By Kim O’Neill, CEO, On the Line.
Earlier this month we celebrated the UN’s International Day of Rural Women, a day that recognises the critical role women play in building strong, sustainable rural communities and gives us a chance to reflect on what more we can do to support rural women in this role.
The international aid sector recognises the role women can play to drive change within rural communities and works directly with these women to drive sustainable, long term change on key issues such as sanitation, nutrition and education. Can this same strategy be applied to improving mental health and wellbeing?
The power of rural women
In Australia, it’s estimated that a third of women live in rural and regional communities. Women play a crucial role in the health and development of a community. In traditional family structures, women influence a large percentage of the decisions made in families and communities – decisions about health care providers, personal banking relationships, dining habits, school choices, personal family time and more.
In regional and rural areas, women play many roles beyond the role of the primary caregiver – they are also educators, workers, land and resource managers and importantly, the traditional custodians of community cohesion and the wellbeing of their community. This puts women in a unique position to provide guidance to future generations, a key component of changing the dominant narratives about mental health. One need only to look at the tireless and iconic work of the Country Women’s Association for a clear example of how women can play a substantial role in developing their community and improving wellbeing.
Rural women as advocates
As shown in the study ‘Unappreciated Service: Performance, Perceptions, and Women Leaders in India, ‘there is evidence that increasing representation of women in decision making improves outcomes in health, education and other local services.‘
As a powerful decision-making force, women are often well acquainted with the pros and cons of their community, and may be in a good position to analyse how best to improve society. Some sociologists also claim that the way women process information, prioritize, and plan, may be highly beneficial to community development. The role of women in community development can be crucial to the health of a society. 
International Aid organisations have harnessed the power and influence of women of rural communities to create advocates for key issues, who can embed key principles into their communities and subsequently achieve greater reach and acceptance for these principles than ever before.
If we can learn from the health promotion successes of international aid and apply them to mental health in Australia, then we can have a positive impact on more lives.
The power of community
I have often written about the power of our relationships and our sense of community to manage emotional, social and mental health issues. This is the very essence of On the Line’s social health approach.
Humans are social creatures at heart, who crave interaction, engagement and connection with others. Feeling a sense of belonging (intimate relationships, friends) is the third step in our basic human needs behind physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest) and safety needs (security, safety) as described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The iconic Grant and Glueck study furthers this point. These researchers examined the factors that have the greatest influence on a happy and healthy life and concluded that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. In other words, what matters most to our wellbeing is the quality of relationships we have with other people – meaningful relationships make us healthier.
The opportunity of strong communities
As stated in On the Line’s recent submissions to both the federal and Victorian governments, elevating the importance of close personal relationships in public health approaches and messaging is one of the most effective changes we could make to our system.
What better place could there be to begin to embed this approach to wellbeing than in our regional areas, where the sense of community and camaraderie is already so strong?
Who better to drive this change than the women of these communities?
The close-knit nature of regional communities is sometimes mentioned as having the potential to be detrimental to help-seeking behaviour, due to fears of personal information becoming publicly known. What if instead we view the obvious innate strength of spirit, resilience and community as an enormously positive opportunity?
International aid organisations have shown us the way – we can apply the principles of health promotion used in international aid to the mental health arena. By recruiting, educating and empowering rural women to act as mental health advocates within their community, potential exists to create a new nurturing and protective force against mental health challenges in rural and regional Australia.