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The Health Alternatives for Women

1980 – 2012

This essay written by The THAW Collective was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1980 – 1993

The Health Alternatives for Women (THAW) was set up in Christchurch to be a feminist health resource, information and referral centre for women. It became the longest surviving women's health centre in New Zealand.

THAW evolved from Sisters Overseas Service (SOS), Christchurch, which came into being after the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977. SOS assisted women who were having to travel to Australia, or later to Auckland, to obtain abortions. However, women wanted to know about other health matters besides abortion, and in particular how to deal with the health system. In October 1980, THAW opened its doors in four freshly painted rooms near the centre of Christchurch, in one of the Art Centre's imposing stone buildings.

THAW aimed to provide women with free information and support on a wide range of health care issues, to work with the women most in need of its services, and to be a political force for change in women's health, using a feminist analysis. The emphasis was to be on information as a powerful catalyst, helping women reclaim control over their bodies, their reproduction, and their lives.

THAW's office quickly became a centre for women's health information. Besides give-away pamphlets, it kept books and folders of information covering both orthodox and complementary perspectives and treatments. Free pregnancy testing and information on pregnancy, birthing and post-natal depression were provided. Collective members gave talks, led workshops, and organised public seminars on topics such as hysterectomy, breast cancer and osteoporosis.

Much of the work involved providing a consumer's guide and referral service to health resources. THAW workers also supported and advocated for women having problems with or taking complaints against the health system. This daily contact with women enabled THAW to identify many gaps in health care.

THAW also aimed to work toward better health service delivery for women, by providing a consumer perspective on local and national committees. But this work and the time it took was always contentious, reflecting debate over whether the collective's energies could be most effectively used to change the health system from outside, or from within. THAW maintained close liaison with other women's health and feminist groups, and was often consulted for women's viewpoint on their health issues.

From 1980 to 1986, THAW received just enough funding to keep going, from donations, grants and employment schemes. In the late 1980s, after putting much thought into Treaty of Waitangi issues, THAW decided to give a portion of its funds to the local Māori women's health group, Rōpū Awhi Ora. In 1987, 1988 and 1989, government grants of $50,000, $40,000 and $30,000 respectively brought a brief respite; but by 1993 THAW was again struggling for funds.

Abortion had a huge impact on THAW's workload, especially at times of crisis in the local service. Many women from outside Christchurch were billeted through collective members, leading directly to THAW's involvement in setting up a night shelter for single women. In 1985, well before cervical screening was made a public issue, THAW workers trained to provide well-women clinic services such as smear-taking, pregnancy testing, breast self-examination and vaginal examination. However, local gynaecologists, through the Medical Officer of Health, threatened THAW with legal action and the supervising doctor with disciplinary procedures, so the service had to cease. From 1984, THAW helped women making claims against the manufacturers of the Dalkon Shield, and later of other forms of intra-uterine contraceptive device. Adverse side-effects and risks associated with Depo-Provera, the injectible contraceptive, were another major women's health problem.

THAW adhered to the feminist principle of working collectively. Apart from the early days, the collective (never more than six women) operated as a closed group, in order to ensure consistent operation. Usually a potential new member and the collective assessed if a working relationship was possible, over a period of three to six weeks. This proved to be a good process. From 1988 to 1993, each woman worked two to four days a week, enabling all to be paid and sharing resources more widely. This also avoided conflict about who would be paid, and how much: all received the same rate.

Most THAW workers had a clear understanding that THAW was not a support group for its workers: they were there to fight for a better health system for women, through political action and service delivery – though keeping the balance between the two became an issue at times. Collective members always brought with them who they were, and their differences led to the enriched philosophy from which THAW operated.

By the early 1990s THAW's services were being stretched more than ever, as women tried to survive despite reduced services and shrinking resources. This was demonstrated by the increasing complexity of the problems they brought to THAW, involving institutions such as the Accident Compensation Corporation and the Department of Social Welfare, and, increasingly, sexual abuse by health professionals.

THAW earned respect for its willingness to challenge traditional practices and structures. It found its niche in fighting for women on low incomes, and making freely accessible the extensive range of information and support women need in order to make good decisions about their health.

The THAW Collective

1993 – 2012

In 2001, as part of celebrating 21 years of operation, THAW produced a herstory which commented that THAW was:

now operating in a very different world . . . The years have seen a marked decrease in feminist visibility. The cessation of publication of Broadsheet . . . , the closure of the Kate Sheppard bookshop . . .  and the rebranding of the Feminist Studies department at [the University of Canterbury] as ‘Gender Studies’ are just a few indicators of the change in political climate since 1980. [1]

The 1990s also saw marked economic changes in New Zealand.

