housing less affordable, especially in Sydney. According to the 2011 report The Great Australian Dream – Just a Dream? Blacktown is the only area that is affordable, with a median house price of $305,000. Even a home in Blacktown requires mortgage repayments of around $1,800 a month, a big ask for many.

Australia prides itself on the achievements of women in education, but the reality is highly problematic – one third of girls in low-income areas of Sydney are not completing Year 12. The Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney prepared a paper for the Office for Women's Policy NSW in 2011 and found that female education attainment 'is segmented at both the high and low ends of the qualifications framework.' The Portrait notes this means female educational outcomes are polarised: 'Twenty-seven per cent of women hold a bachelor degree or higher qualification and 31 per cent do not complete Year 12. This compares to 22 per cent of men with a bachelor degree or higher and 28 per cent who have not completed Year 12.'

While school retention rates have improved since 2003, data from the NSW Department of Education and Training indicates the lower level of participation in education is marked for those living in the southwest and west of Sydney. Fulltime retention rates for Years 7–12 in 2009 for northern Sydney was 95.2 per cent, compared with 74.6 per cent in southwestern Sydney and just 69.5 per cent for western Sydney.

The poverty problem is complex, yet education is a proven way out. A tertiary education virtually guarantees financial benefit. Women with tertiary education and successful careers are wealthier and more powerful than ever before, particularly business owners and entrepreneurs and as a whole, society has benefited and could grow further with more female participation.

The irony is that economic development can worsen the plight of poorer women who cannot participate equally. There is much to do to level the playing field for women living in low-income areas who experience violence and abuse and have not had access to opportunities well-educated women take for granted. If education is a key to escaping poverty, as is accepted and recognised by governments and policy makers worldwide, it is essential that high-risk, low-income girls stop dropping out of school.

Poverty has a female face in modern Australia. Women at the bottom are more likely to earn less, live alone, bring up children as single mothers, have lower levels of education, a higher risk of mental health and general health problems than wealthier women and men in Australia. Australia's poorest women have an even wider gender pay gap. The 2009 report The impact of a sustained gender wage gap on the Australian economy by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling shows the gap is even greater when women's part-time or casual work is considered, with women earning just two-thirds of the amount men earn. This is bigger than the average gender pay gap of eighty-two cents in the male dollar, a disparity that has also widened over the past four years. For unskilled and illiterate women, such low-paid work may be the only employment, which allows them to juggle caring responsibilities for children, parents or partners with complex issues.

Single mothers in low-paid work face many challenges. Recent changes to social security payments mean they receive less each week when their youngest child turns eight. They will move from the parenting payment to the Newstart allowance, a change designed to shift intergenerational welfare dependency and save the Federal Government more than $700 million a year. But it means a single mother can only earn $31 before her benefit is reduced. Women in part-time, low paid work could be around $100 worse off each week, which will put families at further risk of homelessness.

Already, according to Homelessness Australia, most of those turned away from specialist homelessness services are women and their children, the largest group of homeless, with older, single women the fastest growing cohort. At the Sydney Women's Homelessness Alliance conference on 1 November 2012, Nada Nasser, director of business strategy for Housing NSW, said that even though the actual reported numbers were still low – in the hundreds – the number of homeless older women had grown by 62 per cent in the previous year.

Older women are particularly vulnerable because of family violence and economic disadvantage; half the women in Australia between forty-five and fifty-nine have $8,000 or less in their superannuation funds, compared to $31,000 for men. One in three older workers have experienced discrimination, so older women who no longer work due to a health problem, or can't get a job because of age discrimination are at risk. Homelessness Australia estimates people over fifty-five represent a fifth of Australia's homeless population.

Yet across Australia this is a gentle, inspiring movement of women helping other women and their families out of disadvantage. This is not an organised movement, nor a particularly visible one, these are women across sectors and communities whose values bind them. They believe in social justice and equality. They will do what they can to help others who are suffering, because they have often suffered themselves, and learnt great empathy, trustworthiness and resourcefulness. They may be social entrepreneurs or community workers living and working in disadvantaged communities. They may also be concerned residents working on projects to improve their community. Others are successful businesswomen or philanthropists giving back by funding others working in communities.

