From milking cows to the United Nations

How La Trobe played a role in building the career of a global leader in the crusade against family violence.

Raised in rural Victoria, Julie Oberin AM has dedicated her life to supporting women and children who experience domestic or family violence. Growing up near the Campaspe River, she could never have imagined that she would one day play a part in establishing the first ever women’s refuge in Bendigo – or address the United Nations at Australian Government sessions.

And yet for over 30 years, Julie’s work has been instrumental in keeping issues of gender equity and justice at the forefront of state, national and international policy.

“I couldn't help thinking that I'd gone from milking cows at Goornong, just outside of Bendigo, to delivering a speech at the United Nations in front of hundreds of people. That was pretty amazing,” she says.

A political awakening

Julie’s career began in the late 1980s when she, as a young mother, decided to seek higher education.

“I was in a difficult relationship. I had two very small children and was under financial stress, and I wanted a better life for my children,” she says. “I went to La Trobe Bendigo, and I initially enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts Humanities Degree so that I could then go on to do a DipEd. But then I was introduced to sociology and politics and that became my great passion.”

She swapped to a social sciences degree, where she learned to think critically about politics and power relations. Importantly, it helped her understand and navigate those power structures at home, too.

“Well, I experienced family violence, so I identify as someone with lived experience of family violence,” says Julie, “So I was learning about gender inequality and family violence at Uni and then going home and experiencing it. So that was a challenge.”

When Julie needed crisis accommodation – a refuge – there wasn't one in Bendigo. A woman who worked as the Women's Officer at La Trobe Bendigo offered to let her stay at her house, but thankfully, Julie had support from her parents and enough money saved to stay in a motel.

“But that Women's Officer from La Trobe went on to work with a group of feminists in Bendigo and form the first women's refuge here and that became Annie North,” she says. “And I ran into her down the street about a year later and she said, ‘It's because of you that we've got this going, you know’. So I have a very deep, strong relationship with Annie North.”

A refuge for women who need it

Annie North began as part of the Victorian model of refuges, developed by the feminist movement in the late 70s and early 80s. These series of suburban homes were commandeered as short-term crisis accommodation for women and children fleeing abuse. Operating primarily as collectives, the women who ran these spaces across Victoria would come together in Melbourne to plan how they should run.

“Annie North was one of the youngest ones, so it formed in 1989. I joined the Collective in 1990 and back in those days we didn't have boards or committees of management. The feminist movement really wanted to demonstrate power sharing, so there was no hierarchy,” says Julie.

Initially the Collective in Bendigo rented a few big houses to serve as refuges, and by 1992 they were able to purchase a house with government support. Four families could live there at one time, each occupying a single bedroom, and they had to share kitchens, living areas, laundries and bathrooms with the wider group.

“It wasn’t ideal, but it was good in some respects too. Women got to hear each other's stories and see that it wasn’t just happening to them, that it wasn’t their fault. That was the strength of the women's refuge movement, that it brought women together, and we realised there were patterns you know, this was something that men were choosing to do. And women and children were primarily the victims.”

From Victoria, to Australia, to the world

As time drew on, governments sought to standardise how women's services, including refuges, were managed. The feminist movement were required to introduce more traditional forms of governance –including a more accountable management structure.

"Because of my degree, I was able to draw the connections between the lives of victims/survivors, and the policy environment that they were living in,” says Julie. "And that includes policing, courts, attitudes, legislation, you know, all those things. And that's where the principles of social justice and human rights start to fit in – recognising that different people experience different structural disadvantages."

In 1997 she became the chair of WESNET, the Women's Services Network, which is the peak body for domestic violence services across Australia. From this position, Julie turned her attention to national and international responses to domestic and family violence.

"I needed to make sure there was a focus on state policy as well as national policy. I got involved at the international level because Australia was doing some really good things and I didn't want to lose it,” she says. “We needed to hold government to account on these things because Australia signs onto these UN treaties and conventions around improving rights for women, but we’ve seen good supports go in the past.”

She began attending regular forums at United Nations headquarters in New York – supporting government delegations, speaking at Government Side Events, and running Parallel Events for other NGO’s and government delegations from around the world.

“We've still got a long way to go, but some other countries have got even further to go. The important thing is that we've all got common ground. The experiences might have some differences, but there's so much that's similar across the world around gender-based violence that it's worth standing together and fighting for.”

A legacy to be proud of

Julie’s career is living proof that change can happen – but also of the power of education to make that change. More than 30 years after she originally connected with the women’s services sector, Julie is proud to see the legacy of Annie North continue to grow.

“We have kids that go through the refuge who then come back sometimes and say they want to do their student placement here because we saved their family and made such a difference,” she says. “We have women giving feedback that we've changed their lives, you know, and wanting to go and do social work so they can put back into the community. They're the things that really motivate you.”

"We've got to be activists. We've got to change what we see going wrong for people. We've got to change that for the next women and kids coming through the door. So that's rewarding, you know – we can see a change in attitudes, a change to the services available. All of that is worthwhile and makes it worthwhile.”

Julie completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) (1996) and Master of Social Work (Coursework) (2001) at La Trobe University, Bendigo.