The 2001 herstory noted that THAW had worked successfully as a collective for thirteen years, and that ‘Collective work was time consuming but highly valued  . . . as an inherently feminist and alternative structure‘, and that ’It is clear that working as a collective was a challenge.’ [2]

In 1993 it was decided to make a change to the structure, partly because it was understood that the collective structure was no longer acceptable to funding bodies. A Management Steering Group formed in 1994, but the transition was not smooth and coincided with a financial crisis. For a couple of months THAW operated on a skeleton volunteer staff. A public meeting was held, and a new structure with a committee, paid staff and volunteers enabled THAW to survive. It remained a proudly feminist organisation and continued to provide women with free information and support on a wide range of health care, albeit with a diminished political focus. 

As part of the change THAW reviewed its name. Initially ‘Health Alternative’ meant offering alternatives to the existing system, but by 1994 these words had become associated with alternative therapies. THAW became THAW – Women's Health Information Centre, and in 2001, Women's Health Information Centre (WHIC). 

In the later 1990s, THAW became involved in teaching in the Christchurch Nursing Studies programme and the General Practice Vocational Quality Assurance Programme, and in giving talks at Christchurch Women's Prison.  A newsletter was produced and sent to supporters, community groups and local GP's.

In 2000 THAW entered a two year contract with the Ministry of Health. As in earlier years, there was never a shortage of issues or of health work that could be done.  The years 2000 to 2012 included several office moves, responding to change and remaining relevant. The service aspect increasingly dominated the political. The 2000 annual report showed that just over 1000 women had been in touch with THAW (about one third visiting in person): 80 percent sought information, 50 percent sought referrals and 20 percent wanted pregnancy tests  (some women received more than one service). A further 170 women came to talks held  at various organisations.  Several submissions were produced, letters written and networking meetings attended.

Six years later the service was operating in Cashel Mall, a busy central Christchurch location, and the number of women using the services had doubled, with a big increase in the proportion visiting rather than phoning.  More young women, including high school students, were dropping in to use the service.  In 2006/2007 about one third of the contacts related to reproduction/gynaecological matters, and a little under a third to mental health issues such as anxiety.

In its third decade of operation, WHIC responded to growing use of the internet.  A website launched in 2000 received almost 20, 000 visits in the year to March 2007, double the year before. A WHIC staff member was also producing a monthly women's health and sexual health column in an online magazine style guide for Christchurch. 

Health information had always been a core part of what THAW/WHIC was about.  But in the years leading up to 2010, women could access health information online from home, and were increasingly doing so. However, even at this time, tailored health information packs put together at WHIC were popular.  Demand for other services continued; women appreciated being able to talk to someone face to face for support and referral.

By 2010 WHIC was experiencing some difficulty in maintaining energy at the committee level.  Tight funding led to reduced opening hours, a decrease in women visiting, and loss of an experienced and respected worker. The earthquakes in late 2010 caused a temporary closure as new rooms were sought.  A temporary office was found, but on the first day of setting it up, the February 2011 earthquake destroyed the old office. The damage meant that WHIC never gained access to their computer and material at that site. The earthquake also took a toll on the people involved, and there was insufficient energy to rebuild virtually from scratch.  The decision was therefore made to close down in 2012.

Some of the organisational records had been retrieved and stored after the 2010 earthquake. Those documents with personal information were destroyed; the remainder were organised and donated to the Christchurch City Library Archive. Although incomplete, they convey some of the flavour of the organisation that was THAW.

Koa Saxby and Emily Adcock


[1] THAW herstory, 2001, p. 3.

[2] THAW herstory, 2001, p. 21.

Unpublished sources

Brown, Helen, THAW herstory, 2001 (stapled booklet, 32 pp), Christchurch City Library Archive

Recollections of founding, past and present THAW Collective members

The Health Alternatives for Women surviving records, 1980–2010, Christchurch City Library Archive

Norris, Pauline and Penny Brander, 'The Health Alternatives for Women: THAW, April 1987 to March 1988', Well-Women Funding Report, 1988

Published sources

Bird, Christine, 'Using Women's Health Groups', Broadsheet, No. 137, March 1986, pp. 19–21

THAW: Women’s Health Information News, 1996–2001, Christchurch City Library Archive