It started as a one-bedroom flat which sometimes housed up to 15 women and now it’s the largest refuge in the country. Ruahine 'Roni' Albert has been at the forefront of supporting abused women and children for three decades.
What began in Hamilton in the late 1980s has evolved to a respected NGO with a purpose-built, marae-style safe house, and wrap-around care services.
The story of Te Whakaruruhau Waikato Women's refuge, is being comprehensively told in the book Stand By Me.
She says the refuge came about because “we were a group of women looking for a place of safety.” There had also been a call from Māori women to have a place of refuge that was culturally appropriate to them that they could come to.
In the beginning, the one-bedroom flat was a stop-gap while her and co-founder Ariana Simpson looked for something bigger. At times they had up to 10 to 15 people in it. They approached a friend in the Family Court and the national Women’s Refugee for advice and we’re told to go to Housing NZ where the met a “stunning” man who helped them out and got them a five-bedroom place they run as a shelter to this day.
“What drew us to this house was that when you went inside, some of the bedrooms had murals on the walls and it was a really colourful house and we thought ‘this is it, this has to be it’. It was beautiful and really child focused.”
Albert remembers the first two women who came to the shelter. They were from out of town and were scared.
“They were frightened that they had made the move from their partners and come away from their family and their area and bought their children to somewhere they hadn’t been. Ariana and I both picked up on that.”
Albert says they weren’t too sure what to do so they took guidance from women who had experience and were operating a running shelter in Rotorua.
“I was a fledgling and they said you just need to make sure that the women are safe and take their guidance. So that’s what we did really.”
She says that her and Ariana decided to move in with the first woman who came to the refuge. She had bought her three children and they wanted to make ensure the family was OK.
“Two of us and our two dogs moved into the safe house just for that time so she could settle in, just a couple days and then she was OK.”
She says that while, today, the refuge works with NGOs and the government to help women on their journey, 30 years ago it was isolated.
“We isolated ourselves because we needed to safeguard the women. We weren’t sure who would understand confidentiality and breaching that. There were a lot of judgements. There still are judgements, but I have to say that there’s a lot more agencies, a lot more individuals, are making a change around their own thinking.
The highlighting of family violence and sexual violence is just huge now, whereas before it was kept under the radar and often when we’d come into meetings these large groups of people would be a bit silent until we started speaking about the importance of protecting our families and actually looking at accountability for our offenders and how we are going to do that.”
Albert says psychological violence is often not well understood by the public but, for many of the women involved, can be just as bad if not worse than the physical violence they suffer.
“When you’ve been told so many times that you’re useless, you’re ugly, you can’t do anything right, you’re not good as a mother, no one’s ever going to want you… these are people they fell in love with.”
She says these thoughts become ingrained in women and it can take a long time to deprogram.
Albert says she always wanted to work with families or be a social worker. She was raised by a foster family herself and experience terribly bullying from a young age. Albert did time in prison and says it’s where she realised the whole justice system was wrong.
Today, she says, the police are a lot better and the refugee frequently works with them.
The Waikato Women’s Refugee, since opening, has helped around 150,000 women and children. They currently assist around 4000-5000 women and children every year.
Ideally, she says, they wouldn’t have to operate at all.
“That would be the key. I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime. I had hoped, but you never know. There are some changes happening in this government, and also in the previous government that started some of the changes around family violence and I’m really hopeful that we’re going to be able to make some difference working alongside the government and the systems together.”