When looking back over the year at Women’s Health Goulburn North East (WHGNE), it strikes our team that our greatest achievements are those shared with our community. The impacts of the 2022 Victorian State floods on residents of northeast Victoria have been devastating and far reaching – the damage to homes, livelihoods and infrastructure impacts on health and wellbeing, beyond the period of immediate emergency. In response to the floods, WHGNE was awarded funding as part of the Office for Women, Department of Families Fairness and Housing flood funding initiatives to support the mental health and wellbeing of women across the state.
This funding enabled place based, women centered responses across our Goulburn and North East catchment region – this means that we were able to tailor activities according to the needs of women in the communities we engaged. Following extensive consultation with key regional response and support agencies, WHGNE identified 17 partners to collaborate with on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of women in the context of disaster response and recovery.
We heard from women in the community about the compounding effects of sequential disasters (COVID-19, fires and floods) on their health and wellbeing. Before women and the community had time to adequately recover from one disaster event, another was on the doorstep and then another – it was unrelenting! The women told us they not only felt exhausted but also isolated as the opportunities to come together where connections foster care and resilience, had been eroded in the need to survive and recover. The women asked if opportunities to come together could be created and enabled, and of course we said “yes”!
Working alongside women from Murray Dairy and their connection to women in agriculture, we facilitated a series of key social events for women to come together to connect over the tried and tested recovery methods of connection, care and contribution. One key event brought 60 women from all sectors of the agricultural industry together to have lunch and hear an inspirational talk and songs from acclaimed performer Melinda Schneider titled ‘The story of My Life’, which brought hope and inspiration to the women. One of the women, capturing the consensus of all in attendance said:
"Melinda's performance was amazing. Her story, her message and her songs touched each and every one of us and inspired hope and healing. We are so thankful for the opportunity to bring her to our northeast women in ag gathering, it was a very special day."
Another avenue of support for women’s mental health and wellbeing longer term, was our collaborative research project, Care through Disaster with project partners Australia reMADE. The flood funding enabled lived experience-based research into the concept of care and how it can mitigate the damaging impacts on mental health and wellbeing. What we learned was that while there is the need for logistical and emergency disaster response, the community identified other crucial needs – to be seen, safe and supported. These considerations must be embedded as an approach to disaster preparedness, response and recovery, supporting community cohesion and resilience.
The flexibility of the funding and its recognition of place based, people centered responses has been a vital enabler – and with a long-term, preventative lens could be even more effective in the disaster preparedness, response and recovery space. This final thought points to our hopes and aspirations for the Goulburn and northeast Victorian region in 2024 – communities resourced and empowered to prioritise, value and increase community health and wellbeing.