Women in Hastings are being encouraged to ‘find their voices’ as part of a summer long campaign that was launched last month on International Women’s Day.
Run by Women’s Voice funding for the Finding Our Voices programme came from the Tampon Tax Community Fund, via the Sussex Community Foundation, and aims to establish a women’s peer support network across the town and its outlying rural areas.
The project will offer free creative and practical workshops, including cooking and exercise through to art and performance activities aimed at building confidence levels in those taking part activities will also include assertiveness and public speaking workshops.
It won’t just be cooking either, linked to that will be workshops on budgeting and on choosing how to eat healthily. Working with Active Hastings there will the chance for women to try sports they might not otherwise get a chance to experience and to learn about the benefits of exercise and how to get started getting fit.
Women’s Voice was established in the town back in 2006 but not formally constituted until four years later and then went on to become a registered charity in 2016. Women’s Voice was founded by Shiva Serati, who was chair for some years. Her original aim was to bring ‘women’s global issues to local attention’ by using events like International Women’s Day and also by organising workshops where women can come together to explore all aspects of their lives.
Continuing in this tradition current chair Ann Kramer says: “The organisation is run by women, for women. It aims to create a safe space where women can come together and share their experiences.
“We operate on the basis that women are discriminated against in our society and we want to reach out to women of all ages, faiths and ethnicities and find out what we can do to make it easier for women to organise and meet each other.”
Ann says the last ten years have been tough under the so-called austerity policies that central government has been pursuing: “Austerity has had a devastating effect on women,” says Ann, who points out that cuts to local council budgets have seen the closure of drop-in centres and other community facilities that many women with young families once relied on to keep in touch with the outside world.
But she is optimistic that this summer’s Finding Our Voices programme will be a significant tool in bringing women from across the town together in pursuit of some common goals.
Rossana Leal – who recently won a Woman of the Year award for her work with the local refugee buddy project – is project managing the programme and spends two days every week dedicated to work surrounding the Finding Our Voices project.
“We’ve got some great plans,” says Ann, “…we’re looking at a women’s conference where women can speak out and really find their voices in public and there are all sorts of ways that we can deliver that, we can use song and performance art,” she says.
Ann really believes in empowerment: “I know that ’empowerment’ is a very over used word but when women come together they talk about feeling powerless, that’s why finding way to empower them is so vitally important” she says.
When you listen to Ann describe the problems women face it seems that there has not been a great deal of progress towards the much vaunted goal of sexual equality: “There is still a big gender pay gap despite legislation and there is a shocking level of domestic violence against women and that transcends class and ethnicity,” she says.
Worryingly she points to cuts that mean there are now only just over 300 women’s refuges across England and Wales. This coupled to recent changes in housing benefit all conspire to make it more difficult for women to escape from violent relationships, “…women have no choice but to stay in what could be a dangerous situation,” says Ann.
So this summer’s Finding Our Voices project offers a real opportunity to reach out to women young and old. There are already strong bonds with Women’s Voice and the Girl Guide movement locally and on International Woman’s Day in March more than 200 women signed a registration form to take part in Finding Our Voices.
“Hastings is made up of many diverse communities and it can be very difficult for women who have been isolated to know where to go or what to do. And despite its appearance Hastings is a very poor town, there are a couple of the council wards among the poorest in the country,” says Ann.
She points out that organisations like Women’s Voice are in some cases filling the gaps that have been left as a result of cuts to social services provision and she says that creation of a peer support network is seen as being an innovative way to deal with issues of isolation.
To deliver all they want to achieve with the Finding Our Voices project Women’s Voice is teaming up with a number of local groups and organisations including Active Hastings, Hastings Museum and Art gallery, with local chefs too and it’s all about giving women power, confidence and to break down any sense of isolation.
When the Finding Our Voices project comes to an end in the autumn Ann is hopeful that all the work that will be done over the summer will mean that the networks they have established will be able to continue and to benefit the women of the town.
The long term goal, is of course the creations of a dedicated women’s centre in Hastings to provide a safe social space and resource for all local women.
Photographs courtesy of Alan Roberts, of Roberts Photographic.