Tuesday, 23 July 2013

First Steps

Today has been one of the most amazing and inspirational days of my life, and simultaneously one of the toughest. It's been such a day of revelation for me and one where I've been proud of both myself and the young women I work with.
Radcliffe Rangers consider what makes a good partner

As you probably realise, I've been working to advocate for better support for women and girls who experience gender-based violence, as well as speaking out against the violence and inequality itself. Since the seminar I attended in Belgium in December, I've attended smaller events and begun networking, but not really achieved anything concrete. At times, this has made me feel like a bit of a failure, despite protestations to the contrary. But it's hard to see the difference you're making with the little things.

This summer is where things really pick up. In two weeks, I will be at Nine Worlds in London for their Geek Feminism event. It will be the first time I've ever attended a convention as a guest speaker - both terrifying and very exciting for a self-confessed geek like me. In September, I'm involved in several events supporting the Nottingham Women's Fringe (part of the Nottingham Women's Conference) and will be running another Stop The Violence type event in October.

But today was the start. The first. The day I got to see if I really could make a difference and, more importantly, if I could cope with what I wanted to achieve.

I suppose the question many people wonder is why on Earth wouldn't I be able to cope? The truth is that personal experience both motivates and hinders. It is what fills me with a passion for change, but my own reactions and emotions scare me. I am so afraid of how I'll react that I start to retreat, it takes more effort to take those risks.

Today was my Senior Section unit's opportunity to volunteer at Nottingham Women's Centre. They painted the kitchen and one of the counselling rooms in Nottingham Rape Crisis Centre, as well as doing activities from the Girls In Action: Change The Story badge.

But I added more to that, so that my unit could get the most from their experience. I invited them to ask questions of a woman who had experienced sexual assault, invited them to ask questions of a counsellor at the centre, gave them an agree / disagree exercise like the one we did in Belgium. These may not have been part of the Girls In Action programme but were, as all the Girls In Action activities, explained to and approved by the parents who were thoroughly supportive.

The girls began the day unsure of some issues surrounding VAWG in the UK. They assumed that FGM wasn't an issue due to the lack of convictions and the fact that it's illegal. They thought that a woman couldn't be raped by her husband or partner because the woman had consented in being with them. We soon discussed and challenged that! They said that women were to blame / were putting themselves at risk if they got drunk and were subsequently attacked. They were unsure if equality in a relationship benefited both parties. 

By the end of the day, their views had changed and they were more confident in their attitudes towards violence. The whole aim of the day!

They heard the story of a woman who had been raped. It was a written "testimony" appropriate to their age group. They then wrote questions which they hung on a tree. These questions were taken away and answered by the woman. What the girls didn't realise was that this woman was me. The story was mine, the answers were mine. It is, to me, the most powerful, truthful and impacting thing that I can share with them. It breaks the taboo, gets them thinking, shows the reality of sexual assault, not just what's in the media. I wish I had the confidence to speak to them face to fact, not behind a mask of anonymity, but I'm not sure that it would have helped. I think such a shock may have been emotionally destructive to them. And to me.

After sharing and reading the replies they had received, I gave the Senior Section members a bin to get rid of their pieces of paper. Every single one of them held onto them, slipped them into their bags. One told me that it was personal, that she wanted to keep it, that it was so detailed and honest. It was special.

I had to turn my back so they didn't see the "paint" in my eyes. For them to behave in that way, to treat my story and my honesty as special to them was important. It made me feel valued, and made me feel like I really am making a difference with this.

Leader Nicole adds her question to the tree
The time they spent with the counsellor was also enlightening. They asked a range of questions when exploring the service, from the sorts of backgrounds and ages of the clients, to how they deal with the grey area of client confidentiality and legal issues. The way that Sam dealt with the questions was brilliant, and helped me understand a lot more about the service, even though I've been a user for the last year and a half! 

It was difficult, though. And when the girls left the room to go back to their painting, I stayed behind for a moment and confessed the difficulties that I was having. She was surprised at it - apparently I hide it well - but it did make me aware of the importance of looking after myself. Even my fellow leader, who has no personal experience that I'm aware of, found the experience draining, so is it any wonder that I felt fragile?

Yes, I came out feeling delicate and full of emotion. It was mixed; pride, relief, sadness that I had personal experience to draw on... but for the first time, it wasn't overwhelming, it was manageable. I know that in future scenarios, even if I don't have my wonderful counsellor there, I can still access the helpline and I there are still ways of getting support and caring for myself.

But I've seen the sort of event that I can facilitate with help (fellow leader - and Senior Section member - Nicole was fantastic!), how much the girls can learn and get out of it whilst giving back. I've seen the power that my story has, and the real impact this work can do.

And so, whilst I'm exhausted, both physically and emotionally, I am incredibly excited and inspired for a wonderful future.

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