Women exposed 'dark underside' of NZ

ANNIVERARY: Dianne Shannon (middle) and Rosemary Howard (far right) on the deck of New Zealand’s first refuge in 1973.
ANNIVERARY: Dianne Shannon (middle) and Rosemary Howard (far right) on the deck of New Zealand’s first refuge in 1973.

It's been 40 years since Diane Shannon and Rosemary Howard set out to help Christchurch's beaten and oppressed women.

The courageous pair were part of a group who banded together to found the Christchurch Women's Refuge - the first refuge in New Zealand.

At the time, Shannon, 26, and Howard, 21, were living communally at Christchurch's Chippenham Community when they joined forces with women's groups to create a centre next door.

It started as a place for women to meet, but quickly became a refuge for women fleeing domestic abuse.

Shannon said they were soon ''inundated with women''.

"We were amazed. We weren't expecting that," Shannon said. 

"It was like we had opened the lid on a dark, dirty underside of little old New Zealand."

Howard said neither had any idea about violence before the creation of safe house.

''People presume we were battered women but we weren't. We were passionate about women's liberation but we knew nothing about violence towards women.''

Soon the demand was so great the women's group rented the building next door as a place of ''emergency accommodation'' for women.

When a need for a confidential safe house arose, they went to the city council and ''hassled them'' into leasing a cheap house on Hastings St.

''I sat there and said I wouldn't go away until they gave us the keys,'' Howard said.

They spent the next few years campaigning for financial aid for women leaving abusive homes and tougher action from police.

They were often labelled ''home-wreckers'' and ''hostile'' but were determined to keep going.

''We were bossy, educated, radical feminists. It was quite revolutionary at the time and it was all done on bare bones,'' Howard said.

''We were full of the power of our convictions but also pretty naive at times."

Some of the things the women did were ''crazy, looking back'', Shannon said.

''We would drive back to the house when the man was at work and break in and take all of the woman's stuff, climbing through the windows if necessary. Once we got a call from the safe house saying that one of the women's partners was threatening to come round and shoot everyone.

"Instead of calling the police, who wouldn't deal with 'domestics' at that time, we went and stayed with them for the night.''

The pair ''stepped away'' from the refuge in 1978, but have remained passionate about women's liberation their whole lives. 

''We were very young and it was very wearing on us. We didn't have the training of social workers today. We were so involved with those women. It was a steep learning curve,'' Howard said.

''We burnt out, but other women carried on the work for us.''

The refuge used their 40th anniversary this week to announce a change of name.

Instead of the Christchurch Women's Refuge, they will now be called 'Aviva Family Violence Services'.

Chief executive Nicola Woodward said they decided a new name would better reflect the organisation's ''widening range of services'' and be more relevant to its expanded client base, which now includes men as well as women and children.

Woodward said they would ''honour the name and legacy of Christchurch Women's Refuge'' by retaining the name for the service it first provided - the Safe House.

Shannon was pleased the refuge was ''still going strong''.

''Thank you all for continuing the work we started way back then.''

The Press