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by Claire Allison

Efforts to establish Women’s Refuge in Timaru in the 1980s were far from welcome.

The group of women passionate about keeping women and children safe were called hairy-legged, man-hating lesbians who were breaking up marriages.

It was all very anonymous – they drove their own cars, were followed by men trying to find their wives who had fled to the refuge, and did everything from cleaning the safe house, collecting women and children from their homes in the middle of the night, to fundraising to keep the organisation afloat.

Denise Arpel was one of those women, who well remembers the atmosphere at the time – the belief that a man was head of the household and women did what they were told.

“We were probably in a lot of danger, but we didn’t care, we were absolutely determined. We had to protect the wife and we had to protect the children, so we had to be extremely careful.”

Ms Arpel retires from Women’s Refuge tomorrow, leaving the organisation and the attitude towards it in a very different place to where it was 35 years ago.

“At the start I was a solo mum looking for some sort of a career or future, and the opportunity came up for me to get involved with the establishment of a refuge.”

She was the first paid staff member, and also studied social work and counselling through Canterbury University, the beginning of a lifelong career in the field.

“I had amazing support from the women who were there doing it, but a really negative reaction from the community.

“So we felt the best thing we could do for a start would be to get community support, get people behind us. We did a lot of public speaking, to community groups, to educate the public as to what our goal was, that we were not here to break up marriages, we were here to keep women and children safe.

“It was amazing how quickly the public opinion changed.

“Women were coming forward, and good men were coming forward and talking. We were gathering support from community groups, donations started coming in, funding was being given. It made such a difference, and we felt then that we were doing something purposeful.”

Ms Arpel worked for Women’s Refuge for five years, before leaving to take on a number of roles with Anglican Care, the Family Court, Oranga tamariki Ministry for Children and running her own counselling practice.

She returned to refuge to work as a counsellor in 2012, but says it is now a good time to step down.

“We have got a wonderful bunch of young women who have just started here. They’re just wonderful, so I think it’s time for young blood to come in and I’m going to step back and let the young ones do their thing now.”

Reassurance that she has made a difference comes in a variety of ways.

“I had a phone call one Christmas from Australia. The woman said I’d seen her when she was 8 years old .. she had elective mutism and hadn’t spoken for 18 months. She’s now grown up with a family of her own.

“People rush up to us in the supermarkets to give us a hug. During lockdown, former clients phoned me from the North Island just to see how I was. It just reaffirms that we are making a mark in someone’s life, even though you are not aware of it at the time.

“I just think if I can save one life, I’ve done a good job.”

However, the initial goal, set by that group of dedicated women in 1985, has not been achieved.

“We gave ourselves 10 years to get rid of domestic violence in New Zealand.”

Ms Arpel says she’ll be long gone before that’s achieved, and although she is pleased to see more support for children who are affected by family violence, she believes it does not yet go far enough.

“I still see, after 35 years, even though we have all this wonderful community support, I don’t know that we are hitting the mark. I do think we need to put time and energy into healing our young boys before they become angry men.

“Because, for me, in my experience, that’s where it all starts. It’s not just angry violent men, for each one I saw [as a Family Court counsellor] there was a wounded child. Women turn pain into sadness, men will turn pain into rage.

“And I’d like to see the good men step up here. It shouldn’t be just women’s work.”