Raising refugee women’s voices
As our Raising Refugee Women's Voices project comes to an end this month after five years of funding from Comic Relief, we are celebrating the impact of a decade of work with the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group (RWSG), a representative group of refugee and asylum seeking women who came together in 2005 to stand up and speak out for other women like themselves.
On International Women’s Day this year, an RWSG member blogged for us about the ‘unsung heroines' who have risen 'like roses out of thorny bushes’ to stand in the face of adversity and challenge the injustices faced by refugee and asylum seeking women. Her metaphor is striking. Today, I want to sing out for these heroines too.
At our conference in Glasgow last Thursday, RWSG members past and present were centre stage. Our keynote speaker was a founding member, who powerfully challenged the 90 policy makers, service providers, funders, community organisations and practitioners in the room to take heed of women's voices and to nurture and support the next generation of activists. Other current members chaired sessions, facilitated workshops and took part in panel discussions, urging us all to learn from the work of the women's project and to continue to invest in support for grassroots and representative community organisations to enable them to challenge the inequalities affecting their lives.
Being part of the women’s project over the last five years has challenged my own perceptions; changing the way I view policy making and the role of community development within it. As a team – a policy officer, two community development workers, a handful of volunteers and a group of inspirational women – we have grown together in confidence, shared experiences, knowledge and understanding, and developed a voice for change.
We have seen RWSG members bloom and thrive, overcome nerves, build confidence, and take to innumerable floors with spirit and courage to challenge those holding the reins of power. Behind the scenes, my community development colleagues – so often invisible in the process – have skilfully supported the group to engage, identify, prioritise, take action, evaluate and start all over again, never faltering. As a result, policy makers in Edinburgh, London and beyond have benefitted from the perspective of women directly affected by the decisions they make, which, as one stakeholder told us, is ‘incredibly valuable’ and gives their work ‘validity’.
And we have achieved positive change. We have seen gender firmly placed on the agenda. RWSG has ensured that women who are so often marginalised, disempowered, victimised, have instead stood up as survivors and been heard on issues like how to make the asylum process or the delivery of social security services more gender sensitive, on the provision of housing, on education, employment, healthcare, or tackling violence against women. Because of this work, from next month, women will be able to access childcare during their asylum interviews in Glasgow and asylum screening officers now routinely signpost women who disclose sexual violence to specialist support services.
But the job is not yet done. So what next for the Refugee Women's Strategy Group and our work to gender refugee protection and integration policies in Scotland and beyond? We will continue to support RWSG and advocate for the rights of refugee women and girls where we can. But, this essential work needs resourcing and the challenge now for us and others is to find new opportunities and ways of working in partnership to sustain and build on the achievements of the last five years.