The author embarks on a quest, enabled by a Churchill Fellowship, to gather the world’s best ideas for collaborative funding of frontline legal and housing services for women and children fleeing family violence in Tasmania. By Cate Sumner.

A million-dollar quest for survivors of domestic violence

Animation of the interior of a house.
Funding is needed for women’s emergency housing.
Credit: Core Collective with Christopher Clinton Architect

Why is a million dollars so hard to find? This is the question that perplexes the legal service Just Healthy Families, which in its 21 months of operation has specialist lawyers travelling across Tasmania to deliver in-person legal services in a pilot program aimed at helping women and children facing domestic violence.

The service, co-managed by Women’s Legal Services Tasmania and Tasmania Legal Aid, was a pilot for the state’s first health justice partnership – launched with almost $2 million of grant funding and in-kind services from philanthropic foundations, the Commonwealth government and a range of organisations. It has addressed more than 5000 legal problems through almost 3000 legal consultations.

Now, with a month of the initial funding remaining, it lacks the government money needed to continue in 2024 and beyond. This is despite a $1.1 billion additional budget commitment in the 2021-22 Women’s Budget Statement to make ending violence against women a national priority.

A key government pledge was to fund all existing health justice partnerships to allow for regional outreach services where women feel safe to be seen. The problem was, Just Healthy Families didn’t exist when the budget was delivered in May 2021 – it received its philanthropic funding only the following month.

This million-dollar question has animated a global research project I embarked upon almost four years ago. In late 2019, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research some of the world’s best examples of collaborative funding for health, justice and housing partnerships that could be applied in Tasmania. At the time, most people hadn’t yet heard of Covid-19 nor experienced the related lockdowns, let alone begun to comprehend what the United Nations has called the “shadow pandemic of family violence”.

My driving rationale was to explore ways to bring corporate social responsibility funds to the table, to add to the start-up funding contributed by philanthropic foundations and the always-limited government funding, to finance family violence frontline legal services. The idea was very simple: fund the provision of legal services at the places where women and children go on a daily basis as a way to transform lives and opportunities for children who might otherwise spiral into patterns of generational poverty and disadvantage.

The pandemic put my Churchill travels on hold for three years. Finally, this year, they took me halfway around the world and yielded many invaluable lessons for Tasmania and Australia.

A virtual introduction from the Observer Research Foundation America in Washington, DC, to the Agami justice foundation in Bengaluru, India, was a pivotal moment.

While face-to-face legal services work for some women, others – especially those in remote towns – will need or prefer to access legal advisory services over the phone or other digital technologies. They are often supported by the frontline service agencies the women know and trust through regular visits – childcare centres, GPs, pharmacies, libraries. Women may not be able to travel due to a lack of transport options, others controlling their movement, disability, work, caring or financial constraints.

Indian tech innovation has been a major driver of the development of digital public goods/infrastructure that help attain the UN Sustainable Development Goals – the 17 strategies to improve health and education, reduce inequality, including gender inequality, and spur economic growth that were agreed by all United Nations member states in 2015.

Indian foundations such as EkStep, FIDE (Foundation For Interoperability In Digital Economy) and Agami demonstrated to me how digital public goods registered to provide services in education, agriculture, ecommerce and other domains could be adapted to address gender justice and the barriers of distance and connectivity faced by women in the north-west of Tasmania, the most decentralised state in the country.

My last day of meetings was on Paris’s Left Bank, at the global headquarters of the Kering company and foundation in the renovated Laennec hospital that dates back to the 17th century.

Kering owns the luxury brands Gucci, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. Less well known is the fact that, since 2008, it has been supporting frontline organisations helping women survivors escape from the cycle of violence and rebuild their lives.

Kering’s approach is simple and highly effective. It is in three parts: fund frontline, national organisations that specialise in combating domestic violence; back pilot initiatives; and, finally, partner with the women’s funds that support grassroots initiatives globally.