These women are the hidden builders of social capital in Australia, who weave the strongest webs and create the sturdiest vehicles for change. They are the key to reshaping Australia's most disadvantaged communities, the key to social change.

WARWICK FARM IS a small, easily ignored suburb in southwestern Sydney, thirty kilometres from the city, where a large replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge sits outside Peter Warren Automotive on the Hume Highway. Outsiders know it for the racecourse that shares its name, but to those who live in the southwest, it's 'the Farm', a suburb with a heavy stigma, a place where drug dealers, gamblers and prostitutes live. 'People think it's really bad, a place where no one amounts to anything,' says Lisa Buchanan, who grew up in Warwick Farm and now works in childcare at Liverpool Neighborhood Connections.

About 4,500 people live in Warwick Farm, and for many of them generational unemployment, drugs, crime and making ends meet to afford food are part of daily life. The 2011 census data shows 15.7 per cent of people in Warwick Farm are unemployed, this compares with just over 2 per cent in the harbourside suburbs. More than half the population in Warwick Farm has no formal qualification.

It's the place where NSW Police identified an organised child prostitution ring in 2012. The alleged ring leaders were two sisters, aged twenty-two and nineteen, who were trafficking homeless girls, as young as twelve, to men in southwestern Sydney. The Liverpool Local Area Police Commander, Ray King told the Sydney Morning Herald last May, 'These are children that have been abused and manipulated… We don't know how they will be in twenty years. It's quite traumatic. It's probably an underbelly of our society today that this type of issue or offence can occur.'

Visiting Warwick Farm can be a shock to the uninitiated, a stark contrast from the privilege that characterises much of Sydney. A dilapidated shopping centre offers a corner store, take-away food and a bottle shop. The shop at the end of the strip is painted off-white, its windows barred and a sign in the bottom corner noting it is a doctor's surgery.

Sara Lucas is a former investment banker who has recently focused on philanthropic work and business ventures that deliver a social benefit for women. She participates in a 'giving circle' called the First Seeds Fund, a part of the Sydney Women's Fund, a philanthropic fund targeting grassroots projects to help disadvantaged women and children. After a recent visit she remarked, 'I had a sense of anticipation driving into Warwick Farm. One of the things I noticed was how the doctor's surgery was boarded up with metal shutters. It gave me a sense of a community in depression.'

Lucas says it sends a subconscious message not only to visitors, but also to the community itself on what is important here. Despite this, she says, the neighbourhood centre felt very welcoming, safe and earnest. Some women clearly want to change things. 'One of the more poignant moments of my first visit was when someone said "Oh look, there's the local pimp walking past the door".'

Pat Hall is the operations manager of Liverpool Neighbourhood Connections, a community hub that runs more than sixty-five community programs each week, servicing 22,000 people across the local government area each year. It is co-located with the Warwick Farm Neighbourhood Centre, where Hall has been a community worker for seventeen years. She is the 'ring leader' of a group of local women who are working together to provide opportunities.

Central to this is a program called Doorways to the Future, a TAFE outreach program run in partnership with the Liverpool hub, that started in 2007 when the community declared it was in crisis. Since then, more than 150 women have completed ten TAFE courses. Of the twenty core students, ten are employed and one has gone on to university.

At first glance these numbers may seem low, but Hall says this is a major achievement for these women, many of whom haven't worked before or have been unemployed for many years. 'For them to be going on to get jobs or to university is an amazing achievement. I'm just so proud of them.'

The change process started five years ago when Hall took action. 'I thought, who am I to stand up and say there was a problem in Warwick Farm?' she says. 'The police said there was no problem with violence or safety because it wasn't showing up in the figures. That was because everyone in the community was too scared of the drug dealers and thugs in the community to report what was really going on. I stood up and told them what was really happening, and that's how it started. We called the community in crisis – if we weren't going to do it, who was?'

Pat Hall collaborated with NSW Health, police, community members, council representatives and educators to create the interventions. In the Neighbourhood Centre, evidence of these early planning days is painted on the walls in spray-painted hand images and a colourful mural with the community's visions for the future. The words 'We are good people' are prominent and pointed.

