The perplexing case of choice

Laura Pound, WCHM Project Worker (Mental Health)

I recently received an invitation to a fundraising event for a local women’s organisation, featuring an interesting panel of women speaking on the topic of ‘can women have it all?’ Rather than feel excited, I was immediately frustrated: “Why do we have to keep going over this question—it’s so tiring!” This feeling has only grown in recent days, with the media both globally and nationally focusing on the question after an ex-senior official in Obama’s Government wrote about how ‘…women still can’t have it all’ for the Atlantic.

Why is it that I had this reaction? After all, it’s positive that women, the media and communities more broadly are having conversations about women’s roles and responsibilities, how to improve work/life balance, and gender equity.

I think part of my frustration is that we still have to talk about these issues; that they still exist at all. Much of western society, both in its structures and attitudes, is not equipping women with the tools they need to negotiate various elements of their lives in a way that supports gender equality and their needs. Because of this, many women are still trying to understand how they can balance different, and what some people see as opposing, aspirations that they hope to fulfil in life.

Another part of my frustration is that I think the question of whether women can ‘have it all’ can be somewhat unhelpful. What is ‘it’ that we want? Every woman has different preferences and priorities for her life, so the question pits some women against others. And do we really even want ‘it all’—would it make us happier or more equal to men? Moreover, the question implies that there is a best model through which women can achieve ‘it all’, placing the ‘choices’ women make when navigating their lives into a hierarchy.

The question of ‘having it all’ also minimises the problem that the ‘choices’ women make throughout life are not true choices at all. Our lives are influenced by external factors so heavily (the social determinants, as WCHM would say), and ‘big life decisions’ more often come about through circumstance rather than deliberate decision-making. While the ‘illusion of choice’ is really at the heart of the ‘having it all’ debate, misunderstanding choice is a common and unhelpful trap that people fall into when discussing it.

Perhaps it is therefore more useful to move away from the ‘can women have it all’ debate which has a strong focus on a woman’s ‘choices’, and more of our energy on changing the societal structures and views that support gender inequality broadly. By focusing less on the individual and more on societal norms, legislation and support systems, perhaps women will be more able to live their lives with more acceptance and support for the variety of paths they may wish to follow.

Interested? Read more in:

  1. Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why women still can’t have it all”, the Atlantic, July/August 2012,
  2. Virginia Haussegger, Wonder Woman: The myth of ‘having it all’, Allen & Unwin, NSW, 2005.

National Women’s Matters

Sisters Inside funding cut “doesn’t save any money”

Annelise Roberts, WCHM Community Development Worker

The recent funding cut to Queensland organisation Sisters Inside has been the focus of some media attention, including a dedicated slot on ABC Queensland’s 7:30 (see links below). It’s also been the subject of a GetUp! campaign which has attracted thousands of signatures. What’s the story here?

Sisters Inside is a Brisbane-based organisation that offers counselling and other support services to women in prison, exiting prison, or otherwise involved with the criminal justice system. For the past two decades, they’ve been working to reduce recidivism rates and improve the wellbeing of incarcerated women in prisons across southeast Queensland.

Under the Howard Government, Sisters Inside also received some funding to deliver services further north at the Townsville Correctional Centre, a gaol that houses some of the most disadvantaged women in Queensland. This funding was for one on-site worker. When this proved to be “a bad business model” (see link 4), funding was dropped and the service ceased—but Sisters Inside continued to lobby the Queensland State Government for funding to establish an office at Townsville staffed by at least two workers from Sisters Inside. In the wake of the Queensland floods and other costly natural disasters, the Bligh Government negotiated a compromise: Sisters Inside would be provided with a grant of $120,000 in 2011-12 to fly workers in and out of Townsville, ensuring that the women incarcerated in the correctional centre were given access to much needed services.

During this time, Sisters Inside says that it delivered services to 188 female prisoners at the Townsville facility, most of whom were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, and up to 90 percent of whom couldn’t read or write.

