Doncare is a community centre that provides support to women and families in the Manningham area, running a number of community support programs including emergency relief, family services, hands on parenting, domestic violence unit and social support. Freya Dugan, who runs the hands on parenting program, has said that in the last year the number of women coming to Doncare for support has sky-rocketed. “Doncare is there to support women and families in need in the Manningham area, we offer a number of services which help support and inform,” said Dugan.
The iMatter program was founded in 2011 by Julie McDonald and Susan Orr, thanks to generous funding from Women’s Affairs Minister Mary Wooldridge. iMatter is an initiative to give young women the tools they need to identify unhealthy relationships and to get out of them. “Our team at Doncare see a lot of heartache and it seemed to me that we should really be doing something about prevention with young women,” said McDonald.
Domestic violence is a major issue in Australia. According to police reports there was a 15% increase in reported cases of family violence in Victoria alone in 2010-2011. “We work with a lot of women who experience family violence, women in their 30’s to 60’s, the oldest woman to see us was 92,” said McDonald.
The iMatter program is run by a group of dedicated young volunteers, who share the same goal in hoping to prevent domestic violence. “Our leaders are switched on, bright and amazing young women,” said McDonald. The core group of girls is made up of students, varying in ages from 19 to 28 years. Katherine Georgakopolous is one of these leaders, a passionate young woman who believes all women deserve to be given the tools needed to identify unhealthy relationships before it’s too late.
“I think a lot of young women today are desensitised to the whole abusive side of things. The [iMatter] workshops create this awareness in them so that next time something does happen, something will snap in them and they will recognise it’s not right,” says Georgakopolous.
Through Julie and Katharine’s observations the young women they work with are unaware of the warning signs of an abusive relationship and they are unfamiliar of the many different types of abuse. Katharine mentioned that the young girls she worked with were more likely to recognise signs of abuse in other people’s relationships before their own. This is worrying when there are so many distressing statistics involving domestic violence in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that more than 60% of domestic violence cases are not reported. The iMatter program focuses on giving impressionable young women a starting point to talk about these issues before they become serious problems, prevention over a cure.
Through her work with Doncare, McDonald has seen many women come through her doors who have been victims of domestic violence. She has noticed a scary trend, with so many women admitting that if they knew what they did now, they would never have allowed themselves to be victims in such relationships. “This is not stuff that we are taught, empowering ourselves in relationships, however this is what should be taught,” said McDonald.
Currently the program is being run in Doncaster Secondary and The Pines Learning Centre, small groups of 8-10 students in years 10 to 11. The groups are run by 3 volunteers from Doncare, including Katherine Georgakopolous. Consisting of two sessions, the first focused on abuse and the second session is focused on self-esteem. “What comes across profoundly is that most of the young women [volunteering] have some experience with domestic violence, or have been close to someone who has experienced it,” says McDonald.
This experience helps the young women volunteering to build relationships with the girls in the groups they work with. The knowledge that the volunteers have experience with this very sensitive issue encourages the young girls to open up, allowing them to feel more comfortable with opening up and discussing their experiences. McDonald recognises one of the most important aspects of the sessions is when the students are encouraged to ask the volunteers questions on their own experiences with domestic violence.
The young girls who have taken part in the iMatter program feel more comfortable opening up to women closer to their own age. According to McDonald and her team this is one of the main reasons behind the success of the program. iMatter focuses on talking and opening up about very personal issues such as domestic violence and self-esteem. “It’s not something we talk about and the more we do the more we think about it and pick up on it,” Georgakopolous said. Domestic Violence is something that Georgakopolous clearly cares about, as she has been involved with the program from the very beginning. As one of the first who took part in the initial focus group run by Doncare, she has been involved in the whole process from working on activities and issues to cover in the group sessions to running the sessions in Schools with other volunteers.
When asked why she volunteers, it’s very clear that Georgakopolous is avid about helping these young and impressionable women. “I am very passionate about educating them.” Georgakopolous also believes that the tools she helps teach in the session go far beyond the classroom scenarios, noting that they are transferable tools that can be applied to any relationship and “will have a positive influence on other aspects of their life.”
iMatter is the first of its kind, using young women as group leaders. There are other programs run in Melbourne, however these programs differ and are run by older women. This is an initiative that McDonald hopes will one day be a national program implemented in every school, as giving young women the tools to recognise and avoid violent relationships seems to be the key. However programs like this do not come cheap and iMatter’s funding is fast running out, the initial funding was used and they are currently surviving on funding from the Doncare board due to finish in June this year. “We’re on tender hooks, I’m just hoping the board will see that they have made a commitment and will continue to fund us for a little longer.”For more information on Doncare and the support they offer please visit www.doncare.org.au