EUREKA! WOMEN GET RECOGNITION

Her Place Women’s Museum Australia exhibition: Eureka Centre, Ballarat — 14 November – 9 December

The Eureka Centre in Ballarat is the ideal place for an exhibition that explores – and celebrates – the role of women, says the Hon. Mary Delahunty, G.A.I.C., Board Director, Her Place Women’s Museum Australia.

“The centre is home to what is the most important artefact of the Eureka Rebellion, the iconic Southern Cross flag. It was sewn by three local women, but the role of women in the Eureka Rebellion was much more than we were taught at school,” Delahunty said.

“They ran the pubs where the rebellion was plotted, got up petitions, provided financial backing and wrote letters to the newspapers.”

Delahunty said that the Her Place exhibition took the story of Australian women into the 20th and 21st centuries, highlighting the contributions of Sandy Jeffs, Ballarat-born poet and mental health advocate, together with Deruka Dekuek, community advocate and mentor supporting refugees in Ballarat.

“Both Sandy Jeffs and Deruka Dekeuk have triumphed against the odds. Their lives demonstrate women’s determination to not just survive but to contribute to making the world a better place,” Delahunty said.

The Her Place exhibition at the Eureka Centre runs from 14 November – 9 December, which coincides with the 164th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion on 3 December.

Her Place will be formally launched by the Hon Jaala Pulford, MLC, Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Regional Development on Wednesday 14 November, 6-8pm and will run till Sunday 9 December.

The other eight women featured in the exhibition are Aunty Fay Carter, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung Senior Elder; the late Ruth Crow AM, socialist and community/urban planning activist; Kerry Greenwood, author and creator of the Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman crime series; the late Hon. Joan Kirner AC, Victoria’s first female premier; Alice Pung, author and lawyer; Peta Searle, Head Coach of the Southern Saints, St Kilda’s first women’s football team; Halima Mohamed, Somali community leader; and the late Gweneth Wisewould, bohemian Trentham doctor.

Six of the women included in the exhibition have been inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. http://www.vic.gov.au/women/women-s-leadership/victorian-honour-roll-of-women.html

For each of the profiled women, there is a short biography, video portrait and artefacts.

Sandy Jeffs, who was Ballarat-born and raised, was inducted onto the inaugural Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001. She has a business card which describes herself as “poet-lunatic-insanity consultant”. Jeffs has lived with schizophrenia and all its moods for 40 years. Following study at La Trobe University, she says, she went mad.


Sandy Jeffs MAD

“It changed my life beyond recognition. Doors closed. I lost my identity. I was so invisible in the world I walked in the shadows of others and cast none of my own. My friends around me got on with their lives and careers but I went nowhere. Life came to a crashing halt,” she said.

Poetry rescued her. Incarcerated in a Parkville Psychiatric Unit in 1976, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia which, she says, was then “tantamount to a death sentence”. She wrote a poem about her madness, entitled “Here I Sit” (see below), and found herself documenting her life through poetry. She has since published seven volumes of poetry and an autobiography, Flying with Paper Wings, which was short-listed for The Age Book of the Year, won the SANE Book of the Year Award in 2010 and a Commendation in the Australian Human Rights Awards.

The publication of her first book, Poems from the Madhouse (Spinifex Press), transformed Jeffs’ life almost instantaneously.

“I had entered my forties with no future, no identity, no hope and no purpose but, with the publication of a book, people saw me as a poet. I now had another label for myself – it wasn’t schizophrenic. I see it as a miracle,” Jeffs said.

Jeffs’ poem “Here I Sit” opened a show called MAD, performed at the 2012 Brisbane Festival. It was directed and choreographed by Meryl Tankard, and Elena Kats-Chernin composed the songs.

“MAD was based on my poetry and life and explored the harrowing experiences of my madness and the equally compelling force of my black humour. If I had said to the clinical staff in the psych ward that I was going to become a poet and my poems would inspire the likes of Elena Kats-Chernin and Meryl Tankard to create a show called MAD, I’m sure they would have thought I was having delusions of grandeur and given me more medication,” Jeffs says.