However, the newly elected Newman Government isn’t convinced that this is value for money—it has indicated that it will not be renewing this funding in the next financial year. Says Communities Minister Tracy Davis: “This funding was just paying for airfares and hotels costs for staff to travel between Brisbane and Townsville and it begs the question couldn’t this money be better spent on a front line worker who is actually based in Townsville delivering services.” (See link1)

Deb Kilroy, founder of Sisters Inside, says in response to that: “We did ask for other funding options. They gave us no avenues” (see link 1). She continues: “Campbell Newman said he was here for all Queenslanders. And now I can see the silent ‘but’. ‘But’ those women in Townsville and North Queensland, and those women’s children. He is not here for them.” (See link 3)

Given that it costs around $70,000 a year to keep one person in prison, Barrister Andrew Boe has remarked that the Sisters Inside program was actually “money extremely well spent” (see link 3). Human Rights Alliance Indigenous spokesperson Natalie Flower agrees: “This is the type of cost cutting that doesn’t save any money” (see link 2).

The Queensland Government says that Sisters Inside is welcome to re-apply for funding through the normal tendering and grants avenues—but is that good enough? If the Sisters Inside program is out, what else is the Queensland Government doing to ensure that the support needs of women in Townsville Correctional Centre—indeed all women in the Queensland criminal justice

system—are being met?



ACT Women’s Matters

Social Role Valorisation Theory: Don’t be yourself

Annelise Roberts, WCHM Community Development Worker

Earlier this year my colleague and I enrolled in a training course (offered through a prominent ACT disability sector organisation) that promised to give us the tools we would need, as community sector workers, to support marginalised people to “achieve better quality of life.” Sounded great to us. While we don’t work directly with clients at WCHM, we’re always interested in participating in conversations about marginalisation—how it works, what effects it has, and what can be done to work against it.

Unfortunately—and I report on this in the interests of other organisations considering sending employees to this training—‘Social Role Valorisation Theory’ wasn’t able to offer us any meaningful insight into the mechanics of disadvantage. We sat through the central tenets of the theory quite comfortably—that certain kinds of people are ‘devalued’ by society more generally, and that this results in disadvantage. That’s familiar ground to us. But where things started to get sticky was when we were told that devaluation can be addressed by associating ‘devalued people’ with ‘valued’ social roles. This process was explained to us using a slideshow of photographs, most of which were given no context.

“For example,” and I paraphrase the trainer here, “this photo of an intellectually disabled young lady shows her hard at work. This demonstrates her value to other people, and counteracts the assumption that she’s lazy or incompetent.” We gathered from this that, in order to be socially valuable, a person needs to have a job—preferably one in which she appears to be as busy as possible.

Or: “This photograph shows a group of young people, one of whom is intellectually disabled. But you’d never be able to tell which one would you?” It was unclear what we were meant to take away from this, unless it was that ‘devalued’ people (in this case, people with a disability) can gain social cred by associating themselves with ‘valued’ (in this case, non-disabled) people.

To begin with, it was never made clear to us how SRV arrives at this definition of what ‘social value’ is; as far as I have been able to find out, it is not a definition that is supported by any kind of meaningful evidence. While it might be possible to identify some broadly accepted dominant social values (as the training group was able to do with concepts like ‘money’, ‘youth’, and ‘intelligence’), it’s not as though these values aren’t contested.

Still more troubling is the fact that SRV doesn’t appear to actually address the core problem: that this process of devaluation happens in the first place. If anything, SRV appears to legitimise marginalisation. It insists that people can make their own marginalisation disappear simply by becoming as ‘normal’ as possible—whatever else they might want for themselves—or accept the consequences. SRV doesn’t teach people to respect, value, or work with difference, nor does it teach people to think critically about dominant social values. It places no importance on the individual values, wants, or needs a person might have. Instead, SRV suggests that people should hide, subsume and be ashamed of difference wherever it appears.

I can’t support SRV as a framework for thinking about disadvantage—not only because it doesn’t appear to be evidence based at all, but because it actually seems to work to perpetuate processes of marginalisation, creating the very problems it claims to be solving. It’s disappointing and worrying that SRV seems to have a presence in the ACT disability sector.

My colleague and I have since raised our concerns with the organisation that arranged this training session, and we were happy to see that these were listened to. I hope that this signals the start of a series of productive and informed conversations within the community sector about the frameworks we use for thinking about marginalisation and difference.

For more information:


A (slightly late) summary of the ACT Budget

Angela Carnovale, WCHM Social Research Officer

In June the ACT Government handed down the budget for 2012-13, setting out the commitments and priorities for the final time before the election due to be held in October.

