Top marks for a good start

Haircuts, backpacks and supplies at Newcastle Street’s Womens Health & Family Services help families get ready for the return to school. Photo supplied.

SCHOOL going back can be one of the hardest times of year for struggling families as they try to send kids out the door with everything they need.

As schools went back a week late, Northbridge-based Women’s Health & Family Services ran their yearly event providing free haircuts, backpacks, lunch boxes and drink bottles for clients ahead of the start of term, ordering 200 packs to meet demand.

WH&FS CEO Felicite Black says it’s a tough period as “it’s right after Christmas, and often mums who work have the triple whammy of childcare and school holiday programs costing money” right after Christmas.

There’s been an increased demand for many of WH&FS’s services over the past year as Covid-19 disrupted the economy and society.

“I don’t think we’re alone,” Ms Black says, with many not-for-profits in homelessness and health sectors seeing a surge. “Places like that have all noticed that need has gone up.”

When the first lockdown started in 2020 Mr Black says “we saw an increase in inquiries to us immediately for family domestic violence support and assistance” as women sought help and refuge away from violent partners.

“That was across the board. When Perth went into lockdown in March and April our telephone inquiries went up significantly, and the ripple effects are still being felt, there’s still much greater demand.”

She says the lack of housing is dire, with too few beds in refuges and a shortage of rental accommodation. 

“The rental vacancy rate is less than 1 per cent; the worst it’s been in WA, so even if women did want to make their escape and start again, where do you even find a place to live? 

“Then there’s a whole lot of homeless people who need wraparound support and accommodation, so this is looming as a very big issue in WA.” 

She says when the Covid-era rules preventing tenant evictions end in March, rents are predicted to go up 10 to 20 per cent. 

Inequality

Last week Oxfam released the report The Inequality Virus which found globally the pandemic “has had particularly severe impacts on women,” ethnic minorities and poor people, while the very wealthy go untouched or even get richer. 

Women are more likely to have had hours cut or to have lost jobs in industries most affected.

Ms Black says it’s been felt here too: “All of these things snowball and cascade,” and the pandemic’s impact on “the gig economy, part time work, people being laid off and the decrease on hospitality and cleaning jobs, that had an affect on women who are right on that knife edge as well as trying to support families.”

She says of the government’s approach to economic stimulus: “It’s great that the emphasis is on jobs, but even when you look at the economic stimulus it’s jobs for men in construction and building and male-dominated industries,” and not the “care economy” like aged care and health care “which are traditionally 80 per cent women… and yet women’s salaries in those sectors has lagged behind.”

Ms Black says those industries need to be better recognised and supported: “It’s not as simple as ‘construction and mining creates jobs and everything else is a drain’… we’re working really hard in the sector to support what we call the care economy.”

As for domestic violence, Ms Black says it needs to become a topic of public conversation, “to call this out and understand it.

“Ten years ago we didn’t talk about suicide. If you did, it was a whisper.

“We need a similar kind of campaign of understanding as a society about domestic violence and perpetrators. As long as there’s still attitudes of ‘it’s just another domestic, I won’t interfere, it’s not my place, why doesn’t she leave,’ as long as those stereotypes are around we’re not going to break the back of this.”

by DAVID BELL

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