After helping establish the organisation in the early 1990s, Gippsland Women’s Health chief executive Fiona Owen is back in charge.
Ms Owen spent years in Queensland and New Zealand, continuing to manage women’s health services, as well as child protection and youth justice.
Returning to Gippsland was an eye-opener, she said.
“I was the first chief executive — so I’ve come home,” she said.
“I had some conversations with people I knew, and my networks, just to get a sense of what was happening here in Gippsland, and there were some moments where I thought, ‘wow, we’re still having the same conversations’.
“How can we still be talking about this? We’re still talking about violence against women — why hasn’t this changed?”
However, Ms Owen said she was surprised at the level of advocacy in the community that had emerged.
“I’m overwhelmed by the change in the nature of the conversation.
“When I was in the women’s health network many years ago, it was very much the women’s health services, the domestic violence services, the refuges, all standing very much on their own waving the banners, saying ‘this is not okay’.
“Now, the engagement of a whole range of organisations, including local government and a much broader health segment, and very much the responsibility taken up by men, who are leading the prevention campaigns and the response service coordination ... I’ve noticed a lot of differences.
“There’s a lot of partners working in that space together.”
Ms Owen sees Gippsland Women’s Health as a leader in the area of family violence.
“The experience of GWH, probably because they were once the only ones waving that banner, are seen as being the experts in the field, with a lot of knowledge in the areas of prevention and response,” she said.
“We still drive a lot of that work here.”
Some things have changed since Ms Owen was last at the helm, including service delivery.
While a breast cancer nurse is still on site, as well as a wig bank, the organisation has moved away from direct services.
“When we first set up GWH we were kind of on the edge of getting those practitioners into our services, but now that’s become more the domain of community health, as it should be,” she said.
“Our role is more around advocacy, capability development in the areas of family violence prevention.
“Our reception desk provides a lot of referrals and makes a lot of connections to services for women, but really our role is more around political and social change agents, which is a change.”
The three priorities for the foreseeable future, according to Ms Owen, were connection, sustainability and equity, and she has already hit the ground running to achieve results for all three.
“We cover a large area, we’ve got a small staff, and it’s a part time workforce,” Ms Owen said.
“There’s a lot of challenges in how you actually cover that area, so one of our priorities is to get out and go and meet people, reconnect with people.”
The GWH office is based in Sale, but the organisation covers all the local government areas in Gippsland, so Ms Owen has journeyed to Cann River and Buchan already, with plans to visit Bass Coast and Baw Baw in the next few months.
“This service needs to reflect not only what the government wants, but also what the women of Gippsland want and need, and the only way to know that is to actually get out there,” she said.
“We’ll build on that over the next two or three years, so we have a strong foundation.”
Achieving financial sustainability across the organisation is a must.
“We need to get smarter,” Ms Owen said.
“Small non-governmental organisations are never fully funded.
“You need to look at how you’re organised to deliver your services — whether there are better or different ways of doing things or getting funding.
“One of the things the board wants to consider is bringing on for a short time a business development officer position, so we can step back and say, ‘well, we can get this funding, but Gippsland women need this service, so where can we attract money, or generate income?’.”
Ms Owen pointed to Make the Link, a successful project identifying the drivers behind violence against women.
“In a lot of organisations like this, there’s a lot of intellectual property sitting there.
“We’re getting interest from interstate and overseas — there might be an opportunity for us to say, ‘we created this and it’s excellent, and you’re a big enough organisation that maybe you could purchase it’.”
Making Gippsland more equitable, and making sure women have the same opportunities and recognition as men, is a longer term goal.
“Gender equity is very important to us,” she said.
“It’s about having access to the same opportunities, but also recognising there are differences, that women have a different lens often than men, and that’s perfectly okay.”
Ms Owen also paid tribute to her predecessor, Jodie Martin, and added the future for Gippsland Women’s Health was bright, especially around its work with partner agencies.
“I’m not here to tip the world upside down,” she said.
“I haven’t come in here to say ‘right, in my first 90 days we’re going to change this’, I’ve come in here, honestly, and I’ve said this to the staff, I want to sit and watch and listen.
“I come into the chief executive role with 25 or 30 years of management experience.
“This place is in a good place.”