As was anticipated, the budget was lean. I should point out though that what I call lean, the treasurer calls “prudent fiscal management” (see link). The ACT Government, he says, is keen to hold to the Budget Plan developed in response to the Global Financial Crisis and return the ACT budget to surplus by 2015-16. Fiscal prudence was particularly apparent in the funding allocated to the community sector. No doubt the funding for the community sector is going to be affected over the coming years as a result of the community sector reforms and the implementation of the Equal Remuneration Order, for which the government announced a commitment of $1.4 million over three years. This will be a bitter-sweet time for the community sector.

There were a few initiatives specific to disability services and accessibility that are particularly noteworthy. To begin, $500,000 over three years has been committed to the Community Visitors Scheme (which you may remember reading about in our Autumn E-bulletin) to identify and address the concerns of people with disabilities, $2.9 million for purpose built, dual occupancy properties allowing people with complex disabilities to access appropriate care and accommodation support while maintaining their independence, $440,000 over four years for bus stop upgrades to meet standards set out in the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and upgrades to the ACTION bus fleet to ensure that they too meet disability accessibility standards.

Budget outcomes impacting upon the women’s sector and the work of WCHM included $0.7 million over three years for the relocation of the Women’s Legal Service, $4.2 million over four years for increased capacity to treat and develop post-traumatic stress prevention programs for newly arrived migrants and refugees as well as to expand on current community mental health services, and $1 million for the development of a throughcare initiative at the Alexander

Maconochie Centre which Annelise explores below.

For all this information and more:


ACT Budget 2012-13: Funding Throughcare

Annelise Roberts, WCHM Community Development Worker

While there were generally slim pickings for the community sector in the Territory’s 2012-13 budget, the ACT Government did recognise the need to support some of the ACT’s most vulnerable residents: people involved in the criminal justice system.

Over $1 million was reserved in the budget towards developing a pilot throughcare initiative at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. This means that exiting prisoners will be supported for up to 12 months after their release to connect with services and reintegrate successfully with the community.

‘Throughcare’ is a model of care that seeks to establish sustainable support networks for people from their first point of contact with the criminal justice system. This involves connecting people with health/mental health services, training programs, and housing and employment options (for example) that they will continue to be able to access after their release from prison.

The Women’s Centre for Health Matters has long advocated for the need to better support people (in particular women) throughout their contact with the ACT criminal justice system, and beyond. People who end up in detention facilities have highly complex needs, and often require sustained support to break patterns of offending. Women in prison are a particularly vulnerable and marginalised group, approximately 90 percent of whom have backgrounds characterised by sexual violence or assault.

WCHM welcomes this demonstration of the Government’s commitment to the welfare of ACT residents involved in the Territory’s criminal justice system, and looks forward to better outcomes for these people. We hope that this also translates into improved service and program options for women currently detained at AMC, who have previously found it difficult to have their health/mental health needs met during their incarceration, and into truly gender sensitive responses based on an individual’s needs.

For more information:


WCHM Matters, Work and Women

Yet again the women at WCHM have proven our equal commitment to hard work and world discovery! Between the Autumn E-bulletin and now each of the WCHM women have managed to squeeze in a little recreation, and we’re all the more rested, energised and inspired for it.

First things first, some of you may have noticed that the WCHM homepage is looking a little different. The content for the homepage now sits within an ‘accordion’ that expands and contracts depending on the information you want to look at. So, for example, we still have the same information available about WCHM Events, but to access it you just need to click on the WCHM Events heading to reveal the text. Over the next couple of months we will be updating some of the other pages on the website to look like this, in particular the pages under the ‘what we do’ section. If you have any questions or comments about the website please don’t hesitate to get into contact with us at

Back in April The Women and Mental Health Working Group (WMHWG) held a consultation forum for women living with mental health issues or caring for someone with a mental health issue, to gather information about women’s views and experiences of mental health. The WMHWG and WCHM will use the findings to influence the health system to better meet the needs of women, and guide our own future research, health promotion and advocacy initiatives. It is hoped that by publishing these findings, other organisations and community members can also better understand the issues that women mental health consumers and carers face in the ACT.

