The projects funded through The National Lottery Community Fund’s Women and Girls Initiative (WGI) support some of those hardest hit by the Covid-19 situation. They include women and girls who have suffered violence and abuse; who have been exploited, trafficked or fled war zones. Some are homeless, have mental health or drug or alcohol issues and most are facing multiple disadvantages with very few resources.
Under ‘the old normal’ projects do most of their work face-to-face: through outreach, in refuges and in women’s centres. They know that it’s relationships that make the difference: relationships with safe, reliable staff and with other women who have experienced similar struggles in their lives. So, they build trust, foster self-esteem, address practical as well as emotional needs – and when women drop by they put the kettle on.
So, what’s happened under lock-down? In the first couple of weeks many projects were pre-occupied with the immediate issues of getting their most vulnerable women safely housed and fed and their staff and volunteers set up to work from home. Since then it has been a matter of imagination and flexibility:
“We’ve had to knit our support as we’ve gone along – out of whatever we could think up or lay our hands on.”
Projects worked hard to locate women who were rough sleeping and find them somewhere safe to go and have been continuing to support them in temporary accommodation. But as the weeks have passed it has become increasingly difficult for some to stay put or tolerate the confinement and isolation and some women are back on the streets and returning to sex work. In response, projects such as Women at the Well have reactivated their outreach activities.
Some young women have also struggled staying in. Projects such as A Way Out are concerned that young women ignoring lock-down are finding themselves in even more risky situations than usual, are not easily able to access contraception and are having unprotected sex. In addition, they may feel even less able to report any sexual assault or exploitation that occurs when they are ‘breaking the rules’.
Having no choice but to ‘stay at home’ has triggered past trauma for many survivors of abuse, and WGI projects are concerned about women’s increased depression, anxiety and self-harm – as lockdown has limited women’s healthier coping strategies. Demands on services have increased as even women who were doing OK prior to Covid 19 are struggling materially and emotionally and are coming back to projects for support.
Maintaining relationships and responding flexibly has been prioritised and this has meant women and girls are often using services in a different way. Formal appointments and counselling sessions have often been replaced with shorter but more frequent check-ins and chats. In some cases, this is because women and girls don’t have the privacy needed for therapy or because dealing with immediate concerns has over-ridden addressing longer term issues. There have been some creative responses. Noa Girls has supplied some of their young women with white noise machines which increase confidentiality by making it hard for them to be overheard when they make a call; while women in contact with One Voice for Travellers have sometimes had to communicate in code – so a conversation ostensibly about sewing may actually be referring to domestic abuse:
“It’s not going well. I have dropped a lot of stitches and had to abandon it.”
Projects are finding that their staff, peer mentors and volunteers are all feeling the strain of the pandemic and the impact of lone-working from their own homes. However, a lot of WGI services are co-produced and co-delivered with women who are former or current service users and in some instances this is one of the most successful elements of current provision – and it is women with lived experience who are taking a lead in providing it virtually. Peer support groups have gone on-line at Gloucester Women’s Centre and the co-ordinator of a craft group at VIDA in Sheffield has been posting out craft projects to women who then share photos of their handiwork on a closed Facebook page.
So much of this support depends on women and girls being able to access tablets and smartphones. The poorest, including those who are homeless and many Black and ethnic minority women and girls, are amongst the least likely to have the necessary skills or access. Latin American Women’s Aid for example, is operating virtually but knows that women in the most difficult and impoverished circumstances are struggling to network and support each other without the benefit of technology.
The projects supporting women and girls through the WGI programme are pulling out all the stops to maintain support to the most vulnerable women during this Covid-19 crisis. It’s required flexibility and imagination – WGI projects have bucketloads of both, but they’ve also needed the support of funders. Many have told us of their appreciation of the flexibility of The National Lottery Community Fund and other funders in enabling them to do what they’ve needed to do. It’s one of the key lessons of Covid-19 – so much can be achieved when projects work together with funders in a spirit of partnership and trust.
Sara Scott, WGI Learning and Impact Services