Manuela Whitford and her husband Darrell are loading a van with donated goods at a small warehouse south of Brisbane.Darrell will drive the furniture and household items to what they call 'sanctuaries' – rented homes where people who have fled domestic violence can restart their lives.“When people leave, they may take nothing but a backpack,” says Ms Whitford, 48.Advertisement“So, we try to fit them out with donated goods like tables, mattresses; everything they need to furnish a home.”It’s all thanks to her not-for-profit Friends with Dignity, which has so far delivered $8 million worth of goods to abuse survivors across Australia. And demand is rapidly rising.
Manuela Whitford at the Friends with Dignity office in Brisbane. Credit: SBS / Matt Guest“We are inundated with requests and, in the last week alone, we have assisted in putting five homes together,” Ms Whitford says.She founded the charity in 2015 to help men, women and children impacted by abuse, and she herself is no stranger to violence.In 2009 the trained nurse was heading to work in her home city of Johannesburg, South Africa, when she was violently assaulted on a public street.
Domestic violence saw 29,000 people hospitalised over eight years. Two-thirds were women”They were verbally abusive and demanded cash. They grabbed my arms and pushed me to the ground, which caused some swelling and bruising to my arms,” she says.“I felt totally alone even though I was surrounded by many people. Yet not one person reached out and helped me.”It would change her life forever.“I made the decision that I was not going to be a bystander. If I did know about violence or saw anything like that, I would help that person.”
Manuela Whitford sorting donated goods at the warehouse. Credit: SBS / Matt GuestSoon after, Ms Whitford left for Australia and continued her nursing career in the prison system, before starting the charity. It is among many services reporting an increase in demand since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.Domestic violence offences increased by 17 per cent across Queensland last year, according to a report from the state government's statistician's office.“It is very overwhelming for [people fleeing] so we try to ease that burden as they start again,” Ms Whitford says.“Furnishing a home costs around $5,000, even with donated items.“But we have been blessed with donations, on a daily basis. Some items come in brand new. It is amazing how the community just bands together to help families in need.”Among the charity’s 150 registered volunteers across South East Queensland, NSW and Western Australia, is 66 -year-old Mary Page – who left an abusive marriage with her three young children in the 1990s.She had few possessions when she was later forced to rent a property.“With the children being so young, they had to leave all their things behind. It took us a long time before we could go back and take everything we needed,” she says.
Mary Page volunteers at Friends with Dignity Credit: SBS / Matt GuestMs Page was among the first to volunteer at Friends with Dignity and has so far helped to furnish almost 700 homes for those restarting their lives.“It makes me feel I am doing a good thing for someone who is in very big need,” she says.“If there was a service like this 30 years ago, it would have helped me a lot, especially with the children being so young.”“My heart goes out to them because I have been there and I know what it’s like.”
Mary Page and Manuela Whitford. Credit: SBS / Matt GuestThe National Women’s Safety Alliance’s 2022 survey revealed nine out of 10 domestic, family and sexual violence frontline services have reported an increase in abuse since the pandemic began.Mary also volunteers at a women’s refuge south of Brisbane and sees the growing need first-hand.“Every time I go to the refuge there are more women and children,” she says.“It is always full, and we have to turn people away because there is no more room.”
Hannah Clarke’s 'astounding' bravery recognised as coroner delivers murder inquest findingsHayley Foster, the CEO of Full Stop Australia, says it is a national crisis.”One woman a week is being murdered in this country at the hands of a partner or ex-partner,” she says.“This situation has been compounded by the pandemic, such that the United Nations High Commissioner has called it a ‘shadow pandemic’.“We have a lot of work to do.”Australia’s current housing crisis is part of the problem.“A lot of the rental houses are not up to my standard and with the recent rainfall, many are affected by mould,” Ms Whitford says.”But demand is so high for accommodation and people are desperate to leave refuges, they’ll take whatever they can get.“So, we do our best to ensure it looks as good as it can, for them to move into.”
One of the homes Friends with Dignity has furnished Credit: Supplied Manuela WhitfordHayley Foster says domestic violence is widespread.“First Nations people, and people with a disability are at higher risk.“People who speak another language other than English or who are on a precarious visa situation, or anybody who is in a lesser position of power.”We can all play a part in supporting survivors and helping end domestic violence, she says.“You can donate to a charity that is doing this work, you can stand up and speak out, and just be there to support people and point them to services that are available.”
Manuela Whitford is grateful for the donations. Credit: SBS / Matt GuestServices helping those fleeing abuse say a range of household goods are needed.“If you have a spare bed, instead of putting it into landfill, donate it for people who are in need and can use it,” says Manuela.Survivor Ms Page has this advice for anyone at risk: “Get out. No matter how hard it is and how frightened they are, they need to get out.”Friends with Dignity is offering educational scholarships to children aged 5 to 17 who have been affected by domestic and family violence. Applications close 15 July.If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
The Men’s Referral Service provides advice for men on domestic violence and can be contacted on 1300 766 491.
MYNA is a cultural producer, curator, and the founder/Director of Engendered, a New York/New Delhi based Transnational Arts and Human rights organization with a focus on the intersections of gender/marginalities and technology in Global South. She is interested in art curation as a feminist practice, an instigation/investigation and reflection of ...
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