Setting past wrongs right – breaking the chain of abuse

by Dianne Azoor Hughes

Treasurer, St Kilda Gatehouse, June 2019​

Throughout my professional career I strived for work-life balance, I promoted gender equality and diversity, and worked to uncover the unconscious biases we each carry in the workplace and beyond. Like many professionals, I have learned how to manage the pressures and stress we might encounter in our journey through life at different times. It is only since joining the Board of a medium-sized charity that I have learned about complex trauma, which has disrupted my understanding of how these fundamentals of a safe, secure existence can be achieved. Gender inequality and unconscious bias remains a pervasive characteristic when we consider some of the least privileged in our society.

Our society grieves the stories of institutional child sexual abuse that gained public attention through the Senate Inquiry. The Australian Government Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2018 Report1 examination of family violence, reports that 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 9 boys were physically or sexually abused before aged 15 years.2 We abhor this domestic violence that has become secondary news in the media. We have empathy for the kids who go to school without breakfast, and we understand the impact of poor nutrition on their chances to gain an education and progress through life.

What happens when a person who has experienced child sexual exploitation grows into an adult and is confronted by domestic abuse and sexual violence in their close relationships? Add mental health struggles, poverty, homelessness and drug addiction to the life experience of young victims of abuse, and complex trauma is likely to result.

St Kilda Gatehouse is a charity which works alongside women involved in street-based sex work through hardship and young teenage girls affected by sexual exploitation. It is important to recognise there is a difference between a woman who makes an active choice to take up this most ancient of professions, and a woman who falls into street sex work for survival. The stories the women bring at the Drop In Centre illuminate the statistics of the AIHW report. The street sign in St Kilda, which prohibits a left turn between the hours of 11.00pm and 3.00am, indicates that those seeking the services of street sex workers are simply a traffic hazard. In contrast, the needs of street sex workers, who are frequently living with complex trauma, remain invisible. St Kilda Gatehouse provides support, crisis care and a safe community space for those who work on the streets.

St Kilda Gatehouse operates a Young Women’s Program (YWP) in Dandenong which supports young women and girls aged 12 to 25 years who are involved in or at risk of sexual exploitation. This program was developed in response to the stories and experiences shared by the women in St Kilda and also the evidence-based understanding that experience of childhood trauma and abuse, family breakdown, poverty and a lack of traditional supports increases the likelihood of involvement in sexual exploitation. We have found that the young women and girls referred to our programs, often are not able to explain the trauma which is simply their experience of everyday life. Therefore, we have developed tools and training to provide professional development for those working with children focussed on understanding, preventing and intervening in child sexual exploitation.3 The Young Women’s Program aims to support ‘at risk’ young teenage girls to break the cycle of abuse, creating social and community connectedness, working toward prevention, early intervention and lasting change. This program is delivering good results and demand for our services far exceeds the funding available.

The Young Women’s Program is in urgent need of financial support to reach more young women and girls at risk.

As we approach the financial year-end, please consider supporting the Young Women’s Program by making a tax-deductible donation to St Kilda Gatehouse. If your business, private or public ancillary fund, corporate social responsibility program or community group can partner with us, your financial commitment will enable St Kilda Gatehouse to map out long term programs to make a real difference in the lives of young women and girls experiencing abuse right here in our city.

1 AIWH Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia 2018 available from

2 ABS 2017b. Personal Safety Survey 2016. ABS cat. no. 4906.0. Canberra: ABS.

3 Professional development is provided by ARISE (Australian Research and Innovation for Safeguarding against Sexual Exploitation) a project of St Kilda Gatehouse, supported by Whitelion and Deakin University.