The Federal Government has axed funding for award-winning women’s safety program WESNET Safe Connections despite an external review highlighting its success.

Partners since 2014, Telstra provides free, prepaid, secure smartphones to the Women’s Services Network (WESNET) to supply to women impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence.

Designed to give women safe communication avenues, the program provides over 600 mobile phones monthly and technical safety specialists to over 276 specialist frontline agencies across Australia.

In 2016, Safe Connections won an Australian Crime and Violence Prevention Award, an awards program that recognises good practice in violence prevention work.

An external evaluation by Curtin University in February 2018 labelled Safe Connections a “shining example of multi-sector collaboration”.

“Safe Connections … is having a real impact on the lives of women and their children who have experienced family and domestic violence,” the report said.

However, the Commonwealth has now withdrawn funding for this vital service.

National Director of WESNET, Karen Bentley, said 31 percent of the women WESNET supplies phones to identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and approximately 5 percent of the services they supply phones to are Indigenous specific services.

With 130 agencies on the waiting list for the Safe Connections program, Ms Bentley also said WESNET already struggles to keep up with the demand for the program.

The National Director said the only reasoning WESNET was given for the funding withdrawal was that the original funding was one-off.

“Several of the other initiatives have ongoing funding,” Ms Bentley said.

“We have been invited now to put in a proposal … They’ve said, ‘You can bring forward an unsolicited proposal and it will be considered on its merits’.

“We will be putting that in very shortly.”


Blame game

This comes after the only peak body for Indigenous family violence survivors had their already minimal funding completely withdrawn.

Questions are arising as to whether the Commonwealth plans to cut more services that help the most vulnerable groups in the national community.

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said WESNET was provided with $3.3 million under the Women’s Safety Package in the financial years 2015-16 and 2019-20 and was advised to submit a proposal for future funding.

“The time-limited nature of the funding was stipulated in their funding agreement and has been discussed with WESNET regularly,” the spokesperson said.

“Despite an agreed path forward being brokered between the [Minister for Families and Social Services’] Office and WESNET, to date the organisation have not submitted a proposal.”

Ms Bentley said the Department invited WESNET to apply for more funding, however there was some confusion, as between conversations WESNET received official correspondence that their program funding had been cut.

“The line we’ve been hearing from [the Department of Social Services] is it was one-off funding, we didn’t apply for grants, and we went to the media,” Ms Bentley said.

The Department spokesperson also said several grant rounds have since passed for organisations to apply for new, however WESNET has not applied to date.

Ms Bentley said these grant rounds were to expand existing crisis accommodation, for men’s voices, and for primary prevention services – making their applications counterproductive.

“We are trying to do an early intervention not a primary prevention … we’re not eligible [for these grants].”

With only six months of funding left, a quick response is crucial for WESNET.

Ms Bentley said Telstra has agreed to keep donating phones, however this will not be enough to continue the program without more funding.

“This program can’t operate just by a donation of phones, somebody’s actually got to manage the phones, send them all out to all the agencies, [everything],” Ms Bentley said.

“We’re going to submit a proposal to the Minister’s Office, and we will submit some proposals to other funding bodies that we can find to see whether or not there are other opportunities.”

The Department of Social Services did not respond to questions about why the Curtin evaluation was seemingly ignored in the funding decision-making process and whether other social services funding will be cut in the new year.


Indigenous women most affected

The Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group (TWFSG) have aired their concerns the cuts to domestic violence services will disproportionately affect Indigenous women and their families.

Part of the Tangentyere Council in Mparntwe/Alice Springs, Northern Territory, TWFSG gives out at least 12 phones a month to their clients.

TWFSG Coordinator Shirleen Campbell said they are disappointed in the decision.

“We are gutted to hear this news as we head into the Christmas period, which is traditionally a time of increased risk for domestic and family violence,” Ms Campbell said.

“The WESNET service is very important for women in Town Camps, to be able to stay in touch and contact emergency and support services when they need to.

“There are very few public phones on our Town Camps and women’s mobiles are often deliberately broken in cases of domestic and family violence.”

Ms Bentley backed this, saying many women have their phones smashed or tracked.

“We know that there’s almost a complete overlap now between domestic and family violence and technology abuse. Increasingly, we’re seeing a lot of abuse being delivered via technology,” Ms Bentley said.

“This further proves the point that access to [secure] smartphones is really crucial [for women].”

Ms Campbell also said having access to a secure, working mobile phone can be the difference between life, serious injury or death.

“We have front line services like the TWFSG working hard to make our women and children safer but when things like these funding cuts happen, we have to ask if the Federal Government hears us at all.”

By Hannah Cross