Victims like us: the development of the Victorian CASAs

By Lesley Hewitt and Carolyn Worth


The late 1960's and early 1970's saw social change movements proliferate in the Western world. There were Civil Rights marches in the United States, student riots in France and anti Vietnam war demonstrations in many countries. In Australia this period of social unrest and activism translated into the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Student Movement, the New Left and the Anti Vietnam War Movement with rallies and demonstrations taking place regularly. Social action groups started up around the country.

Many of the women involved in these forms of political activity found that the prejudice and discrimination that they faced as women was no different in these groups to what they had experienced in other more traditional organisations. Groups of women began meeting to discuss issues of particular concern to them. This included their disappointment with the hierarchical, male dominated format of the left wing groups. These women initially formed "consciousness raising" groups, but by the early 1970's specific groups of women were meeting around issues of domestic violence, community run childcare services, rape, abortion law reform, equal pay, access to public bars, sexist advertising, education, home birthing and communes. According to Gisela Kaplan (1996) Melbourne had 34 women's liberation groups by 1971.

Many of the women involved in these groups believed that the changes they were working toward were in the forefront of a revolution that would change the world. A primary focus of debate was on whether or not to accept Government funding in case to do so meant a compromise of principles and goals. Men were often seen as actively opposing changes in women's lives in order to maintain their own relative power. Women were seen as taking charge of their lives and the rightness of causes was seen as sufficient for their success. The driving idea was one of social revolution not social reform.

Much of this activity took place before and during the life of the Whitlam Labor Government that came to power in 1972 after 23 years of conservative Liberal Party rule. However, arguably unavoidably, from the very beginning the Whitlam Government established a bureaucratic structure that started to co opt the radical women's liberation groups. In 1974 the Labor Government offered .2 million to assist in the International Women's Day celebrations. This fund was administered by the National Advisory Committee for international Women's Year and generated fierce debates about the wisdom of accepting Government funding, Whitlam appointed a personal adviser on women's affairs and established the Women's Affairs Section within the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The Government re-opened the national wage case, lifted the luxury tax on oral contraceptives, established the supporting mother's benefit and maternity and paternity leave provisions and made a commitment to Federal support for childcare. Whatever shortcomings the Government had as an economic manager in three short years it changed the culture of metropolitan Australia. In among the many changes that took place a structure was established for a strong feminist element in the Federal bureaucracy.

With the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in December 1975 there was a move back to the right. The idea of radical groups changing the world and state intervention towards that end altered totally. The radical right moved into power and slowly cut state aid for many creative and innovative programs that had developed to challenge the status quo. But in relation to some feminist issues the expectation had been established that the Government would provide financial assistance to bring about a change rape reform, domestic violence and child abuse were amongst the issues that maintained legitimacy. By the time the then Office of Women's Affairs was downgraded in 1977 and moved to the newly created Department of Home Affairs with far reduced access to Government power brokers, there were feminist bureaucrats in Canberra who were part of a growing network of women at State and Federal level sympathetic to a broad range of feminist aims. This, plus the universal appeal of causes such as opposition to domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault paved the way for the, albeit slow, development of an Australia wide systems of refuges and sexual assault centres. As Dowse notes "Who can argue against rape law reform without appearing to be in favour of rape? Likewise, it is hard to argue against the extension of facilities and reforms to protect battered wives and children" (Dowse 1983, p. 221)

It is against this international background of social unrest and the Australian federal political system that the various Australian states developed services for rape victims. These services developed within a few years of each other during the seventies. The particular models of service delivery that ensued resulted from a combination of local factors set against an international and federal context. This paper details the history of sexual assault services in Victoria. Histories of the development of sexual assault services in NSW (Carmody, 1990) and Western Australia (Deller, Fatin and Stewart, 1979) have been described elsewhere.

Development of services


The first Rape Crisis Centre in Victoria started in September 1974 formed by one of the women's liberation groups, Women Against Rape. This service provided access to medical examinations and counselling for recent adult women victims of sexual assault. The centre operated out of the health service in Collingwood that was run by the Victorian Women's Health Collective. The health service was staffed by volunteers and operated free of cost to all women.

The Whitlam Government made federal funding, administered through the States, available in 1975 for the establishment of rape crisis centres across Australia. Centres were quickly set up in Adelaide and Sydney. However, the Victorian Government withheld funding from the Rape Crisis Centre due to a disagreement about management and organisational structures. This service ceased operating in December 1975.

The Women Against Rape collective continued to operate out of the Women's Liberation Centre in Little Lonsdale Street until the end of the 1970's. The Collective offered support to recent rape victims with reporting to the Police, medicals and accommodation where necessary. The Collective also engaged in social activism attempting to lay wreaths for women raped in war at the Anzac Day marches, lobbying for rape law reform and being involved in the Reclaim the Night Marches which commenced in Melbourne in 1979.

The Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), which had formed in February 1971 as an a-political, non-party lobby also continually lobbied the Victorian Government in relation to rape law reform. Pressure by WEL led to the establishment of the Victorian Rape Study Committee in 1977 within the Department of the Premier. The catalyst for the establishment of this Committee was the refusal of a large public hospital to provide a recent rape victim with treatment. The membership of the Rape Study Committee included representatives from the Police, the public prosecutor, medical practitioners, bureaucrats, Women Against Rape, WEL, and others well placed to influence key organisations responses to rape victims. Also, in 1977 the newly appointed Police Surgeon, Peter Bush, approached the Queen Victoria Medical Centre for permission to examine rape victims in their Emergency Department believing that this would provide a better service for women than the Russell Street Police Station. Peter Bush also asked the hospital whether counselling services could be provided on a referral basis to women who had been raped. The challenge to provide counselling services was accepted by Pat Farrant, the senior social worker in the Department of Psychiatry on behalf of her staff and on 8th August 1977 the social work staff in the Department of Psychiatry started to provide an unfunded counselling service for victims of sexual assault. At the same time gynecological staff at the Queen Victoria Medical Centre began providing medical services for rape victims.

As a result of the work of the Rape Study Committee, chaired by Yolanda Klempfner, the advisor on women's issues to the Liberal Premier Dick Hamer, the state government provided funding to the Queen Victoria Medical Centre to provide a 24 hour counselling service to victims of sexual assault. This ultimately led to the establishment of first Government funded Sexual Assault Centre. In 1979 the Queen Victoria Medical Centre received government funding to establish a room in Casualty for the examination of rape victims with nursing and social work support provided by the hospital. There was also funding for a coordinator of the developing Sexual Assault Centre. The establishment of a service in a major public hospital caused considerable debate and concern amongst the women's health groups, which had been fighting hard to challenge what was seen as a destructive medical model, which perceived women who had been raped to be "hysterics". These groups were concerned that a sexual assault service operating from a hospital would reinforce existing myths about women as rape victims that they were working to challenge. In fact the social workers who staffed the service, understood, as a result of their professional training the social context of rape. The service developed within a feminist value framework. A major role of the early social workers in the Sexual Assault Centre was to undertake community and professional education around the then dominant understanding of rape.

In 1978 Women Against Rape, Geelong was formed by a group of Geelong women following a woman being treated extremely badly after a rape. This group changed their name to Geelong Rape Crisis Centre and ran as an unfunded collective until 1982. Initially the collective offered a telephone based counselling and advice service.


The Cain Labor Government that came to power in 1982 was elected on a strong platform of women's issues that translated into a commitment to a policy of regionalisation for health services and the establishment of sexual assault services in each Department of Health region. The establishment of these services and their location was decided according to priorities established by the Rape Study Committee.

The second funded service to be established in Victoria was the Geelong Rape Crisis Service who in 1982 was allocated a small private space within the Casualty Section of the Geelong Hospital where medical examinations could be undertaken. In addition, rape victims and their families and friends were offered support by the Collective. In 1984 this service received funding to employ staff.

The establishment of further centres and their location was decided according to priorities established by the Rape Study Committee. Between 1982 - 5 three country sexual assault services were set up in Bendigo, Ballarat and Warmambool and funding was committed to the Northern Metropolitan Region. By the end of 1985 there were six centres either operating or due to commence.

In 1986 it was decided to move the Queen Victoria Centre out of metropolitan Melbourne to Clayton as part of a wider move to decentralise acute health facilities into population growth areas. As a response to the attendant move of the only City based sexual assault centre the Rape Study Committee recommended a tender process for the establishment of a replacement inner urban centre. The Royal Women's Hospital secured the tender and CASA House opened in North CarIton in 1987.

The final report of the working party convened by the Victorian Minister for Health in 1986 Why Women's Health recommended the establishment of Centres Against Sexual Assault for women in all Victorian health regions. By this time there were 8 centres against sexual assault including the Gatehouse Centre in the Royal Children's Hospital. At the end of the 1980's there were 13 sexual assault centres across Victoria although there were, and continue to be, variations in funding and service provision across regions and services.


By 1990 the 13 Centres Against Sexual Assault in Victoria provided a range of services for adult and child victims of sexual assault. Two new centres came into being in the 90's. Upper Murray Centre Against Sexual Assault in 1992 and Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault in 1995. The existing Centres had commenced meeting informally in 1986 adding new Centres as they were established. The Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault Forum was formally established in 1992 and was registered as an Incorporated Association in 1994. This organization now operates as a peak body for the fifteen Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault lobbying government and other organizations, formulating field positions on a wide range of issues and developing links with a large number of relevant organizations.

The existence of sympathetic bureaucrats and the difficulty of opposing the extension of services for rape victims without being seen to be in favour of rape have enabled the field to keep expanding. Although there have been challenges from other organizations wishing to offer some of the services provided by sexual assault services, the field has remained remarkably cohesive moving away from a purely rape crisis model to a more integrated service model in response to the changing needs of victim/survivors. Pushed by CASA's, governments have responded to the additional categories of victims that have come forward such as female victims of childhood sexual assault, children and young people and male victims of recent and past sexual assault.

