The backbone of the bush

Royal Far West chairperson Joan Treweeke has spent her life in rural advocacy

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Royal Far West chairperson Joan Treweeke OAM, Angledool Station, Lightning Ridge. Photo: Supplied

Royal Far West chairperson Joan Treweeke OAM, Angledool Station, Lightning Ridge. Photo: Supplied

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Today is the International Day of Rural Women.

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Today is the International Day of Rural Women, a day to mark the crucial role women play in agriculture and rural communities, as well as the challenges they face worldwide due to a lack of access to services.

Royal Far West chairperson Joan Treweeke OAM is one of many rural women who have dedicated their lives to advocating for their communities.

Joan has lived at Angledool Station, 50 kilometres north of Lightning Ridge, for 51 years, but she grew up in a very different world - Melbourne.

"I met my husband at university when we were both studying law," Joan said.

"I was a city girl and had intended to have a career in the city, but he convinced me that I would really prefer living in North West NSW, which ended up being correct."

To say the move was a shock to the system may be an understatement but Joan said she wasted little time dwelling on the differences between her old life and new life.

"It was a complete change of way of life, there was no point comparing where I used to live or what I used to do, it was a matter of understanding where I was and how we lived in this part of the world," Joan said.

Joan Treweeke pictured with her husband Rory on their graduation from the University of Melbourne in 1966. Photo: Supplied

Joan Treweeke pictured with her husband Rory on their graduation from the University of Melbourne in 1966. Photo: Supplied

Understanding and championing her part of the world is something she has continued to do ever since and now, along with her role at the Royal Far West, she is the director of the Royal Flying Doctors Service South East Section, sits on the board of the Western NSW Local Health District and is the president of Contact Inc.

Joan said her involvement in rural advocacy began when she was looking into distance education for her five children.

"I knew from history that there was a School of the Air in Broken Hill so I thought, 'right that's where you go,'" she said.

"I wrote to them and said 'can I join?' and they said 'well nobody's on the network east of the line from Wilcannia to Ivanhoe but yes you can come.'"

Joan spoke to other families in their area about joining and before she knew it School of the Air was set up in their area and she was a home tutor.

"This was in the early 70s, the Isolated Children's Parents Association was just getting off the ground, and obviously distance education became a major focus because people couldn't afford to send their children away to school," she said.

"Then I became involved in curriculum development, helping home tutors be better skilled to understand what they were doing with their kids and it all rolled on from there.

"We just knew living in the bush we needed more assistance to educate our kids. That's where it started."

Women have always been the backbone of the bush. - Joan Treweeke OAM

Joan believes that, like her, women living in rural areas often become advocates because they have to fight for their own family, friends and community, whether it be for better education, health or mental health services.

"Women have always been the backbone of the bush," Joan said.

"Industries couldn't have been developed without women playing a very vital role.

"When you're trying to make sure your child has a good education, or access to a health system, or you're looking after your elderly parents it becomes personal and you're driven to get a result because the people you love are depending on it."

Joan said the personal advocacy role many rural women undertake opens them up to new skills, or leads to spaces being created where advice can be shared.

"I know in our community there's a range of skills and everybody puts in what their special effort is and together it makes a whole," she said.

"You look at the Country Women's Association (CWA), ICPA, I think that's the wonderful thing about women in the bush."

Joan said many of the women she met through ICPA or committees have now become leaders of their community.

"They're in parliament or on the local council, or running an organisation, and they cut their teeth advocating for the issues which were close to heart," she said.

Joan believes there is still much to do in rural Australia but said one thing that has improved was the ability for rural people to seek help, especially around developmental or learning difficulties in children.

"Royal Far West have their focus on country children who don't have the same access to remedial and diagnostic services that people living in the city do," Joan said.

"There were the children that I saw, where you knew there was a problem but there were no speech pathologists, there were no occupational therapists and mental health services for kids were very patchy.

"Now people are able to state what's worrying them and there are some avenues to find help ... distance should not determine whether it's available or not.

"We have to constantly strive to make sure people have equity of access, that is what everybody that lives in this nation deserves."


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