Domestic violence can make you feel invisible – on June 8, let’s give those women a voice

Guest blog by Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid.
Originally published on i News, available here.

I work with a fantastic woman at Women’s Aid, a charity that works to end domestic violence against women and children.

Her name is Mehala Osborne, and she is a survivor of domestic abuse who had to flee to a refuge with her small child.

Imagine leaving everything behind, starting all over again with nothing – and at the same time rebuilding your own life, and your life child’s after the trauma of domestic abuse, the effects of which have been compared to those of being taken hostage and tortured.

Add to that the constant, grinding fear of being found by the perpetrator. The reason refuges are secret locations is that abusive men will literally stop at nothing to hunt down the woman who ran for her life.

A voice in the voting booth

In the refuge, Mehala found she couldn’t safely register to vote anonymously.

After all she’d been through, and now effectively in hiding, she wasn’t going to lose her voice in this way too.

So, she started the Right to Vote campaign, backed by Women’s Aid, to get the government to change the rules on anonymous voting so that women in refuges can be part of our democracy.

Together, we succeeded – the rules will be changed, though sadly, and ironically, not by 9 June.

Campaigning matters

Meanwhile, we have just seen two household name charities fined under the Lobbying Act, and the snap general election announcement has intensified that “you couldn’t make it up” feeling that surrounds politics at the moment.

So it’s just as well that the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations are both saying “keep calm and carry on campaigning”, with their new report, ‘Speaking frankly, Acting boldly’.

I’m very proud that ACEVO’s roll call of charity campaigns that changed society includes the work of Women’s Aid.

As its Chief Executive, I’m even prouder that the organisation has continued to campaign fearlessly (and successfully) on my watch.

Why we need charities

As charity leaders, we are only ever custodians of a set of values and a purpose that we must pass on, still relevant and still visible.

For many of us, we simply cannot fulfil that duty without trying our best to create a better world for our beneficiaries.

Surely it can only be in rare cases where that doesn’t include campaigning of any kind.

The people on the margins

Many charities support people who are pushed to the margins, labelled and stuck in the “too difficult” box.

Women and children experiencing, escaping and remaking their lives after domestic abuse are just one example. So, routinely, are women blamed for the injustice they have suffered that they often don’t name it themselves and are afraid to seek help.

If we don’t speak out, raise awareness and create change, the blame will continue and women will still hide.

Had we not successfully campaigned for coercive and controlling behaviour to be a crime, for example, we would not only have denied its victims practical support but condemned them to remain in the shadows.

Looking ahead to June 8

Frankly, I was disappointed by how few charities spoke out about the impact of Brexit on their beneficiaries, in the run-up to the referendum. There’s not much time to prepare for June 8 but we will be having our say, don’t you worry.

It’s frightening, but hardly surprising, that ACEVO has found that charity campaigning is under threat.

Women’s Aid is a federation, and this intensifies the responsibility we feel to speak out – because the local services who are our members are silenced, whether explicitly in funding contracts or implicitly (I’ve lost count of the number of local CEOs who have told me “I can’t, our tender is coming up”).

Understanding our advantages

Getting people to “check their privilege” is not empty “political correctness”. I personally doubt there is much empty political correctness around, in reality.

It’s what we should be all about, because privilege is only visible to those who view it from the outside – unless someone makes a big effort to get it in the faces of those who have it.

In the run-up to an election, we need to make a concerted effort to get politicians to stop and think about the people who do not look, think, act like they do or like their notion of a voter does.

Like a woman living with domestic abuse, whose space for action has been systematically reduced bit by bit. Perhaps she’s not allowed to work, or have her own money, see who she wants, dress and behave how she wants.

Giving her a voice

I want her to be seen.

If I can, I want to create a platform with her, for her to speak. If I can’t do that, I will speak for her.

At Women’s Aid, we have changed things for the better, in tangible ways.

But it’s just as important, when suffering is hidden, to remember that greater awareness and knowledge are important in themselves. What people are talking about matters.

It can feel too risky and for some organisations, particularly small ones, it is.

All the more important, then, for the rest of us to realise we are not risking anywhere near as much as many of our beneficiaries risk every single day.

It doesn’t matter how much it seems we won’t get anywhere. It’s our job.

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