In 1991 - 1995 in a $12 million campaign package to look at the culture of violence in Australia, $3.48 million was made available from the Federal Office of Status of Women to set up a national community education program on rape (Kaplan, 1996). In 1992 the National Women's Health Program provided funding for CASA's to fill gaps in services for predominantly rural and disadvantaged women. In 1994/1995 many CASA'S secured additional funding through the Community Support Fund to establish or expand services for young women and children. Suicide Prevention funds were provided for both male victims and young women survivors who self harm. In 1998 funding was made available to some CASA's to provide an after hours service for victims of family violence.

CASA's have continued to diversify making their services more accessible and relevant to a wide range of victim/survivors of sexual assault and their family and friends. There are inequities in funding and there are areas, such as women from rural and remote areas, Koori women and men and women from non English speaking background, which need extra funding but CASA's have a wide range of services across the State allowing victim/survivors access.

Continuing in the tradition that was established by the original Rape Study Committee links have continued to be forged with a variety of organizations to assist victims in obtaining a service. The Rape Law Reform Evaluation Project developed the Police Code of Practice in conjunction with CASA's and Victoria Police in 1992 and reprinted in August 1999 following an evaluation of the original guidelines. Standards of practice for the field were commenced in 1992 and finalized in 2000. A project was completed in 1997 in conjunction with the Family Planning Association of Victoria to improve access to CASA's for people with an intellectual disability.


Sexual assault services in Victoria have developed in 23 years from being unfunded, run by Collectives of feminists with a commitment to Women's Health principles and presenting a challenge to the status quo to a government funded state wide network of 15 centres.

Social workers have been significantly involved in the development of CASA's from the beginning. Individual social workers such as Pat Farrant responded to the challenges thrown up by the women's movement to provide a better deal for rape victims. Social workers, because of their understanding of the social context of rape have been able to forge alliances with other stakeholders including police, medical practitioners, bureaucrats and community representatives to establish a statewide network of services for sexual assault victims/survivors. Looking in 2001 at the provision of a statewide network of 24 hour services for a range of victim/survivors it is easy to forget how community and professional understanding of rape and sexual assault has altered from the seventies.

Discussions around government funding and whether an organization will be co-opted as such funding is accepted have been left behind. The debate now centers on how to make successive federal and state governments responsive to increased demands for services.

The policy issue women raised in the early days of the women's liberation movement in the case of sexual assault has moved onto the agenda of both major parties attracting funding through a variety of programs. Some of the original activists in this area have become senior bureaucrats and consultants. There is a considerable amount of goodwill towards the funding of sexual assault and family violence programs from all sides of the political spectrum due to a shared history and the difficulty of being against such programs without being seen to be in favour of violence.

The old debates still surface in heated discussions about issues such as the wisdom of accepting funding of services for male victims, the most appropriate way to treat sexually aggressive adolescent's who may also be sexual assault victims, what to call victim/survivors of sexual assault and how to understand the behaviour of female offenders. The complexity of these issues serves to underline just how far we have come in our understanding of the issue of sexual assault since the seventies. The social workers who have been involved in the policy debates, law reform campaigns and development of services have been able to do so because of their capacity to understand the individual in the environment.

CASA's have grown, multiplied and made their own accommodation with the State and government funding. Whether they have fulfilled the promise of their origins and been a practical expression of women's fight against patriarchy leading to substantial changes for women, or whether they have been co-opted to create a well serviced class of victims will be left to the judgment of another generation. They will ponder whether what Sarah Dowse called the Women's Movement Fandango with the State (Dowse 1983) led CASA's to ameliorate the consequences of sexual assault without challenging the underlying causes.


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Dowse, S (1983) "The women's movement fandango with the state: the movement's role in public policy since 1972", in Baldock, C and Cass, B (editors) Women, Social Welfare and the State, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, pp.201-222.

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Hardiman, A (1998) "The Evolution of Organisational Responses and Models in Victorian Sexual Assault Services in the 1990s", Women Against Violence: An Australian Feminist Journal, Issue No.5, December, pp.50-56.

Kaplan, G (1996) The Meagre Harvest. The Australian Women's Movement 1950s-1990s, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Orr, L (1998) "Women's Interests and the Australian State, Regulation, Governance and Feminist Services", Women Against Violence: An Australian Feminist Journal, Issue No.5, December, pp.34-43

Refractory Girl (1993) Refracting Voices: Feminist Perspectives from Refractory Girl, Refractory Girl, NSW.

Smith, Y (1988) Taking Time: A Women's Historical Data Kit, Union of Australian Women, Fitzroy.

Victorian CASA Forum, (2000) Standards of Practice for Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault, Victorian CASA Forum, Victoria.

Reproduced here with permission of Carolyn Worth

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