A Scottish Sister Speaks

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I was lucky enough to catch up with Jessie* over Zoom, here is our conversation (obviously edited because we can both have a chat and a laugh), I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed speaking to her, she is quite simply wonderful!

Shonagh: Tell me about your experience of working in the Male Violence Against Women (MVAW) movement in Scotland?

Jessie: I got involved in politics very, very early, I was involved with my local labour movement and part of the young labour group there which I started. I did politics at Uni; I grew up in a mining family with two brothers and I was a tomboy. I very quickly realised as I got older that, as a woman, things are different for you, you have different standards of behaviour and limited freedoms, different expectations. My mum was the first woman at university in her family, it was always the aim, get to university, get a good job, move out of working-class life, so as not to worry about your Dad going on strike and not being able to eat that week.

I was always aware of different attitudes towards women in society and I always wanted to change that, especially as a working-class woman, how we are marginalised, how being working-class will impact you, and these things are not in your control or your choosing. So, I joined the labour party, I was very active as a woman’s officer whilst I was at university, I also volunteered at Women’s Aid at that time which is very different to how it is now. I worked on a lot of policy forums and policy research, dedicated to creating better domestic abuse legislation, I was just really involved in all of it.

After I graduated, I made the decision to leave the country and went overseas for a few years and I took my eye off the ball, you know I thought things were ok…I thought that women had made some significant achievements, real political legal change had been made, and things were better for women, there was good things happening. I didn’t feel that as a woman, things would be as bad as they actually still are.

So after I came back from overseas, I worked at the job centre, then a homeless hostel, which was also really interesting with homelessness legislation and making direct support happen, all these good things…and I was still involved with the labour party and involved in those groups, and we knew nothing was ever perfect, we could always do better…When I left the council (which is longer than I care to admit too), I had always been around Women’s Aid because, as a feminist activist, you go to marches, you go to a few conferences, you chat in a workshop, odd people will be at political meetings so I was around those women. But anyway, I started getting involved in a Women’s Aid telephone support line and drop in service and that was about twelve years ago…but I was never an official full time member of staff, just sessional stuff, I was always on their relief bank. Because of all the work I had done I was a really useful person to have around, I also worked at a local refuge and I then worked for Scottish Women’s Aid because they were awarded the domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline.

Obviously as the umbrella body they didn’t do direct support, they do policy research, that kind of thing, but they were awarded that contract about five and a half years ago…they needed some relief staff because it was a 24/7 service, so I got involved then and I have worked for them as a bank worker for the last five and a half years, until recently…

Shonagh: Do you think an open consultation has happened with regards to trans inclusive policies in the MVAW sector in Scotland?

Jessie: Well, it was all kept very quiet, the first consultation that came out from government (now remember I work in this area and I care about this stuff, I mean women’s politics is my thing), but it was just kept very quiet. I became aware of it, but then there was an assumption from me and others that Scottish Women’s Aid are going to do all the work, and take care of it and so we kind of left them to get on with it. Because, you know, I am a different level of staff, management deal with that kind of thing, we deal with women at the coal face…we are all down here and I was definitely one of those people that was not expecting to be massively consulted. You expect Scottish Women’s Aid to get on with their job, and do the right thing for women, it is what they are paid for after all!

But you did see a sort of drip feed you know, questions like “does anyone have a major issue with being more trans inclusive? Because we are looking at our funding and we need to have a trans inclusive policy…” and the reality is that we are looking to help aren’t we, we aren’t looking to exclude people, we want to include people and help people because as a women’s organisation you do…you know when it comes to male children some places if your male child is over 12 they won’t take you, there is all these things that exclude certain people and also there would need to be a certain way of changing the way people access certain services, you know we understood there will be changes but generally it was sort of “oh well you know, transwomen, we will be inclusive” – a lot of that thinking was based on the idea that those transwomen would have gone through a process and they would have a GRC, to put it quite bluntly we were not expecting them to have a penis for starters…we would expect some form of diagnosis of gender dysphoria, not a system of self-ID…and that was the kind of thinking, alongside good risk assessments as there is for other women accessing the service. I think a lot of people think that women turn up at services and they immediately get access and that doesn’t happen either, we do have lots of processes and assessments. But in terms of trans inclusive, at no point did anyone ever say that sex doesn’t exist!

