I can only hope that in my young daughter’s lifetime, she will witness and benefit from true equality between men and women, and an end to violence against women and girls – in all its forms.
Carolyn Frohmader is the Executive Director of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) – and a formidable force in the global movement to prevent violence against women. Operating from a home office, Carolyn has built WWDA into a successful, pro-active lobby organisation that is now recognised by the United Nations. Carolyn is a true warrior who has fought tirelessly to achieve change for women and girls with a disability. ‘I can see now that we have made a difference – in awareness-raising, policy changes, recognition and advances in human rights for women and girls with a disability,’ she says.
These significant developments have all taken place in the 18 years that Carolyn has been working for WWDA. ‘I always believed that success does not come quickly,’ she says. ‘You have to be in it for the long haul and be persistent.’ Carolyn’s persistence has certainly paid off as WWDA now plays a pivotal role in the disability sector, dealing with everything from violence and abuse to employment, rolling out the NDIS, and practical issues like transport and housing. They have a strong international focus and assist with capacity-building in Africa as well as countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan that are struggling to cope with the needs of their disabled communities.
WWDA has come a long way from the fledgling organisation started by eight disabled women in Victoria more than 20 years ago. The organisation is now highly regarded in Australia and beyond – and Carolyn must take much of the credit for this. She has benefited in this role from an extensive background in women’s health, health policy, primary healthcare and community development.
Carolyn began her working life as a nurse at the Royal Hobart Hospital before becoming a community nurse. It was then that she became aware of widespread injustices such as elderly people being exploited and/or abused by family members, and disabled patients receiving inadequate care. This was a turning point for Carolyn who became determined to improve the lives of people disadvantaged by gender, age, disability or race.
Carolyn’s mother, who was a teacher and school principal, instilled in her from an early age a strong sense of social justice. ‘She advocated strongly for the rights of all girls and women to gain an education and realise their potential. She saw education as a critical mechanism for girls and women to challenge the entrenched patterns of inequality between men and women, and to break the cycle of violence. She taught me to be resilient and strong and to stand up for what I believed in.’
In the1990s, Carolyn was commissioned by the Tasmanian and Federal Governments to do a research study of women’s health. She met many women living in abusive and violent relationships including one woman who had been beaten by her violent husband almost daily for 21 years but felt she couldn’t leave because she had no skills. The fear of leaving was greater than the fear of staying. Carolyn said this woman made her understand that violence against women is a complex issue and requires structural change, and that gender equality is critical in addressing violence against women.
Carolyn went on to do postgraduate studies. While working as a consultant to the Australian Women’s Health Network in Canberra, she was asked to take on an embryonic role at the WWDA. This started out as a part-time job but rapidly became full-time. Under Carolyn’s leadership WWDA has received a number of prestigious awards, state and national, for its ground-breaking work, including the National Human Rights Award.
In 2001 Carolyn received the ACT Woman of the Year Award in recognition of her contribution to the promotion of women’s rights. In 2009 she was inducted into the Tasmanian Women’s Honour Roll, poignantly joining her late mother Wendy who was posthumously inducted into the Roll in 2008 for services to education. In 2010 Carolyn was a finalist in Tasmania for the Australian of the Year Award and in 2013 she won the National Human Rights Award for her work with women and girls with disabilities at both national and international levels.
Carolyn makes no secret of the fact that she herself has a non-visible disability – she suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps it is this that has given Carolyn the insight and fortitude to drive an organisation to achieve such success. Asked what problems WWDA faces, Carolyn cites a lack of funding. Despite having a stellar national and international profile, the organisation is poorly funded, receiving just $165,000 a year from the Federal Government. Carolyn is the sole paid employee and relies on volunteers.
Aside from the lack of funds, Carolyn believes the Government needs to recognise and respect women and girls with disabilities. ‘They have been denied their autonomy for too long, and are considered by society to be burdens of care rather than active contributors to society.’
She wants Australian leaders to gain a better understanding of what constitutes violence against disabled people. Although there are major gaps in the statistical evidence base in Australia, it is recognised that women with a disability are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without, and more than 70% of women with a disability have been victims of violent sexual encounters at some time in their lives. Ninety per cent of women with an intellectual disability have been subjected to sexual abuse, with more than two-thirds (68%) having been sexually abused before they turn 18 years of age.
‘This is not just about domestic violence,’ Carolyn says. ‘It is much more. It is about forced sterilisation, forced electric shock treatment, forced contraception – and sexual violence.’
Carolyn says there is still a big need for cultural change so that people with disabilities are given the same opportunities and rights that are afforded able-bodied people. She believes everyone has a role to play in ensuring an end to violence against women and girls. ‘I am a proud activist. But I am also a mother – and I can only hope that in my young daughter’s lifetime, she will witness and benefit from, true equality between men and women.’