Momentum is gathering for women’s-only swimming in Canberra, whether that be incorporated into the design of the planned Gungahlin Leisure Centre or made available at existing pools.

The government says it is confident of finding a solution. However, it won’t be building a women’s-only pool.

Women who feel they cannot be in swimmers in front of men for religious or cultural reasons are among those likely to use the facility but also older women, those who feel self-conscious about their bodies and women recovering from injury or illness such as breast cancer.

Royal Life Saving ACT, the YWCA of Canberra and the Canberra Islamic Centre are all supporting the push, which is being spearheaded by ACT Greens leader Meredith Hunter.

Ms Hunter said she was contacted by constituents who wanted to ensure women’s-only swimming was incorporated into the design of the new $28.7 million Gungahlin Leisure Centre, which is due to start construction in August.She said removable screens to section off a part of the pool for women’s-only swimming could be a solution, but also some funding or insurance coverage for other pools.

Other organisations had run women’s-only swimming, but Ms Hunter said it was an ad hoc solution because inevitably the pool became unavailable or there were issues with insurance or funding.

”What we need to ensure is that we have a long-term solution,” she said. ”I’ve written to the Chief Minister to say that it does need to be seriously considered on the new design. We need to build it into the design of the pool. We don’t want to retrofit it.”

At least one Muslim mother had contacted the government as she could not take her child to swimming lessons because neither she nor her husband felt comfortable being in a public pool. ”When you’re going to learn-to-swim classes now they like the parents to be in the water with the children. For women, that’s not possible because of the modesty aspects and for the father to get in a swimming group with other women is an issue as well,” Ms Hunter said.

”So that means there are children who can’t access a vital life skill which is swimming lessons, water survival skills.”

Muslim woman Nasreen Rahman said at age 47 she was still unable to swim because her parents would not let her take part in lessons at school.

”My father wouldn’t let me. He said: ‘No, you can’t wear that costume’,” she said.

Ms Rahman said she still felt uncomfortable swimming in a mixed pool. ”It’s not just about them looking at us, it’s about us being exposed to men wearing Speedos.”

YWCA Canberra executive director Rebecca Vassarotti said there was a need to ensure equal access to services for all women, including those who were overweight or recovering from an illness or injury.

She said many women felt self-conscious going to a public pool because of their body image.

”They do feel self-conscious and that it’s not a welcoming and safe space for them,” she said.

ACT Muslim Advisory Council chair Sally Kalek said the popularity of women-only gyms would probably translate into well-patronised women’s-only swimming.

”Women want choices to be able to exercise and be confident to just be who they are and not be judged by men,” she said.

”We want to wear our exercise gear or swimmers, whether it’s a one piece or a two-piece.”

Ms Kalek said there was a perfect opportunity to incorporate the option into the design of the new Gungahlin pool.

”Even if it’s not done anywhere else in Australia, why can’t we be the first?” she said.

”It’s not just for Muslim women, it’s for all women. Pregnant women, older women, women who’ve just had a baby, women who are self-conscious about their size and weight, women with disabilities.”

Sports Minister Andrew Barr said the government would meet with community representatives next week to discuss the issue.

”The government is happy to explore ways to meet women’s-only options, and we’re investigating options at the new Gungahlin facility and in other facilities, both public and private,” he said.

”It is too early to be talking about specific plans, at Gungahlin or elsewhere.

”I am optimistic it will be possible to identify ways in which women interested in participating in swimming activities can do so in suitable circumstances.

”Ensuring broad community access is important and we don’t want to exclude half the population from a significant new piece of infrastructure.”

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