• Project Ophelia has a simple philosophy: to build on the girls’ own strengths to foster personal agency. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Young women from Tasmania’s rural north-west are leading the way to significant social change.
Louise Hedger

14 Jun 2016 - 2:55 PM  UPDATED 14 Jun 2016 - 3:13 PM

Wynyard, a picturesque town on Tasmania’s far north-west coast that hugs Bass Strait, boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the world: rolling fields of tulips that erupt in spring; long stretches of white beaches and the imposing backdrop of Table Cape that perches high above the sea. But beneath the rugged beauty of this rural town in the electorate of Braddon – the poorest electorate in the poorest state in the country - lies the ugly reality that here, the social statistics for violence and dysfunction are some of the worst in the country.

Here, says Wynyard High School student, Izzy Ward, “one in three young people will have witnessed, or been subject to, domestic violence; adolescent girls are twice as likely to have unwanted pregnancy than if they were anywhere else in the country; and half will fail to complete high school.”

Now, those confronting statistics are being challenged at their very heart: by the young women themselves. The brainchild of arts and social change company, Big hART and supported by the Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, young women from Wynyard High School are participating in dance, movement, and public speaking workshops to help improve their confidence, resilience and self-esteem. And it’s working.

Named after the oppressed, fictional female character Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Project Ophelia is helping the young women break the crushing cycles of social dysfunction by becoming part of a sisterhood and a circle of trust. Community producer, Lix Walker-Spears says she has seen massive changes in a relatively short period of time. “The girls now have confidence and the ability to speak up in group activities,” she says. “And now they’ve done it once, they’ll do a thousand other things. Give them one opportunity, and they’ll jump at five others.”

The project has a simple philosophy: to build on the girls’ own strengths to foster personal agency. Project Ophelia’s Producer, Elspeth Blunt, says that as well as building new skills and paving the way for their futures, the young women are shifting community attitudes. “The participants understand that they really are catalysts for generational change,” she says. “It is wonderful to see them empowering themselves to make positive life choices and become agents of social change within their community.”

One of the first initiatives organised and hosted by the young women was a world-first 24-Hour Colourathon, an event which gained support from MP’s, including Jacqui Lambie. The Colourathon, which united the community and raised the awareness of family violence in the area, doubled its target fundraising goal. The $12,000 raised was donated towards play therapy for children who live in shelters with their mothers escaping family violence.

Tragically, domestic violence is all-too familiar to the Project O participants, many of whom have witnessed it first-hand. Fourteen-year-old Emily is determined that that statistic will change for those in her community; “We want to tell a different story,” she says, proudly. “We don’t want to be a statistic. We want to make our voices heard.”

The project offers many opportunities to the students to have their voices heard. Grade 9 student, Izzy, rated meeting Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull as one of the best experiences of her life. “I wouldn’t have had the confidence to even shake his hand if it wasn’t for Project Ophelia!” she beams.

The project - now under consideration to be rolled out in other rural communities – has a simple, but ambitious, philosophy. The Big hART model recognises that sustainable change will only occur if generations are invested in it from a grass-roots level. “Cultural prevention, deep attitudinal shifts and change from the ground up is the key to positive social change,” Blunt says. “We need to engage these young people to make the changes themselves, to help them achieve their goals, no matter what they may be. And they are rising to that challenge.”

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