In tough times, it can make all the difference to know there is someone out there who has ‘got your back.’ For those caught up in the cycle of domestic violence, that knowledge can mean the difference between remaining trapped within that toxic relationship and breaking free in search of a better life.
There are countless workers in frontline services ready to offer shelter, counselling and support to the women and children fleeing from these dangerous domestic situations.
But there is also a growing band of ‘Sistas’ in the Hunter keen to show these victims of violence that they too have ‘got their backs’ – fundraising to help provide the essentials they need to start again and raising awareness of the message that domestic violence is not acceptable.
They are the supporters and founders of the Got Your Back Sista charity, a Newcastle-based collective working to ensure violence does not become the new ‘normal’ in our society.
Officially registered at the beginning of this year, it has been running in a more informal way for several years as a spin-off of The Sista Code, an online community founded by Newcastle photographer Melissa Histon through which women can uplift, support and inspire each other.
Initially set up as a Facebook page and blog in 2014, The Sista Code gained immediate traction with like-minded women across the Hunter and around the world, with the social media site now followed by almost 16,000 people.
Melissa said she created The Sista Code after returning from Nepal, where she had been part of a documentary team capturing the atrocities of the human trafficking of women and children.
Inspired by a need to “do something good”, it seems only natural that the eventual extension of that was for Melissa to create a mechanism through which she and others could help some of the most vulnerable “sistas” in the Hunter community - those experiencing domestic violence.
“When I got back from Nepal I thought I need to do something good in the world, something positive and uplifting. It started out as Facebook and the blog and then last year someone suggested we should formalise the fundraising we were doing through events (into the charity),” she said.
From the beginning, the events The Sista Code organised or became associated with helped raise funds to support the victims of domestic violence. The Got Your Back Sista charity now works in collaboration with local refuges to provide women with vouchers and store credits to purchase essential items that will help in the establishment of a new and safe home for themselves and their children.
“We get a couple of referrals a week from different charities and refuges to provide assistance to women. We then look at the best way that we can assist that person, based on certain criteria. The next thing we’re going to look at is how we can support those children of domestic violence to stay in school because that’s such an important part of the journey too,” Melissa said.
Their fundraising efforts to date have allowed the organisation to provide about $40,000 in support to vulnerable women in the Hunter, including items such as beds, refrigerators, household consumables and kitchen appliances.
Melissa said she is thrilled with the level of support Got Your Back Sista has received from both men and women in the community and stressed that while she may have been responsible for creating The Sista Code, it has been the work of many that has allowed them to achieve what they have to date.
“I was away at a conference recently and when I got back I found out that a group of women from Newcastle had organised a race day at Tuncurry and raised $9000 for the charity. They worked for months to organise it, they had a huge marquee with a lot of people, and they did that simply because they believe in the message and the work that we are trying to do. I’m so blown away by people’s kindness and generosity (in donating to Got Your Back Sista),"she said.
“I was just a conduit, an individual who had an experience (that led to the creation of The Sista Code and Got Your Back Sista) – it’s everybody else that really makes this happen, and that’s a beautiful thing that’ll keep growing and be good for our community.”
Outside of raising funds, the charity’s other main goal is to help raise awareness about domestic violence within the community. To that end, Got Your Back Sista organised their biggest community event to date late month – ‘1000 People, 1 Voice’.
Held at Hunter Stadium on September 3, it saw hundreds of Hunter people from all different sectors of the community come together in a show of solidarity and support for the message that domestic violence is not acceptable.
“We want to work with employers, retailers, community groups, local clubs, all levels of government and interested members of the public,” Melissa said.
“Our shared goal is to stop the acceptance of violence across our world. Given that most of us work with, live near, or are related to someone who has experienced violence in their home or in their lives, it is not someone else’s problem.
“This is our region’s problem and we must do everything in our power to stop it. One more incidence of violence in our community is not acceptable.”
Recent figures indicate that one in six people within the Hunter will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
In the last financial year alone, they were about 2900 cases reported in the Hunter Region, although this is thought to represent only a portion of incidents that occur each year.
Melissa said photographs and video footage taken at the ‘1000 People, 1 Voice’ event would be used in social media campaigns and a television commercial to ensure the message continues to be spread throughout the community.
“Fifty years ago people just didn’t talk about domestic violence – but now it is an issue out there in the media and in the community and we need to keep talking about it,” she said.
“If we keep getting the message out there then hopefully the perpetrators might hear it and understand what they are doing is wrong, and the women experiencing domestic violence might also hear it and understand that domestic violence is not normal, it’s not ok.”
As a mother, Melissa knows she can also help by talking to her children about the issue so that the next generation grow up knowing that domestic violence is not acceptable.
“I’ve talked to my son about the fact that violence is not okay, that you should treat people with kindness, generosity and compassion,” she said.
“That’s the conversation we all need to have with our kids because that’s the world we want to live in.”
Anyone interested in supporting Got Your Back Sista can find out more details and information on how to donate by visiting www.thesistacode.com/gotyourbacksista