International Women's Day: Fredi's Blog
On International Women’s Day I think about the incredible strength women have. Every woman has her own stories of struggle and the women I work with have inspired me so much with theirs. I am in total awe of our collective inner strength. Working during coronavirus has been a real struggle for everyone but my incredible colleagues have gone above and beyond to provide support when the pandemic has exacerbated many of the inequalities women were already facing. It’s a real testament to how women come together, and support each other even when it is difficult to do so.
Women who come in contact with the criminal justice system are often failed by the very structures designed to support us when we fall on hard times such as the care, health or welfare systems. Yet the stigma and isolation of experiencing the criminal justice system can mean people are further pushed away from accessing support to keep afloat. As a society, it’s only right that we ensure those of us struggling to keep our heads above water aren’t left to sink.
Our founder Chris Tchaikovsky once said: “Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her." I think of this quote often.
“Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her."
Women in contact with the criminal justice system have often experienced many traumas throughout their life such as abuse in childhood, neglect, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and substance misuse. This is why Women’s Centres are so crucial - they help address the root causes of offending and are an anchor that stops women being swept up into crime.
Women’s Centres provide so much support. From social interaction and the chance to meet people facing similar challenges, to life skills learned in groups and workshops such as boundary setting, healthy communication, healthy relationships, anger management, and self-esteem. They also provide 1:1 practical and emotional support and can help with housing issues, budgeting, harmful substance use, violence and abuse experienced, and create a support plan that is bespoke to each individual woman. They provide a combination of enabling healing and the processing of trauma women have experienced, as well as providing practical support in moving forward with their lives.
Over my seven years at WIP I have seen so many ways that Women’s Centres, and our work in the prisons and the community, have played a key role in local communities. Women’s Centres can be a friend and a source of non-judgemental support when you need it most, by your side from navigating the bureaucratic and systematic barriers to accessing services, to offering the mental health support needed in dealing with life’s challenges.
It is a privilege to witness what women can achieve when we have the necessary support. I’ve seen women get their children back in their lives because social services have seen their growth and improvement, or watching a woman celebrate a milestone like picking up a one year ‘clean and sober’ keyring in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting after many years of substance misuse prior. This is all down to the women’s hard work and commitment, strengthened by the long-term building of trust that women create with their advocates; a journey that might have started from an initial referral to a Women’s Centre.
It makes me so sad and frustrated to think about how the COVID-19 crisis has worsened the situation for the women we work with. Lockdown has taken its toll on us all, and I urge you to take a moment to think about what it is like for women who are currently in prison at this time. During lockdown, women are often locked in their cells for up to 22.5 hours a day, without having the opportunity to carry out their prison jobs, or attend education or skill building classes. For women who have experienced so much trauma already, the isolation and claustrophobia of being locked up in a cell for so long can be re-traumatising and painfully difficult to cope with. Family and friends have not been able to visit during lockdown and so women are losing these crucial connections to their loved ones. If they are ‘fortunate’, they may be able to receive a 30 minute video call once a month to keep in touch with loved ones, but this is not guaranteed.
"For women who have experienced so much trauma already, the isolation and claustrophobia of being locked up in a cell for so long can be re-traumatising and painfully difficult to cope with."
Lockdown life has been a huge struggle for women out in the community, too. Domestic violence and poverty are rising, and women struggling with addictions are feeling the loss of in-person mutual support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. Connection is crucial for rehabilitation, and lockdown has massively hindered our connections. At WIP, during the peak of lockdown, we have had to run groups and 1:1 support virtually for our clients, but the lack of access to the internet, lack of a confidential and safe space, and housing issues for women mean that this platform is not always accessible for women. We do our best to continue to find ways to help and support the women we work with and my colleagues have been amazing at adapting.
I was disappointed to see that the Chancellor’s Budget didn’t include information about how the Government is going to support Women’s Centres. We need long-term funding to ensure the sustainability of services which the women we work with so desperately need and deserve. Women's Centres tackle the root causes of crime, and support women leaving prison to resettle back into the community, but they are facing a cliff edge of funding in April.
International Women’s Day is about celebrating all women, including those of us most often overlooked, like women affected by the criminal justice system. Women are facing so many struggles that have been exacerbated in the last year, such as domestic abuse and poverty, things that we know contribute to women being swept up into crime. Another way is possible, and within reach, one that puts women’s unique needs at the forefront and stops women being sent to prison. The Government can show its commitment to women by investing in community services like Women’s Centres.
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