The lives of rural women have been hit hard over the past five years, particularly in access to justice, due to the polices of the Kennett Government, according to the latest report of the People Together Project.
The report, to be launched today, says cuts to legal aid funding and other services such as transport had hurt rural women and heightened their geographic, economic and social isolation.
The People Together Project, a non-party political organisation set up to assess the impact of government policy, found that country women often found it hard to get legal advice because they had to travel to regional centres to find it, and many then could not afford to pay.
This often led to women facing pressure to forgo claims on assets, such as farms, in order to secure custody of their children during marital separations. The problems were further complicated when working out their property entitlements in family law because farm ownership arrangements were often secret, the report said.
The report is based on information from a two-day public inquiry that included submissions from 53 organisations and a series of women’s audits involving interviews and focus groups in three communities.
Submissions said rural women had been disadvantaged by the Kennett Government’s abolition of crimes compensation for pain and suffering: “If a girl or woman is sexually assaulted in a country town and then has the guts to report the assault it is reasonably likely that no action will be taken against the perpetrator.
“The previous crimes compensation system provided many rural women with often the only form of acknowledgment of the harm done to them or the opportunity for justice in their terms.”
The report found cuts to domestic violence programs in rural areas had led to large waiting lists for women wanting help or safe accommodation, and country people were struggling to fill the gaps left by cuts to other services.
A woman from the Central Goldfields told the project: “The community needed to raise money to match Government funds: $359,000 for the hospital and $250,000 for the community bank. No other money is now available in the community for any other services.”
The Association of Neighborhoods Houses and Learning Centres told the inquiry: “We now have voluntary drivers in mini buses and/or their own vehicle taking elderly people to doctors’ appointments 30 kilometres away because the public transport has been withdrawn.”
The Opposition spokeswoman on women’s affairs, Ms Leonie Burke, said the report failed to give the former Liberal Government credit for the positive steps it had taken for women, including $100 million to support carers, and broad consultations with rural women resulting in the Women on the Move report.
First published in The Age.