The Doorways to the Future program was developed in 2007 by Nola Randall-Mohk, the outreach coordinator at Liverpool TAFE, in partnership with Hall and the health promotions team at South Western Sydney Local Health District. The program provides entry-level courses that offer a stepping-stone to further education and employment in the safety of the Neighbourhood Centre. Mary Cuneen, the TAFE Outreach teacher, who is trained to work with people who have language, mental health and other complex needs, facilitates access and attainment of qualifications.

The program is giving women opportunities for education and employment that would otherwise not have been available. 'The first twelve students completed a Statement of Attainment in volunteering,' says Hall. 'That meant we had the volunteers to work in the Salvation Army Food 4 Life market, a place the community could access affordable food. Many people, especially older people in the community, can't afford to shop at the major supermarkets every week, so they can buy a bag of groceries worth around $40 for just $10 from the market.'

Five years on, ten of the women are completing higher-level TAFE certificates and one has completed university. Early students who completed Certificate I in Access to Employment had English literacy, computer assistance and mental health support, and have moved on to higher level certificates in Retail and Micro-Business. In May 2013, twelve women will graduate in both Certificate III in Micro Business Operations and Certificate II Retail. 'For some of these women, this is the first time they have been employed,' Hall says. 'It's the first time they have been able to write the word "employed" on their kid's school enrolment form. That's huge for these women, and it's been really hard for them. I'm so proud of what they have achieved, their resilience and how they are changing the future for their kids and their community.'

The program has been funded mostly by grants from NSW Family and Community Services and, ironically, from Clubs NSW, whose poker machine revenues are largely generated from people living in low-income areas, as well as small grants from Liverpool Council. Hall is now working more closely with philanthropic foundations and donors through the Sydney Women's Fund and the Sydney Community Foundation. An initial $5,000 grant from the Sydney Women's Fund was used to employ women part-time in the social enterprise café called Pepper's Place, named after Sue Pepper, a strong and much-loved community member who died of cancer before she could see the changes in the community the women are bringing about for themselves. Hall says, 'Everyone loved her because she brought people together and talked about a vision for a better community than it was.'

INVESTING IN WOMEN is not just the right thing to do, but the sensible thing to do, a truth which applies in Australia as well as it does in developing countries. One group advocating increased philanthropic investment is the Australian Women Donors Network. Julie Reilly, the chief executive officer, says it was established to catalyse investment from philanthropic foundations, corporates and private individuals into projects or organisations that benefit women and girls. 'There is a growing body of evidence, all of which confirms that if you want to have high impact for your philanthropic or social investment dollar, the best place to achieve that is to invest in women,' Reilly says. The logic of this investment argument is that when you invest in a woman it's not just her who benefits – her children and, in turn, the wider community also profit.

Of the projects on the Women Donors website, those that attract most funding are grassroots community ventures. The attraction of these projects is that they fit the model of how women work. 'Women are community focused, good at collaborating and working in a way that directly supports their community,' Reilly says. 'We have a number of projects seeking funding, often very minimal amounts, that would make a significant impact.'

One project is the Hawkesbury Area Women & Kids Services Collective at The Women's Cottage, which is seeking between $1,500 and $4,000 to provide a women's resource centre. This small amount would provide women the potentially life-saving ability to escape violence in the home and to access essential services and support immediately.

Another project, for an organisation called Wire, needs $20,000 to develop an information resource for low-income women on how to navigate the public housing system. One of the problems is that women often realise too late that they are at risk of becoming homeless. Resources that help women see the risks and where they can access services help to prevent homelessness.

Reilly says that throughout our communities there are women who are essentially disempowered through lack of education, employment or mental health issues, which leads to economic disadvantage and social exclusion. While there is a direct cost in social welfare, the economy and society are also missing out on contributions these women could make. 'The issue is that as primary care givers, any impact of disadvantage and inability to reach their potential will have flow-on effects to their families. That creates a cascading effect of disadvantage on their children and the community,' Reilly says.

