Domestic violence, drink coasters, and the small town that pioneered a life saving legal reform

Jane Hughes would love to hear more conversations about toxic relationships around the table at bars and restaurants.

Over her 25-year career working with high-risk youth, foster placement, homelessness services, and women’s crisis support, domestic violence has always been at the heart of her work.

“It’s so pervasive and so damaging, and there isn’t necessarily funding to support people dealing with violence — unless they have an associated issue like homelessness or mental health.”

Woman holding a purple coaster up to the camera with message 'Bega Valley says no to violence'
Jane Hughes from the Bega Women’s Resource centre hopes the coasters will spark conversations.(ABC South East NSW: Vanessa Milton)

Frontline workers and activists in the Bega Valley on the NSW far south coast are hoping new drink coasters to be distributed in hospitality venues across the region will spark discussions about the signs of coercive relationships, and see more people call out unacceptable behaviour.

Using coasters to raise domestic violence awareness is not a new idea.

The message “Domestic violence is un-Australian” appeared on drink coasters across Sydney’s eastern suburbs in 2017’s Australia Day period.

And venues in the Ballina shire on the NSW north coast distributed coasters designed by Year 10 students as part of the Love Bites Respectful Relationships Education Program.

'Are you being silenced' message taped across sketch of a woman
Coasters designed by year 10 students were distributed in pubs and clubs on the NSW north coast.(ABC North Coast: Samantha Turnbull)

But the ongoing lack of awareness is of concern to veteran domestic violence campaigner, Ludo McFerran.

“It’s nearly 50 years since we opened the first women’s refuge in Australia [the Elsie women’s refuge in Sydney] and started the community discussion around domestic violence,” Ms McFerran says.

Sparking life-saving national reform

In 2020, Ludo McFerran was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her significant service to women and children, and to social justice.

She developed the Staying Home, Leaving Violence program to support women and children to stay safely in their home, first piloted in the Bega Valley.

From that experience she developed paid domestic violence leave to support women experiencing domestic violence to stay safely in their jobs.

After a sustained campaign from activists and the union movement to make paid domestic violence leave a universal entitlement for all workers, federal Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke announced in June this year that legislating 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave as a universal right would be his first parliamentary act.

Violence rates still high

Ludo McFerran thinks that domestic violence is a symptom of a much bigger problem.

“We can reduce the impacts of the violence by reducing homelessness and unemployment, by supporting those experiencing the violence to stay in their homes and their jobs.”

She commended those who continue the campaign against domestic violence, and welcomed all efforts to raise awareness.

But Ms McFerran also thought it was time for a national debate about what has been achieved in the last 50 years and why the rates of violence stay so high.

Ludo McFerran wears a blue shirt and smiles at the camera
Ludo McFerran, has received an OAM for significant contribution to women and children, and social justice.(ABC South East: Claire Wheaton)

Jane Hughes is encouraged by the momentum for change signalled by the new federal Labor government and said she hoped to see more direct investment in targeted early intervention and recovery programs.

In her current role as coordinator of the Bega Women’s Resource Centre, three quarters of the women she saw were fleeing or recovering from domestic violence.

“It might even be five years down the track, they are still experiencing the hardships associated with leaving a violent relationship – poverty and homelessness, physical and mental health, drug and alcohol issues, behavioural issues with children,” Ms Hughes said.

“It can take a long time to work their way through, particularly if they don’t have support.”

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