In the second half of 2011, WCHM had the pleasure of working with Australian Catholic University (ACU) Masters of Social Work student Rozi Celica who undertook a scoping study on the topic of older women and depression. Older women living with depression in the ACT: A scoping study is now available from the WCHM website. This report provides a preliminary overview of the issues that older women living with depression in the ACT face. These include the unsuitability of diagnostic and treatment tools, co-morbidity with physical health issues, various risk factors for depression related to gender and the social determinants of health, and the influence of social support and family relationships in illness identification and recovery. Overall, this research found that older women’s experiences of living with depression do not reflect current conceptualisations of the illness. It is therefore recommended that further steps be taken to address the needs of older women living with depression the ACT through further research, advocacy and initiatives.

The ACT Women and Prisons (WAP) Group are busy implementing two projects for which they have recently received funding. The first project, awareness training for ACT Government and community sector staff is possible with the support of ACT Office for Women. The second project is supported through a Health Promotion grant and will enable the Group to establish a formal peer support model to support their work.

In governance related news, the WCHM Board determined at its February 2012 meeting to present to the members at the 2012 Annual General Meeting (AGM) a proposed WCHM Constitution amendment to Section 4.8 Board Member Tenure. This has come about due to the impending changes to the current Board where a number of long standing directors are due to complete their terms of office. The current Constitution under Item 4.8.3 states that “With the exception of the WCHM Executive Director, no members of the Board may retain their position for more than three consecutive terms”. This means that when long-standing directors complete their constitutionally allowed term of office of three consecutive periods of two years each, their ongoing involvement with WCHM reverts to that of a member who is not permitted to re-nominate for a position as a director or sub-committee member unless by specific invitation. This is a potential loss of corporate knowledge and limits those women who may wish to continue to serve as an active member of either the Board or other groups. On this basis the Board determined that the Constitution should be changed to permit directors to re-serve after a hiatus of one year before reappointment to the board, if nominated. As this is the final e-bulletin before the next AGM, WCHM encourages all members to consider the information about the proposed changes to the Constitution that will be sent out to members before the AGM.

And while we’re on the topic, the WCHM AGM will be held on Thursday September 20. Preparations are still underway but it will be an opportunity for WCHM members to contribute to the ongoing work of the Centre and we welcome and encourage your participation. Invitations will be sent out toward the end of August, but please pencil us in! And remember, if you’re not already a member, membership is free!

Although I do not intend to make it a habit of signing off the WCHM update with a sad farewell, this is what I must do in this edition. After making a tremendous contribution to the Centre over the last 18 months, WCHM bade a sad farewell to Laura last week who was off to pursue a volunteer role in health promotion in Cambodia. Any organisation is lucky to have Laura, and we have no doubt that she will make a fantastic contribution to community health and wellbeing in Cambodia and on her return to Australia. It has been a pleasure to have a colleague who consistently demonstrates such respect, level-headedness and reliability. We’ll miss her!

Worth Checking Out…

F-Collective is Sydney-based group of Australian feminist activists that maintain a superbly interesting blog F-Collection about all things feminist today (well, all things that were feminist yesterday too) like abortion, bodies and pay equity. The group put out a new post every Monday, full of thoughtful, entertaining, engaging commentary, so if you need some help to fight off Mondayitis then I suggest checking out the F-Collection. When one of the main contributors is Eva Cox, how can it be bad!

Be the Hero! is an innovative, web-based violence prevention program for young men, which has been conceived, designed and produced by the Victorian Women’s Trust. The program encourages young men to choose to live a life free of violence—to be the hero!—and guides them in developing respectful relationships with women. The content of the program is designed to help young men understand the problem of violence against women in Australia, understand there are other ways of dealing with difficulties, find support and services, and understand how they can help to prevent violence against women.

If you want an online portal of “ethical writing with an unapologetic social justice bent”, then The Scavenger is for you! This monthly online magazine/portal presents features, commentary and news that is hard to find in mainstream media on topics such as feminism and pop culture, media and technology, sex and gender, sexuality, health, arts and blah, blah, blah. The point is, it’s worth checking out, even if for no other reason than to be able to enjoy professional journalists stretching their legs after being cramped up in traditional media. I mean really, which media outlet is going to offer an article titled “Is fat still a feminist issue?” that isn’t actually marketing a diet?