I think it’s absolutely vital, absolutely vital that survivors’ voices are central to the public message around violence against women. Basically, those who experience an issue, so women who are experiencing gender-based violence, violence against women, are best placed to tell us as service providers, but also the general public, what the issue is. And if we think about my own field, which is that the field of domestic abuse, survivors’ voices have helped us to understand that domestic abuse isn’t an equal fight between two people, that it’s much more than physical violence. It’s survivors’ voices that has helped us move from really focusing on physical violence to thinking about control, to thinking about coercive control.
We wouldn’t have got there if we hadn’t really been listening as to what’s going on. And I would say the same in relation to children’s experiences of domestic abuse. We used to think that children just witnessed acts of physical violence, by listening to children and listening to their mum’s we really understood that they were experiencing that too. And I think that’s the absolute power of survivors’ voices being part of this process. Survivors’ voices have traditionally been silenced, and so it’s really political that it’s survivors’ voices that are the voices that are being heard. And that’s politically significant, because who gets to name the issue shapes our understanding of that issue.
A perpetrator is very likely to dismiss it as nothing, fight. If we’re talking about rape, it’s not rape, it was sex. It was actually really important that the survivor voice is balancing that out, I think. There are a number of challenges, I think, to ensuring that survivors’ voices are heard. Experiencing any form of violence against women, gender-based violence, I think that there’s an element of fear involved in that. So victims and survivors of violence against women can remain fearful and can be experiencing trauma as a result of their experiences.
And then when we’re trying to use those voices to inform the public that that’s not healthy, that’s safe, that’s not OK for the survivor, so that’s a very practical barrier that gets in the way. Related to that, I think, there’s the issue of shame and embarrassment. Victims and survivors of violence against women will often feel very high levels of shame and embarrassment. But there are other barriers too. Whose voices get heard? So are we always inclusive, or is it, perhaps, sometimes a certain type of woman’s voice that gets heard? Do BME women get heard as often as white women? Do those with disabilities and impairments get heard as often as able-bodied women.
I did an event at the Crown Office a few weeks back, and there was a woman from the travelling community there. And she was talking so eloquently about how travelling women’s voices are just never heard. They are not heard within their communities, but they’re absolutely not heard in the mainstream. I think one of the biggest challenges, that women with disabilities face in relation to getting their voices heard in the context of violence against women, is what we tend to do in our society, is infantilise people with disabilities. We just don’t see them as sexed beings, and so we tend to frame it in a different way.
We tend to frame it as, oh gosh, that’s about impairment, that’s about adult support and protection issues, we need to go in and look at that, not understanding that that women’s experiences are related to her gender. I think one of the challenges, that we all face when we’re thinking about survivors’ voices informing our practise or informing our research, is that we can never represent everybody’s experience of violence against women, of gender-based violence, because it’s incredibly personal. So my experience of what happened to me would be different to yours, different to hers over there, hers over there, hers over there, and so on. And so there are shared mutual experiences, but there are differences.
And I think we always need to be aware of that, when we’re making those kind of generalisations about this is what happens in violence against women or this is the impact of violence against women. I think there has been a huge change in the way that we deal with violence against women. Services that we provide now look very, very different in many respects to the services that we provided 40 years ago, when the first refugees were set up. Of course, there are commonalities and themes, but there have been changes. And I think that those changes are, in part, related to a better funding structure that we have now.
And that’s because of the strength and the brilliance of the women over the years, that we’ve argued that this is a really important service and, to a degree, have won that argument. So services have changed because of that. The services have also changed, to a degree, because we’ve been listening to survivors’ voices, and we’ve been thinking about what they need and what they want. So women’s aid groups now have specialist children’s workers, because we’ve listened, we’ve learned that children are experiencing domestic abuse, we need to be responding to that.
Different women’s aid groups around the country provide different support services, but within our network we have two women’s aid groups that we set up specifically to work with black and minority ethnic women. And their services being, in a sense, slightly different to the other women’s aid groups, because they tend to work more extensively not just with domestic abuse, but with issues of forced marriage and honor-based violence. And that’s because that’s meeting the needs of the women and children that they’re working with.
Of course, other women’s aid groups are also providing support work to black and minority ethnic women, but I think it’s important that we have those specialist services, and the other women’s aid groups were able to learn from them. In recent years, there’s been quite an influx in the number of Eastern European women who were trying to access women’s aid services. And so women’s aid groups around the country are now employing Eastern European women, women with a range of language skills to meet that very specific need. One of the women’s aid groups, in particular, has worked really strongly on the issue of disabled women and created a barrier-free refuge, so that women with disabilities are able to come in.
And I think one of the things that is also important in relation to lesbian, bisexual women, trans women is that women’s aid groups around the country, led by Scottish Women’s Aid, have been working really closely with LGBT Youth Scotland and the Scottish Transgender Alliance to think about how we ensure that our services are inclusive to lesbian, bi, and trans women, but more significantly how we let lesbian, bi, and trans women know that. So a lot of the groups that are working towards the LGBT [INAUDIBLE] as a way of saying, look, we are inclusive.