Rural women agents for change

About 250 women gathered in Narrandera for the Rural Women’s Gathering, which offered not only the chance to network, but to contribute vital solutions to the issues faced by women in regional NSW.

The strength of the Rural Women’s Gathering is not about the opportunities for women to network and socialise. The real advantage of the Gathering is the opportunity for rural women to find solutions to their problems.

The Rural Women’s Gathering celebrated its 25th year last weekend. It also coincided with the Department of Primary Industries’ Rural Women’s Network 25th anniversary as well.

“Twenty-five years on it’s still happening. I think ours would be the longest running Women’s Gathering and Rural Women’s network. So out of the State Rural Women’s Networks, we’re the longest running one as well. It’s a big thing for a government program,” said Allison Priest, who is one of the organisers of the Rural Women’s Network.

All too often, government projects fizzle out, either due to funding disappearing, organisers moving on or  interest dying off.

“People have been saying to us, why are you still here, what makes it successful,” Ms Priest said. “I think it’s partly because only two of us run the program. We’re state-based, but we run it on a shoestring budget. But we always partner and work with other people, so I think that’s been part of the success. I think it’s also the fact that we’re not just running in saying we’re going to fix everything for you. We’re actually saying to people, what are your challenges and issues at the moment, how can we help you cope and become resilient.

“So I think it is about listening to women, and adapting and evolving what we do to ensure we meet their needs,” Ms Priest said.

The Rural Women’s Network does more than just listen; they also create a yearly report, outlining the challenges that rural women face yearly. The report always lands on the desk of the Primary Industries minister, although if there are other major issues then the report is handed on to the relevant minister.

Over the weekend of the Gathering the DPI workshopped some of the issues that were raised by women at last year’s Broken Hill gathering. While internet and mobile data access was cited by women both this year and last year as the biggest problem they faced in rural Australia, there is precious little that the DPI can do about the data drought.

Three women instead stepped forward and shared their experiences as carers while living in rural and regional NSW. Access to resources and the need for respite were issues that the women raised.

“I think the other reason we’ve been successful is it’s not about government fixing issues, it’s about women coming up with solutions that fit them,” Ms Priest said. “If we work together and come up with solutions, we can definitely bring awareness and promote our solutions, and try to work with ministers and groups who can deliver results.”

Ms Priest said that variety was another key to their longevity.

“We do lots of project stuff and partnerships, it changes all the time,” Ms Priest said. “I do the Country Web magazine, the Rural Women’s Award, the Hidden Treasures – that’s our project. We oversee the Women’s Gathering. People put in those bids, the submissions, to host the gathering to us. Then we select someone and then provide the support where it’s needed to the committee.”

The Rural Women’s Network provides guidelines each year to the host committees, although each year the committees are free to add their own personal touches. The Cad Factory’s exhibition Shadow Places was a prime example of how each gathering could be made different from the last.

“We were finding was that people had to reinvent the wheel every year, so we decided we wanted to collect that knowledge and share that with everybody,” Ms Priest said.

Next year the Gathering will be held in Merimbula, where the committee is hoping to create stronger ties between the agriculture and aquaculture industries.

“The fact that it’s held in a different location every year, I think it’s just what the committee brings to it. They bring their own local flavour,” Ms Priest said. “That is what makes it really special and different, because the structure’s the same; it’s workshops, speakers, but it’s those little touches and the local flavour that people bring into it.

“You do remember something different about every one of them.”

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