Updated: Mar 7, 2021
Finding ways to encourage and support women to tell their stories is a thread that’s run through my life. Listening and learning from women’s experiences began for me during my time with Women’s Aid, not as a worker but as a woman living in refuge with two young children. My journey to Women’s Aid wasn’t unlike the journeys experienced by many of the women I lived with and went on to work with in various residential, crisis and outreach services.
At 15 I met and was subsequently groomed by a man who at 33 had been married before with children not much younger than myself. He worked hard to dismantle my self worth while disentangling me from all the people and connections that formed my life to that point. And he hurt me relentlessly.
It’s only with hindsight you know you’ve been groomed, by the time you realise it’s happening it’s too late and by then you’ve been worn down and isolated. Many times I thought my life would be ended, many times I left and many times I returned. At 17 I married this man and at 18 gave birth to my daughter, shortly after and on the back of repeated physical and psychological attacks, a door was opened to me and I left. Soon after I was homeless and during this time met someone else, less calculated in their violence but nonetheless I could see a pattern was repeating, before long I was pregnant and by 20 I had given birth to my son. When he was 3 months old I attempted suicide, waking up in hospital I knew I had to leave with my children or we’d be lost to any kind of a life, it was my breakthrough moment. Six months of planning later I moved into a women’s refuge.
I won’t dwell on specifics of these experiences or relationships except to say that I somehow located ‘the problem’ in me, ‘choices’ I made, consequences to bear as a result of a flaw in me. Being in refuge gave me the space to breathe, to be with other women & children who’d experienced similar and for us to re-form. It was in Keighley Women’s Aid that I came to realise there was nothing inherently wrong with me, as one of the workers said one day – ‘…..we need to turn this notion that the problem lies within us on it’s head, we need to stop asking what is it about me? Ask instead, what is about men who recognise vulnerability and choose to exploit it.’ I have never looked back and will be forever grateful to all the women who have lifted me every step of the way since.
My story, so similar to the experiences of countless women, is the reason I believe specialist women’s services, run for and by women, are critical to women’s recovery. The feminist analysis of male violence against women that underpinned the ethos of the refuge, helped me and others to see how institutionalised misogyny created this kind of complicity within the very agencies that were meant to support and protect us. I see my time in refuge as a gift to this day, an awakening.
Living in refuge was also a time for me to re-connect with ambitions to get an education, I enrolled at Keighley College and completed an access course before going on to complete my degree in Community Studies at Bradford & Ilkley Community College. The course included student placements, the longest of these I got to spend with Bradford Women’s Aid where I’d learn more from women living and working in refuge about resilience and the power of our shared experience to form bonds across differences in age, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity and sometimes class. I understood then that my experience was going to shape my focus on working alongside other women to protect these spaces of healing and learning. I took in all of this experience and used it to inform my dissertation, exploring state complicity in violence against women and the premise that if male violence against women is an inherent feature of patriarchy, little will be done to challenge it without women’s voices.
All my working life I have witnessed the distress of women experiencing male violence. The range and complexity of need has resulted in women’s services developing specialist, expert support enabling them to respond effectively to the needs of women and children. Creating environments and spaces where women feel heard and able to talk about or acknowledge what has happened to them is vital to recovery and relies heavily on those spaces being protected on the basis of sex. Today we are witnessing an erosion of women’s right to such spaces despite the pandemic of male violence against women. Across the country, Women’s Aid and wider women’s specialist services are being defunded with no regard for the devastating impact this will have on women and children. Women’s Aid and wider specialist services have provided women and children with vital support and, more importantly, an escape route – without women’s voices being raised collectively we are in real danger of losing them.
I have so much more to say about many of the issues touched on here, meantime all I want to do is encourage anyone reading this to contribute their voice to protecting specialist services for women and children experiencing male violence.