Anyone accessing Women’s Aid services they would not want to exclude anyone they would want to help, at the bottom of the ladder people tend not to want other people at the bottom to be marginalised. That is not what people would want, however, as an abused woman they also wouldn’t want to be stuck in a room with someone who is very obviously a man and put them at risk. But there wasn’t any chat around that.

So, the first consultation came up and as a member of the public I know that if I wasn’t aware there was going to be this change, I wouldn’t have done anything, I wouldn’t have filled in any sort of form. The reality is that they [the Scottish Government] were not advertising it, they were just putting it on their website. A lot of these consultations, most people aren’t even aware of them…and this piece of legislation is going to impact everybody, and it was kind of an afterthought on their website.

I was more aware of what was going on because of A Woman’s Place UK coming up and having a meeting in Edinburgh and before that I was like, oh well the GRA is just a bit of paper work, that is fine…and then I went along to that meeting and I remember because I was just like ‘oh my god what’s happened, where are all the Women’s Aid women’, there was a group of women there talking about not accessing services that are for them because of this issue…

Shonagh: So, there were women there saying they had self-selected out of male violence against women services because of these policies in place in Scotland?

Jessie: Yes absolutely and there was a woman there who was talking about the abuse that she suffered because her male partner then identified as a transwoman and he used that as a way to further victimise her and women’s services (and she did say Women’s Aid) said they couldn’t help her, they didn’t want to listen to her, they didn’t want to acknowledge that it was a man that had abused her, they were saying it is a transwoman and therefore a woman, so she was then feeling like ‘ok these women’s services are not for me, although I am a woman who has experienced severe domestic abuse’. I was shocked, I mean that woman shouldn’t have been treated like that, whether you agree with her or not, you know you still have to allow people to articulate what has happened to them and they need a way and a space to do that, it was just really shocking.

I tried to talk about that meeting when I went in for a shift on the helpline and people literally scattered. I went to go and speak to one of my chums first, you know I was like “oh my god I was at this meeting, did you come along, and I just didn’t see you? Because this is something really significant and really important, we are failing people, people have been failed, and you know we need to do something about this”. Anyway, I went to speak to one of my chums and other colleagues were sitting near us and they just got up and left when I started speaking about it. And I was like “WOW!”

You know they just don’t want to talk about it.

Shonagh: Why?

Jessie: Well, there is a huge fear, and you know a lot of people don’t want to be called horrible names for a start, you know being called horrible names, some people get really upset by that.

Shonagh: Do you think that because a lot of us are survivors it kicks of a trigger?

Jessie: Oh god yea there is a huge amount of that, people don’t want confrontation. But normally in women’s organisations you can say whatever you want, it is dealt with respectfully…but people don’t want to talk about this issue.

There has also been a change in the people who work there, a lot of people who work in Scottish Women’s Aid and Scottish feminist organisations, most of them have a degree in gender studies and they are under 30 and come and work in women’s organisations because you know they are well paid now, it is a good career option…

Shonagh: So, would you say the movement has lost its understanding of the grassroots structural analysis of what it was built on?

Jessie: oh absolutely, now it is like a girl’s club, they all swap staff in between themselves, they are all essentially funded by the government to say the same thing.

I had a bit of a confrontation…one of the women that worked on the helpline she was very progressive, had the right degree and so on and I said to her, “what are you going to do about working class women who won’t access services because of these policies?”, and she was like, “I don’t think that is happening”. She has never done a day’s work in a refuge in her entire life, she worked on the helpline and that is very different…you know you speak to a stranger on a line, you will never see that person again, you will never hear from them again, and I said to her, if Women’s Aid is not for working class women then what are we for?

Then she avoided me too…

Shonagh and Jessie burst out laughing

Shonagh: Is there a difference between what frontline workers think and the umbrella bodies?

Jessie: well now of course they are of the same mind-set with the new one’s coming in, because they do ask you about your feminism and what that means to you… so I tend to wonder how are they are vetting people now because if your feminism does not meet their criteria you will not be employed. I am sure if I went for a job with them now I wouldn’t be employed because I believe that sex exists and their policy statements now specifically state that ‘women and men are made, not born’…I mean that was 2015 and it wasn’t well publicised that this was what they [Scottish Women’s Aid] were doing and we just trusted them, we thought they would do the right thing.

Now I have been ghosted, you know certain types of women are just unwelcome because they don’t want those types of women, if they raised the issue or wanted to have a conversation about it then they would be worried about getting complaints, and they would be right, I know this because of what happened to me. I raised specific safeguarding concerns regarding this issue a while back and cut a long story short I ended up resigning, because I didn’t want to stay quiet about the issues that concerned me, I didn’t want to play the good little girl, I wanted to be able to talk about issues and raise them. 