Over the past decade, the Kering Foundation committed significant funds to La Maison des femmes in Saint-Denis, Paris, a one-stop safe place where teams of medical and other professionals ensure survivors of violence are listened to, cared for and provided with wraparound services including, critically, legal support.

This has led to strong funding from the French government to extend the Maison des femmes model to other regions in France, showing that when corporate and other philanthropic donors fund innovations supporting frontline housing, health and justice services for women, they then “de-risk” these investments for government to finance these programs in subsequent years.

Asked why ending violence against women is the Kering Foundation’s guiding mission, executive director Céline Bonnaire says while demand for frontline family violence services grew in the course of the pandemic, the constraints on those services increased: “This, of course, had a direct impact on survivors: access to counselling, emergency housing, legal support and medical appointments became much more difficult,” she says.

“As we look forward, we must ensure that the specialist organisations supporting survivors have the means and resources necessary to continue providing comprehensive and life-saving services to women.”

I returned to Hobart to find another helpful example – this time of awareness-raising. In February this year the American folk-rock band Bon Iver was playing in the city as part of the Mona Foma festival. The group’s 2 A Billion campaign, which works to end domestic and sexual abuse, got in touch with the Hobart Women’s Shelter and asked if it would be the partner organisation for the Hobart concert.

Support from the band and 2 A Billion included a donation and all merchandise proceeds from the concert. Even more beneficial was the long-term awareness-raising that came from the band’s social media posts during their Australian tour, highlighting the work of the Hobart Women’s Shelter and its “Buy a Brick” campaign. With almost 3000 women and children turned away from the shelter in the past three years, this potentially lethal combination of homelessness and family violence make the Just Healthy Families service, which includes a dedicated family violence lawyer at the shelter, critical for women in Tasmania.

Looking across the domestic philanthropic space, it’s worth asking why contributions are so meagre from organisations that dominate headlines for all the wrong reasons where family violence is concerned.

Every year, the AFL grand final and NRL State of Origin games contribute to a spike of 20 and 40 per cent, respectively, on emergency services, including family violence services. One in three players, coaches, referees or fans will have experienced family violence themselves, or have a friend or family member who has.

Almost three years ago, five national sporting codes issued a joint leadership statement on gender equality, stating: “By doing so, we are part of a national effort to stop violence against women and their children before it starts. While together we have made great advancements for women in sport, we acknowledge there is still more work to be done.”

The business side of the sporting codes and their clubs are uniquely placed to demonstrate to players and fans that they understand and support women and children facing violence in their communities, and within the code itself. Such support needs to move beyond “leadership statements” to real funding for frontline family violence agencies in their communities and to raising awareness of the critical roles these agencies play.

Where is the football round that raises awareness of the devastating impact of violence in our society?

There are solid examples of corporate generosity in this country, however. Australian tech company Atlassian from the outset made a commitment to donate 1 per cent of its equity, profits, employee time and/or products to non-government organisations. In 2014, Atlassian co-founded the Pledge 1% movement with other companies to broaden understanding of how businesses could embed social impact as part of their DNA.

Pledge 1% has created a movement of 15,000 companies and raised promises for $2 billion of new philanthropy.

After a year of talking with international experts, the key lesson for me is that collaborative funding for health, justice and housing partnerships is everyone’s responsibility.

Philanthropic grant funding as well as corporate and non-profit cash and in-kind contributions provided 67 per cent of the cost of running the Just Healthy Families services in Tasmania during 2022 and 2023, making this a far less risky proposition for government funding in future.

In August 2023, the First Action Plan implementing the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032 stressed the needs of victim-survivors of family violence to have “improved access to justice by removing structural barriers like cost, location and legal complexity and increasing the availability of free or low-cost legal assistance”.

This is precisely what Just Healthy Families does in Tasmania. Why is a million dollars so hard to find?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Million-dollar question".

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