“Extra lengths for RRR women”

By Kendall Galbraith, CEO

The Rural Regional Remote Women’s Network of Western Australia has been around since 1996. It began as a Reference Group to the WA State Government. Because the name is quite lengthy and there are only so many R’s one can say without getting tongue tied it is referred to as the ‘triple R Network’.

For 20 years the RRR Reference Group provided advice and feedback to both the Ministers for Agriculture and Regional Development on issues impacting women and their rural communities. This was used by the government to provide a focus on better understanding of possible impacts of policy changes on regional communities.

Today, the RRR Network is a NFP that empowers the social and economic secuity of rural regional and remote (RRR) women. It is followed by a WA community of 12,000. It raises awareness of the issues impacting RRR women, delivers skills based programs and offers community and networking for women right across the state.

So, what inspired the birth of the RRR Network? Well, it was the fierce strength and resilience of women in agriculture that seeded the RRR Network we have today. It started more than 100 years ago, when the Australian Census Conference ruled that women who referenced farming as their occupation would be recorded as ‘domestic duties’.

Women in farming continued to be excluded and devalued even though their contribution was vital to farming operations. It was not until 1979 that the first ever national conference for farm women was held in Melbourne.

In the mid 1980’s RRR women were finding their voice. Demanding acknowledgment for their contribution to the industry. In 1994, women could finally be recognised legally as a ‘farmer’.

In the 1990’s there was also devastating drought conditions across the country. RRR women gave their communities stability and emotional support during these difficult times.

As a result, in every Australian state and territory a RRR women advisory or support group was formed. The RRR Network of WA, like the others, was a recognition of a nation-wide rural women’s movement and the realisation that our RRR areas and its women need connection, support, and representation.

Nothing has changed. We still look to women as the nurturers and connectors but women in the regions are much more than that. RRR women are fierce and resilient because of their lived experience and the challenges they face.

Isolation remains the biggest challenge for RRR people. Not just physically, but isolation from ideas, culture, and innovation. There are advantages. It takes me less than five minutes to drop the kids off to school. I get annoyed when I cannot park out the front of the post office and natural landscapes and quiet is my every day.

Whilst this makes my day less stressful, and I love the regions and its great sense of community, the disconnect from the city remains problematic and a disadvantage. Some problems are nuanced but some are clear as day.

Issues differ for RRR women and not all are gender specific. These depend on place of work, ability to work, industry, region, town, community, family support, access to essential services, including phone, internet, and education.

For instance, face to face meetings and appointments are still the norm when conducting business, networking to improve our opportunities or specialist health appointments. Unfortunately, the Zoom movement didn’t really stick and RRR people are back on the road driving for hours to attend meetings and appointments in the city. There is just no way around this, when so much of our industry, corporate, public and education sectors are based there.

What makes the latter even more difficult is that WA is the biggest state in the country. Getting to Perth is a plane flight or a very long drive. This is ok for those who can afford the time, have transport, or can afford the cost of travel, but for many, this is not possible and countless opportunities are foregone.

What about jobs? WA’s regions are home to the resource and agriculture industries but more men than women work in them. In Australia, women only make up approx. 32% of the agriculture and 18% of the mining sector. So where are the rest of RRR women working?

Overall, the regions have small employment markets making it difficult to find work that is meaningful or matches your skills. Many completing High School cannot or do not want to leave their community to increase their employment opportunities and settle for what is available.

If you wish to reskill or continue with education, many are forced to leave home. Just under 60% of RRR students relocate to study due to increased living costs and the added emotional, cultural, and social pressures they expect to experience. Up to 15% of regional students are reported to drop out of university by their second year.

Where I lived, Yr. 10 was as far as I could go. At the age of 15, I left home and went to Boarding School and I never moved back home permanently after that.

To complete university when I was back in the regions, I had to change universities and lose credits because they did not offer distance education. Studying entirely online meant I was disconnected to my lecturer and students. I fumbled my way through. This increased stress, and errors and I could not network career opportunities in my final year like many of the metro students were doing.

In small populations there are only so many businesses to choose your place of work. Diversity and choice are at a minimum. It is often, a means to an end, not a career pathway. That is unless you start up a small business but with inconsistent digital services, small markets and limited access to business training or support, your quality and quantity of service can be restricted.

Many regional locations do not have childcare facilities. So, women who are primary carers do not work at all. This reduces a woman’s economic independence and her future choices.

Local hospitals are more like aged care facilities. Small and quiet except for when babies are born – everyone knows about it. Some babies cannot be born in small hospitals and women must leave town for a larger regional hospital.  This entails staying in accommodation as you wait for the big event.

When dealing with difficult health situations, regional people must leave to get suitable health care, and this can be both an emotional and financial strain. My mum had to leave her home during her most vulnerable time to live in Perth for three months to have cancer treatment. A friend recently had their diabetic son’s insulin pack run out during the night and the local hospital had no insulin. Many regional hospitals do not have paediatric doctors. This means young children typically cannot be monitored overnight and must travel to find the people that can save their lives.                            

Domestic violence in the regions is a great concern where long distances stand in the way of safety. The physical inability to flee means many women and families continue to live in fear and risk.

Having a car in the regions is essential, as there is no public transport. Try having a job more than a few km’s away from your home or when it’s wintertime.

Regional banks are closing their shop fronts. Some towns no longer have a GP. Buying basic clothes requires driving a few hours to the closest K-Mart. Try finding a dress for a special event, or work clothes. That could mean an overnight stay in the city.

As you can tell, options are limited in the regions, and they determine RRR people to make compromises and often settle for less.  The issues are sometimes subtle, sometimes downright difficult, and frustrating. There generally needs to be compromise and sacrifice becomes a common theme for regional people.

Women in agriculture paved the way for organisations like the RRR Network to raise awareness of the challenges faced by all RRR women. No matter who they are, where they are, or what they do.

RRR women need support, recognition and understanding. Even if it’s just a little consideration for the lengths they must go too to achieve the same outcomes.