With government consultation on the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill due, Women’s Aid CEO Katie Ghose says that empowerment and championing of rights are common themes among charities
My recent move from campaigning for a better democracy at the Electoral Reform Society to the domestic abuse sector in my new position as chief executive of Women’s Aid may not seem like an obvious switch, yet the themes of power and control are strangely familiar. In a few weeks, I switched from speaking about where power lies within and between nations and institutions of the UK to the power and control wielded by individuals in intimate partner relationships.
As a barrister, I represented refugee women, helping them to navigate a hostile immigration system that would not recognise their specific needs. Later I campaigned for women’s representation in UK politics at the Electoral Reform Society (ERS). For me, campaigning for women’s rights has been a lifelong passion and a vital cause to fight for, and I am relishing the opportunity to put it front and centre of my daily work.
Women’s Aid secured a momentous victory during my first month in post, which I could easily have campaigned for at ERS. The Right to Vote campaign run in partnership with survivor Mehala Osborne urged the Government to review their anonymous voter registration policy. Survivors had been silenced for far too long because it was too dangerous for them to sign up to an electoral register, which would reveal their location, and too difficult for them to register anonymously.
A woman’s right to vote is a fundamental human right and for many survivors a crucial part of their journey back to self-confidence and independence. I was thrilled when the Government took decisive action following the campaign, announcing new measures which send out a clear message to all survivors of domestic abuse: that their voices matter, and their right to vote should never be taken away.
I was also inspired by how survivors’ views, experiences and voices, especially those of the courageous Mehala Osborne, informed and fuelled the campaign. This campaign is a powerful reminder of how causes and passions can join up, and when they do they have the power to make real change happen. Women’s Aid’s Child First campaign was another recent victory, rooted in survivors’ experiences and their desire to help others.
Clare Throssell, whose two sons were killed by their father during an unsupervised contact visit, wanted to put children’s voices at the heart of all child contact decisions made in the family courts. The campaign has secured robust new guidance for judges to explicitly prioritise children’s safety in parental applications for contact with their children, in cases where domestic abuse is alleged, admitted or proven.
Survivors like Clare Throssell have phenomenal knowledge and incredible capacity to help others. I want to dig deep into the well of my experience of democratic innovations while at the helm of ERS to enhance their involvement in shaping national law and policy, starting with the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. We want this once-in-a-generation Bill to reflect the reality of domestic abuse to ensure that we see the landmark changes that survivors need to escape abuse and rebuild their lives.
I loved working for constitutional reform, mounting challenges to the established ways of doing politics – from elected Lords to winner takes all voting systems. For me, there was a clear relationship between institutional processes and policies that emerged at the other end. It was a constant challenge however to persuade policy-makers that political reforms related to everyday life – how they would help transform our economy or tackle the housing crisis, for example – and as a result it was easy for them to dismiss the need for action on the basis that it is “not a doorstep issue”. What a contrast with domestic abuse; which is literally about what happens behind our front doors. Every single politician I meet has been touched by the survivors in their constituency and frequently involved in their aid, from police response to re-housing.
Having previously worked at two federations, Citizens’ Advice and Age UK, I am also relishing being back on the road for a tour of our Women’s Aid members from Surrey to Sunderland. Their sheer expertise, empathy and creativity in tackling domestic abuse knows no bounds. Woefully underfunded, these vital services were pioneered over 40 years ago and continue to innovate to help support the diverse and often complex needs of women who need help escaping abuse today – and their children too.
Figuring out how to channel the insights, expertise and empathy of grassroots supporters or members to be influential upstream in the corridors of power is a personal passion and subject of a book I wrote in 2005, Beyond the Courtroom: A Lawyers’ Guide to Campaigning. Now at Women’s Aid, I am filled with energy to capture powerful personal stories and the specialist expertise of our members to have a real impact on the decisions made by those in power. With a unified voice of survivors, member services and our national charity, Women’s Aid can galvanise and inspire those in Government, the judiciary and public services to make the necessary changes so that together we can help survivors escape abuse and tackle the root causes of domestic abuse once and for all.
Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid