Sex victims’ champion – The West Australian Obituaries Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Counsellor and advocate
Born: Cilfynydd, Wales, 1924
Died: Hilton, Western Australia, aged 94
Nancy Rehfeldt alerted society to the horrors of child sexual abuse in Australia when no-one else was brave enough to tackle the issue. She highlighted that abuse was not only committed by strangers but also family members, friends and people in authority such as priests and teachers.
With awareness of this issue even more acute today and with some recent high profile cases in the public conscience, Nancy stands as a leading light in bringing the prevalence of child sexual abuse and the need for critical support into the open.
Born the youngest of a family of four children in Cilfynydd, Wales, Nancy was the youngest child of William and Winifred Lewis. Her father, like most men in their Welsh village was a coal miner and often had to work on his stomach or knees in dangerous and unhealthy conditions for appallingly low wages. Wanting to improve conditions for his fellow miners, her father became an active member of the then fledgling Labour Party. At night he read avidly about politics and philosophy and wrote speeches for his friend who became a parliamentarian.
An idealist at heart, his family unfortunately suffered, especially after the great strike of 1926, when he was branded a communist and trouble maker and subsequently found it difficult to get work. Nancy often told stories of not having enough food to eat except for bread and dripping, and never having enough money for clothing or shoes. It was not unusual, she said, to have one pair of Wellington boots a year which were later cut down into shoes for summer.
But Nancy’s father instilled in his children the importance of social justice and looking after the underdog—a trait Nancy inherited in full. He also instilled in Nancy, and all his children, a life-long love of reading. It was reading that helped sustain her while she recovered from a series of life-threatening illnesses and operations during childhood and her teenage years. She left school at 14 and took a variety of jobs as in retail and hospitality in Pontypridd, Wales and Trowbridge, Britain, to help support the family.
In 1946 Nancy met, fell in love and then married a German prisoner of war – Gunther Rehfeldt. This was not an easy course to take in post-war Britain and met with prejudice and judgement but she was sure that her choice was a good one as Gunther was a wonderfully caring and supportive husband. They were married for 41 years until cancer claimed his life in 1988.
In 1966 Nancy and her family left Wales for a new life in Australia. Initially, the family moved to Whyalla in South Australia as ‘10 pound tourists’ with assisted passage through BHP, and after two years moved west to Perth. Nancy and Gunther embraced their new life in Australia and were determined to make it work.
With a keen interest in politics, Nancy became involved in the Victoria Park Branch of the Australian Labor Party in the 1970s and was a delegate on the WA State Executive. She later stood as a candidate for the City of Perth council elections and by openly declaring her politics and Labor-party backing challenged the notion that party politics did not influence local government candidates.
In 1974, in the early days of the women’s movement in Perth, Nancy started to get a niggling feeling that being a housewife and working in part-time jobs just wasn’t enough for her. So in 1975 she began studying welfare work and graduated with a Diploma in Health and Welfare. That same year, International Women’s Year, she attended the five-day Women in Politics Conference in Canberra. That was an eye-opening experience and a turning point for Nancy. It was then she became a feminist.
She left the conference with a burning ambition to work for women. Shortly after she began work as a rape counsellor at a recently formed Women’s Health Centre in North Perth. Realising that she had a limited knowledge of the issue of sexual assault, the law and legal practices – she began studying court lists and attending cases.
She watched defence lawyers attack the credibility of the witness (the victim). Intimate details of the woman’s previous sexual history were laid bare, centre stage. Meanwhile, the accused was not obliged to undergo cross-examination, instead, he could make an unsworn statement from the dock. Nancy felt that this was so unfair.
She realised that there was limited community awareness of the victim’s plight, no emergency services, no organised support or counselling for the victims of rape or other sexual crimes, and no advocacy to change rape laws.
In 1976, she became a founding member of the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) and began work there as a counsellor. In the same year, Australian Women Against Rape, or AWAR as it was known, became an incorporated organisation and as a founding member, she became its President.
In 1977, she started work as a counsellor at Women’s Health Care House in West Perth, again as a founding member. One evening at an AWAR meeting, she received a phone call from an unknown woman who spoke bitterly about the fact that AWAR worked only for women and did nothing for children. That call stayed with her. Not long after, Nancy initiated with others a 24-hour phone-in to gauge the extent of the problem of sexual assault of women and children in Western Australia.
Calls came in from all over Western Australia and AWAR received considerable media coverage. A resulting report was sent to the Minister for Community Welfare to highlight the extent of the issue.
In 1978 Nancy was invited to become a member of the Advisory and Coordinating Committee on Child Abuse for the Department of Community Services. Over the next few years she was a guest lecturer at tertiary institutions, schools, hospitals, police in-service training and numerous community groups.
She was a regular interviewee on radio, television and in newspaper and contributed information and expertise to numerous research projects on the subject of child sexual abuse as well as being a speaker and delegate at family violence and sexual assault conferences in Canberra, Melbourne and Tasmania.
In 1984, Nancy established the Incest Survivors’ Association, which is still in existence today but under the new name of Phoenix Support and Advocacy Service Inc. The organisation is a specialist service that provides counselling and support to the survivors of child sexual abuse.
In 1986 she presented at the 6th International Congress on Child Abuse in Sydney and was a member of the WA State Government’s Task Force on Child Sexual Abuse.
Nancy’s ground-breaking work led to changes to sexual assault laws, better services for abuse survivors and mandatory reporting of suspected child sexual abuse. She was recognised in 1986 with the awarding of an Australia Day honour that saw her inducted as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to welfare, particularly in relation to women and children.
In February 2013, Phoenix Support and Advocacy purchased premises with a Lotterywest grant and Nancy’s foresight and years of dedicated, and often voluntary hard work, was recognised with the official opening and naming of Nancy Rehfeldt House. She was overwhelmed at the recognition and honour, and received a congratulatory letter from then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whom she admired greatly.
Nancy retired to care for her husband and after he died she left public life completely to spend time with family and her beloved dogs. She died after a short illness and is survived by two daughters and two grandsons.