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The first refuge - by Rosemary Howard

12 Oct 2018

At just 21 years of age, Rosemary Howard co-founded the first women's refuge in Christchurch, which was quickly inundated with victims of domestic abuse, uncovering a then little-recognised problem. It was also the first women’s refuge in New Zealand and the third in the Western world.

Howard will speak about her experiences - how the first women’s refuge started, what happened as a result of lifting the lid on domestic violence and the myths surrounding that violence that kept women enslaved – at the Ara City Campus library on 17 October at 12 noon.  

Studying reinforced social justice

Studying a degree in Sociology, English and History with minor focus on Religious Studies, Philosophy and Psychology, Howard soaked up the theory that backed her ideas and further fired her activism. “The Sociology programme was amazing with its focus on race relations, human ecology, deviant behaviour, role of women… a great combination for my developing passion for social justice and social activism,” she says.

“As a university student in the early ‘70’s I became active in the women’s liberation movement. Issues such as equal pay, childcare and equal rights for women were a big focus.”  

Discovering an alternative lifestyle gave her the freedom to pursue many causes. “I moved into an alternative way of life as part of a group who established Chippenham/Mansfield Community…. There were 12 couples and six kids in three properties which we purchased - two adjoining houses in Merivale and a farm at Oxford.  Merivale was aghast at this urban commune in their midst, with its colourful characters and brightly clothed children. However, this lifestyle of shared parenting and low cost of living provided a great basis for many kinds of community activities and for my radical feminist political activity."

“My focus became dedicated to women’s right to safe abortion and raising awareness of domestic violence with the establishment of the first women’s refuge shelter for women and children in New Zealand in 1973 in Kilmore Street Christchurch.”

The first refuge is founded

The refuge started as a women’s meeting and discussion place, but the need for a shelter quickly arose as more and more women turned up looking for a safe haven from abusive partners.

Howard was incredibly productive and busy during this period, but the pace and pressure of looking after vulnerable women with few resources was not sustainable.

“I was a very busy young mum and political activist throughout the 70’s, burning out from my activities. I was hungry for contact with women in the US who were doing amazing things, writing amazing books and challenging the patriarchy. So I left New Zealand and travelled extensively.”

Howard’s work lives on. The refuge became Aviva in 2013, which still provides essential support to women.

Read about the 40th anniversary of Women’s Refuge on Stuff

Watch Rosemary speak at the 40th anniversary of Christchurch Women’s Refuge about living communally to help facilitate social change.