The converse is also true. Self-sufficiency gained through employment and the ability to support themselves and their children through school, has a multiplier effect. Reilly believes women's empowerment at the bottom of the pyramid is a rights issue as much as a gender equity issue. In providing equal and broader access, it's not just about addressing basic needs, but the opportunity to have a voice and influence how society operates, she says.

The argument is that if you empower women at the grassroots, you don't just allow them to take charge of their own lives and future but also to problem solve and participate in community building at a broader level.

THE ROCKS IN inner Sydney is beautiful in early summer when I meet with Pat Hall and Lisa Buchanan to interview them. They were guest speakers at a fundraising Collaborative Christmas party hosted by a network of highly successful women entrepreneurs and have stayed overnight in the city. More than $2,500 was raised and the money will go toward a programme aimed at preventing girls in Warwick Farm, aged ten to sixteen, from dropping out of school and leaving home.

Strive is a collaboration between the Warwick Farm Neighbourhood Centre, police, Warwick Farm Primary School and the four high schools in the Liverpool area, that encourages girls to connect to the community through a range of activities. A caseworker is assigned to the girls and relationships with the families are built, with a particular focus on those living in risky situations. They receive the support they need to attend school, to graduate and to connect with successful businesswomen through mentoring. The idea is that the community has the capacity to look after the young girls and identify if something is going wrong early enough to step in. Resources are available if help or intervention is needed.

'None of our girls would have ever been here,' Pat sweeps her arm toward the bridge that crosses a sparkling Sydney Harbour, a world away from the shuttered shops and replica bridge on the highway at Warwick Farm. 'We need to give them opportunities to see that something else is possible, that they can live a different life.'

The $100,000 for the initial three years of Strive, which started in February, will be provided by the First Seeds Fund, the Sydney Women's Fund, Barclays Bank and generous individuals. One anonymous woman donor has given $10,000 to the project.

Strive has been a long-term objective for the community.'We have an opportunity to break the cycle with this program and help the girls see they are worth something,' Hall says.

Successful businesswomen, like Sara Lucas, who support the First Seeds Fund are enthusiastically contributing because they can see how it has the potential to make a real difference for disadvantaged girls. It also allows them to get involved. Some of the women will provide mentoring and work experience placements to the high school girls. The Warwick Farm girls will have opportunities that have not been there before, and as Hall says, it's the opportunities that matter. 'That's what we really want for our girls.'

PAT HALL IS a living inspiration and role model. She first worked as a clerical assistant in a neighbourhood centre 'just for fun'. But eleven months after she started, her husband of eighteen years left her. 'All of a sudden that job became my lifeline. I had to then get a mortgage, buy my husband out and look after the kids. I was only a ten-hour per week worker, so to get a loan was not an easy feat, but I did,' she says.

'That job, with the feminist women, saved my life.' She credits Karen Willis, now the executive director of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, and another feminist, Lorraine Finlay, who worked with her at the time, for empowering her. 'They were women before their time.'

Hall began as coordinator of the Warwick Farm Neighbourhood Centre after putting herself through university studying Community Management, while raising her children and working part time. 'You have to know your community, because if you come in at a level of government policy and bureaucracy, it's not going to work in an area like Warwick Farm,' she says.

Pat Hall is arguably the most powerful woman in Warwick Farm, but she is enabled by an equally visionary manager, Christine Luttrell, who recognises what can be achieved. They and their collaborators are the magic ingredient that help positive change happen in Warwick Farm.

They have become skilled at making planning decisions at a policy level and directing financial or economic investment into the community. Hall's long experience in the community and her own personal challenges shape her dreams of changing the world. In Warwick Farm, that means creating opportunities to break a cycle of multigenerational unemployment and abuse.

Women like Hall, who work at the grassroots, with other empowered women are the most valuable asset in vulnerable communities; they know their neighbourhood and have won the trust of others. They have walked a difficult path themselves, are empathetic and don't pass judgment on others. They can see the nuances, the subtleties in the way the community operates because they belong. They understand the building blocks and how the community functions and the cause of dysfunction. They build social capital, the capital that helps to keep girls in school and help get women well-paid, skilled jobs. Investment in women at the grassroots is the key to changing society. It's a simple investment, but one with enormous, life-changing, potential.

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