Dec 15, 2021
25th November marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the beginning of 16 days of activism up until Human Rights Day on 10th December. As a charity in the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector, we take this time to reflect on what activism looks like for us. How do we take action within a culture where violence against women is so normalised? What does that activism look like and how does it play out in our everyday work and our connections to women experiencing sexual exploitation?
It’s possible to think about activism in a different way. Of course, lobbying and protesting, writing letters to MPs and the government on policy issues are crucial parts of what we do. But there are other, more subtle ways that we take action. One vital piece of our approach to activism in the sector is that of collaboration. Beyond the Streets has a network of over 40 affiliated projects, working in various different ways to support women who are experiencing multiple disadvantages. We spoke with Emma Goulds from affiliated project Orchards, a charity that come alongside women experiencing sexual exploitation on their journey to independent living, providing safe housing, trauma counselling, wrap around support work and pastoral care . Orchards have been working collaboratively with Beyond Support – our national callback service for women in the sex industry – since their inception in 2018, and collaborating with other organisations in the sector. Emma told us a little of their history and what collaboration means to them.
Orchards emerged after a long journey for Emma and her co-founder Jenny, who had both been working with women in various contexts – from on street outreach to prisons and direct support work – since 2008. Out of these experiences, they recognised the importance of housing for vulnerable women. Emma said ‘we knew that housing was a reason for entry [into the sex industry] and a barrier to exit’. From this knowledge, Orchards began with an approach that helps women to take steps towards independent living. Often this involves directly working with other services, such as Beyond Support who refer women into Orchards at a suitable point in their journey. ‘Our support worker will work carefully with the referrer,’ said Emma. ‘We need to ask questions to tell if each woman is ready to live independently most of the time. This means for instance, that there’s not an imminent suicide risk, and if there is historic drug use that it’s stable enough for her to be living on her own most of the time’. This necessitates a high level of collaboration between us at Beyond the Streets and Orchards, to have open and transparent three-way conversations with the woman looking for housing and support workers from both organisations.
One of the difficulties in the sector is often that services don’t speak to one another and that women fall between the cracks. Working together in partnership, Orchards try and bridge gaps and involve others in the conversation of how best a woman can take the steps that she’s looking for. Emma notes that these partnerships are ‘fundamental, when there can be a lack of multi-agency working. It’s essential, and though we might not do it perfectly, our desire is to develop strong partnerships’. For Orchards this means that they can focus on their own support offer – offering housing for 9-12 months, with pastoral and practical support during that period – and they can then link to other organisations with their own specialisms. So, a woman in Orchards housing can explore employment and training routes, access financial advice, food banks and nutrition sessions, and trauma-informed fitness, with partner services. Importantly, women also have access to counsellors who specialise in sexual trauma. Emma underlined the important ethos behind all collaborations with partners being that the woman is in control of her path: ‘we ask ourselves, ‘does she have agency and does she have choice?’ and reflect on that as an organisation. We have members of the team who provide reality checks when anyone is trying to rescue or fix’.
Beyond Support work from the same ethos – of empowering not rescuing, providing women-centred services – so it’s heartening for us to engage in collaboration with organisations such as Orchards. We asked Emma what she had learned from walking alongside women in this way. ‘Some women’s resilience is absolutely incredible, given their experiences and stories. The courage and the strength of women we work with is inspiring. I have massive respect’ she said. Our team wholeheartedly agree, that the foundation of our work is collaboration with these amazing women, who graciously allow us as organisations to journey with them. We recognise that we are better together and can provide more for women by working in this way. Collaboration is a potent form of activism, to make real change in the lives of women experiencing sexual exploitation.