After almost four decades helping protect those experiencing domestic abuse in Port Lincoln, Sharyn Potts is planning to retire at the end of the year.
The executive officer of women’s organisation Yarredi Services since 1998, she reflected with the Port Lincoln Times about how the conversation around protecting women has changed for the better, even as new challenges continue to emerge.
“When the women’s shelter movement first started back in the mid 1970s, it was very radical and challenging for communities that there were places saying, ‘this is not okay; women and children need to be safe’,” Ms Potts said.
“It started off from a very feminist perspective. That hasn’t changed but it’s probably less in your face now. People have come to understand that abuse is not okay.”
Yarredi started in 1979 as a women’s shelter. Sharyn joined in 1986 to work with children impacted by domestic violence, an experience she considers a privilege.
“I didn’t know a lot about domestic violence at that time, but I learned,” she said.
“Very early on I learned it’s not about what I can get out of it, it’s what I can give.”
Eventually, Sharyn moved into working with women experiencing domestic violence.
The role of women’s organisations like Yarredi has also changed – they now offer much more than a safe bed for the night.
Services include counselling, support and assistance with finding a new home so women and their children can move on.
Ms Potts became the executive of Yarredi in 1998 when founder and former leader Moira Shannon retired.
Today the organisation helps around 300 families a year.
Ms Potts said her favourite part of the job now is seeing that “things are working”.
“How we know that it’s working is that when women come in they’re usually in high trauma, crisis situations, and then we work with them, and then when they leave they are more empowered,” she said.
“Sometimes they might come back multiple times, but each time they leave they are that bit better informed and more empowered.
“When I see women and children moving on and building their own lives and being safe, that’s my reward.”
Over her career, Ms Potts has seen the way women cope with abuse remain consistent.
“I used to do intakes. Women would come in and say ‘it’s not really domestic violence, but…’ and sometimes it was quite horrific – women will minimise what’s happening so that they can live with it,” she said.
“People go into a relationship wanting it to work, and doing everything they can to make it work. But if it doesn’t work, they keep trying.
“I think women actually will leave once they realise that it doesn’t matter what they do, it’s still going to be the same.”
When digital devices exploded into people’s lives, abuse became easier to carry out, and more difficult to stop, Ms Potts said.
“I first became aware of that probably in 2012, and I think since then it’s grown quite a bit,” she said.
“The stuff that’s obvious now is abuse like the constant text messages – but it can be more than that, it can be listening devices planted in cars or the house, or on phones.
“Anything that you could imagine could be done, can and is done.”
Smartphones and other devices have “increased the opportunity for people to abuse”, Ms Potts said.
“It’s easier to do and I think it can build up over time. We can’t discount the effect of non-physical abuse,” she said.
“It’s been described to me on several occasions as ‘the scars are not on the outside, the scars are on the inside’, with that psychological abuse, that lowering of women’s self esteem and belief in what they can do.”
Women faced challenges with abuse during the pandemic, Ms Potts said, with mothers of children stuck at home and no longer able to check in with friends during activities like the morning school drop off.
Today, Yarredi is having contact with more women and children it has not previously encountered.
“People are more aware. It’s out there, there are a lot of resources and publicity about what support is available,” she said.
Another reason, Ms Potts said, could be the rental shortage preventing women from leaving abusive partners, or rising cost of living pressures, with higher interest rates and inflation continuing to bite Port Lincoln residents from a variety of backgrounds.
“Financial abuse is one of the tactics that is used in domestic violence. So it might be withholding money, not allowing a woman to go out to work, or forcing her to go out to work,” she said.
“We get women and children from all walks of life, those that are living in poverty to those that are quite wealthy.”
Ms Potts said the important thing was for women to understand they are not alone.
“A lot of women feel really isolated because they don’t realise that this is happening to other people. And when they do they feel relieved that it’s not just them,” she said.
“What we try to do right from the start is make them feel welcome and that they’re being heard and they’re being believed.
“That very first interaction is crucial.”