When not writing poetry, Jeffs, now 65, spends her time exercising (she still plays hockey), playing violin and viola in two community orchestras and advocating on mental health issues. Jeffs is a SANE Australia ambassador and regularly speaks to schools, universities and community groups about living with mental illness.

“I am living proof that your diagnosis is not your destiny. I try to show people that I’m really ordinary, not an axe-murderer, just someone struggling with an illness. I want a better deal for people like me – better psychiatric services and more supported accommodation, not locked wards. If you have a place to call home, other things fall into place.”

Deruka Dekuek is also living proof that women can not only survive horrendous experiences but can use that suffering to create new lives for themselves, their families and the broader community.

When Dekuek was seven, she fled with her family into the bush to escape the brutal civil war raging in South Sudan. Life was tough and they subsisted on water lilies and fish.


Deruka Dekuek then

At the age of 14 Dekuek left her war-torn country, leaving behind her siblings and her widowed mother. She lived in a Kenyan refugee camp and she was lucky to move to Nairobi with her step-brother’s family. There she began her education at the age of 16 – in kindergarten. Dekuek arrived in Australia in 2004 on a refugee settlement visa. It was only when she had her fourth child that Dekuek decided to get more education.

Now, aged 30 and the mother of five, Dekuek has gained a Certificate in Aged Care in Community Services and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Victoria University, where she won the Student of the Year Award. She is currently finishing her Masters in Development Studies and has her heart set on a PhD.

Dekuek works with the Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council helping refugees and newly-arrived migrants to settle into the community and get housing and work. She works with 24 different nationalities and loves her job with a passion.

“I don’t just hear their stories – I feel their pain,” she said. “We are building a multicultural community where there is equal opportunity, regardless of your skin colour or background. We were thrilled to win the Community Entry Award in Ballarat’s Begonia Festival Parade this year – 160 people worked together to make this happen.”


Deruka Dekuek now

Dekuek does a lot of work with women and young girls, urging them to seize the opportunity to get an education.

“I tell them I didn’t start kindergarten until I was 16! I am the first female graduate out of my 23 siblings (my father had five wives) and they say if Deruka can do it, they can. It is vital for girls to be supported and receive education. When you empower a woman or girl, you empower the entire community,” she said.
“Straddling two cultures can be a challenge,” Dekuek said.

“In South Sudan, a good woman is one who stays at home with the kids, cooking every day and cleaning the house. Here in Australia, I have to get a job and get an education. But I am happy because, unlike my mother, I don’t fear for my daughter’s safety in the same intense way that my mother feared for mine,” she said.

“I am not feeling sick with fear about whether or not she will eat today. She stands shoulder to shoulder with the boys in her class and because she is receiving an education in Australia, I know she will have the opportunity to earn an income and educate her own children in the future.”

Dekuek was also an ambassador for CARE Australia, the international humanitarian aid organisation fighting global poverty.
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Her Place exhibition, Eureka Centre, 102 Stawell Street South, Ballarat
14 November – 9 December. Monday–Sunday 10–5
Accompanying the exhibition is a FREE Professional Development on Thursday 22 November 4-5pm
Targeting Primary and Secondary teachers, educators, students and parents/carers of students, the workshop focuses on:

  • Respectful Relationships education;
  • How to integrate Gender Equality strategies into your classroom and curriculum.

    To book: herplace@herplacemuseum.com FREE curriculum-linked education resources are also available.

    Media comment: The Hon. Mary Delahunty, Board Director, Her Place Women’s Museum Australia; 0408 135 776; maryluminosity@gmail.com
    Media interviews: Carmel Shute: 0412 569 356; carmel@shute-the-messenger.com
    More information: www.herplacemuseum.com

    This Her Place Women’s Museum Australia exhibition has been supported by the Victorian Government through its Gender Equality Strategy and by the City of Ballarat.