It is every woman’s human right to live a life free of sexual assault and domestic violence. However, if she is subjected to any form of violence, it is equally her right to receive compassionate assistance in her recovery and full redress for the crime through the criminal justice system.
Karen Willis grew up in multicultural Liverpool, in a solid working-class family. Her parents instilled in her a sense of social justice, fairness and loyalty and it was this enduring sensibility that led her to welfare work when she left school. From the ground up, she began to understand the struggle that many people have just to survive. Working with unemployed young people, she learned about community services, acquiring valuable organisational skills. Later she worked at the Liverpool Neighbourhood Centre, where domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse were common issues. This also involved early intervention and prevention work, and working with government to make communities healthy and safer. This focus on prevention became a driving passion for Karen. From Liverpool she went to WILMA (Women in the Local Macarthur Area) Women’s Health Centre in Campbelltown, which dealt specifically with sexual assault and domestic violence. She gained experience in organisational governance and best practice service delivery to ensure the most effective assistance and support for clients.
For the past 13 years, Karen has been the Executive Officer of Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia (R&DVSA), formerly NSW Rape Crisis Centre. This is a non-government organisation, born of the women’s liberation movement; its feminist origins continue to inform its principles and practices.
R&DVSA provides telephone and online counselling for anyone whose life has been affected by sexual assault or domestic violence. It also provides face-to-face counselling for adults who experienced sexual assault in childhood as well as behaviour change counselling for men who use violence in their relationships. There are also training programs for practitioners in all areas of trauma.
While R&DVSA works with other similar organisations and with the police to provide the best possible counselling and therapeutic support for those who have already experienced violence, these systems are activated after the violence has occurred and left its terrible impact. In working to arrest sexual assault and domestic violence before it starts, R&DVSA has partnered with Professor Moira Carmody of the University of Western Sydney to develop the Sex & Ethics Program. This program targets people aged 16 to 24 and aims to promote and reinforce non-violent behaviours. Research from the program has been encouraging, showing that six months after participation in the program, young people continue to use the ethical sexual framework in their relationships.
R&DVSA has grown from what was the equivalent of six full- time workers, surviving precariously, to a nationwide service with over 70 staff. While funding is still an issue, the organisation has progressed a long way from its shaky past. Karen regards her colleagues as an extraordinary group of passionate, committed women who ensure that every person seeking assistance is offered the best help possible. They are unwavering in their public advocacy for improved and fairer systems and the funding of high-quality evidence-based services.
Karen regards the clients as the primary motivation for herself and her colleagues. Many of them are incredible human beings who have experienced things no one should have to confront and who, despite the trauma, work towards recovery and wellbeing.
Karen sees her career as being based on the principles of feminism, human rights and social justice. She has sat on a number of state and national advisory boards which participated directly in formulating government policy in relation to sexual assault and domestic violence. Karen believes the conversation about sexual assault and domestic violence has progressed significantly in the past ten years. Previously this was something whispered about, regarded as the fault of the woman and an internal family matter. With the shift in the debate, attitudes and responses are changing for the better. The next challenge is to change the behaviours and concepts in male culture that condone violence against women. Women have been doing the heavy lifting for a long time and it is time for men to become involved and address the issues of sexual assault and domestic violence in order to effect real and lasting change.
In 2005 Karen was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and travelled widely to other countries to review the practices, processes and outcomes of support services and criminal justice responses to complaints of sexual support. In 2008, she was awarded the Edna Ryan Grand Stirrer Award by the Women’s Electoral Lobby for convincing others to challenge the status quo.
In 2011 Karen was awarded an OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia) for her work on violence against women. In 2013, she was formally acknowledged by the NSW Sex Crimes Squad in appreciation of her support for their work.