Scottish WA originally wasn’t a subservient little organisation acting as the mouthpiece for government to get money, it was a political organisation, we should all be angry and having discussions about things all the time! We shouldn’t be (and we were never intended to be), a mouthpiece for the government.

Shonagh: Is there a difference between England and Scotland, specifically around the Male Violence Against Women sector on this topic?

Jessie: Well, Scotland does a lot of stuff really, very well, legislation wise we tend to be ahead of the curve. For example, during COVID I noticed that on the helpline we weren’t too bad, but England was inundated and we would get women who were trying to get through to the English helpline phoning us, because we weren’t as busy and I guess that is different in Scotland. People know where to go for help, they know their local areas better and there is maybe more awareness that your local authority has a duty of care, it doesn’t mean the need isn’t there, it is just the access points are different.

(Shonagh and Jessie then went off on a long rant about direct access provision to safe accommodation and the cuts to services…)

Jessie: In terms of this topic though I don’t know if there is that much difference, I think there has maybe been a different approach, I was chatting to some of the women I do a lot of activism with, and we were saying you know England does some amazing stuff, women down in England have obviously done some incredible stuff. Woman’s Place UK, the fact they faced down the storm of violence and being threatened, I don’t know if maybe the protestors are also slightly better organised down in England…that stuff outside the labour conference where people were kicking in windows.

Me: yes, that was horrendous…

Jessie: Yea I mean do you know they are doing incredible stuff…you know Karen Ingala Smith’s work is great, to hold her own at the Women and Equalities Select committee that was incredible. And of course, For Women Scotland sprang up off the back of that Woman’s Place meeting and I think we have approached things differently, maybe a bit less in your face…

Me: I think from my perspective in Scotland you had the Women and Girls Scotland research in 2019 and that was brilliant, such a decent piece of research…

Jessie: yea that was tremendous, that was what Women’s Aid should have been doing and that was all done for free off their own backs…when I went through Scottish Women’s Aid submission to the consultation, they said they wanted impact assessments done and of course then Women and Girls Scotland evidenced that these policies did negatively impact on females. Then the same happened with the LGBT+ schools toolkit because the impact assessment showed that it would negatively impact on women and girls, so the government withdrew, but just appeared to kind of put it back anyway! It is all very odd; you do wonder who is behind these things.

We now have these groups of women that are coming together, you know with a really different age demographic, not all younger women are completely captured by this stuff, but those of us that were doing all the shit 20 years ago are now like, what the fuck has happened? You know, really? What the fuck has happened?! But we know how to do the work, we know how to do the activist work, so we are doing it! We are tired and we are fed up because we have been let down, but we are doing it!

Shonagh: It is so odd isn’t it, from my perspective in terms of the male violence against women movement there is clearly a conversation happening and I am constantly wondering why they aren’t there. I just don’t understand…you know just sitting at the table with people and having a conversation about the impact on women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by male violence, where did we get to that our movement are missing in action?

Jessie: Well exactly, but it is all because it is fashionable politics. I watch these women who are in charge of these organisations, and they come and pick up a pay packet and go back and sit on their fence. 

Shonagh: How do you think victims and survivors feel?

Jessie: I mean lots of them don’t know, they just aren’t aware, they will access a service without knowing. Then the trouble is when they are faced with a male in their spaces, they are so disadvantaged they expect to have nothing, so when they get a substandard something, they are still grateful. They would never say, why have I got a man in my woman’s group, what they will do is they will self-exclude, and they are! I have two women I work with that have already told me as rape victims they will not access the services available to them because of these policies and that is just the two I know; I have heard of more. Women like that will not cause a fuss, they will just quietly go away.

Shonagh: Yes, I have heard that too, so when the claim that this isn’t a problem is stated, we would need to ask how on earth they can possibly know that data, because they don’t know the number of women who haven’t turned up?

Jessie: Well yes, and of course some of those women will be murdered…

The services that are meant to be there for women don’t act with them in mind, and the cry for ‘oh we must be inclusive’, well you exclude the very people that you were set up to help…

ENDS

I want to say a huge thank you to Jessie for her time, her sisterhood and her bravery.

I think it is safe to say that – #WomenWontWheesht

*Not her real name

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