“The women like me never thought we would live to see the escalation of that dreaded DV. So please stand together, please help us resist the mighty blow from that angry fist.” ~ Helen Oxenham
Helen has been a passionate advocate for women since the early 1970s, and was the driving force behind the first women’s shelter in the southern Adelaide suburb of Christies Beach, which opened in February 1977. Unfortunately, Helen knows all too well what domestic violence can do to a family.
Our Strong Hands and Brave Heart
I am dedicated to the testimony of the power of women.
Magnificent woman’s dignity and efforts.
Women inspiring and resilient, together we share life force, our strong hands and brave hearts.
United in strength and embracing our heart, sisters pick up our bankers and carry it on as we have done! In honour of our mothers, sisters, and daughters, we gather together.
~ Helen Oxenham
Born in Cork, Ireland, Helen was the second eldest of six. Growing up in corporation housing in Dublin – where the family had relocated – was not easy and by all accounts, Helen’s father was a brute. Her German father never really settled into Irish culture, missed his homeland and took out his anger and frustration on his young family.
Meanwhile, people would tell her that her dad was such a lovely man. He was a “street angel and house devil”.
Helen’s mother was a religious person and often went to church “praying that things would get better”. The priest knew about the violence at home and would explain that this was her “cross to bear”.
And like many victims of domestic violence, Helen takes some blame herself. The years had taken their toll and Helen’s mother died an “old woman” at just 59.
Sparking a Lifelong Personal Crusade
Helen married a much gentler man, and they emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s in search for a dry climate to help his hearing problems, caused by shelling during WWII. By the time they came to Adelaide, they had a child, August (named for his father). Heather came along next and Peter five years later.
August the elder was a watchmaker and jeweller, and eventually opened a shop on Beach Rd, Christies Beach.
It was a chance meeting in the shop with Peggy Robinson, a “kindred spirit”, who would soon work at the Department of Community Services that sparked a fire in Helen. She would tell Helen about how awful it was for the woman she met though her work. “I thought it only happened in Ireland.”
The pair, along with another friend Connie Fraser, learned of the new Women’s Studies Course at Flinders University and decided to enrol. At the time, the course’s entry requirements did not include a high school diploma, and women who were active community members were invited to join the course.
She cleared out a room at the back of the Beach Rd shop, broke down a window and made it a door – and created a drop-in centre. Helen and her daughter, Heather, distributed flyers along Beach Rd advertising a “cuppa tea and a bun”.
But as women become aware to the drop-in centre, it seems they were not looking for intellectual pursuits, but rather refuge.
“They were sleeping there, on the floor. So we had to throw out the chairs and put mattresses in instead. We gave the books back.”
This was where Helen’s dreams for a women’s shelter took root.
“Once you have a childhood like that, you never lose it. It awakened all that stuff in me again.”
A Place of Refuge
To raise money, the women of Christies beach rallied together to bake lamingtons and cakes and ran social activities at a grass roots community level.
The community donated blankets, sheets and clothing, and the shelter got its furniture from the dump.
Helen had help from local woman and from her friends she met at Flinders Uni. The women would band together to clean each other’s houses, to free up time for the shelter and for helping women in need.
“It was lovely to see the women grow.”
Soon, the shelter got incorporated. And when Gough Whitlam because Prime Minister, more funds become available for social causes.
The Campaign for Commemorative Sculptures
International Women’s Day, 2016, was a catalyst for Helen to call for a commemorative sculpture to be erected in the centre of Adelaide honouring the woman that have died through domestic violence as well as a statue in Christies Beach to honour the women working on the front line of this issue.
“I want to see both sculptures before I die so that there is someone for other women to go so they can feel that we have sisters. While my sisters aren’t free, neither am I.”
Listen to Helen’s Adelaide Radio interview: Here