As part of the lead in to International Women’s Day, on Saturday 4 March, women from across Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Surrey gathered at the University of Winchester to learn from a line-up of speakers about how the lives of women and girls are being transformed locally, nationally and internationally.
The event was opened by University Vice-Chancellor Professor Joy Carter, who told delegates how the University’s precursor institution was established to train teachers to teach the poor and that Winchester was the location of the first school for poor girls, in the building that is now The Bell public house in Cross Road. Although Winchester was one of the last Universities to admit women, Professor Carter made the point that the University had now compensated and the student body was now 70% female.
Caroline Dinenage MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women, Equalities and Early Years and Hampshire MP had sent a video message to the conference attenders, and a note of the key issues of concern for government to address which arose during the conference discussion was sent to her following the event.
Chief Inspector Claire Taylor, Commander Winchester District, Hampshire Police focussed on the police response to the prevention and handling of cases of child sexual exploitation. She also spoke about how domestic abuse is dealt with by Hampshire Police and how survivors are safeguarded and protected. She explained how body worn video cameras had helped to transform how police officers collect evidence, especially when called to attend violent, emotional and sensitive domestic situations. She also described how local police monitor and provide support for young girls at high and medium risk of sexual exploitation.
Amanda Dukes DVA Co-ordinator of the You Trust organisation explained how women who have become victims of domestic abuse are supported, either in their own or a family member’s home, or found room in a refuge. She explained that the You Trust has 90 rooms across 13 refuges in the whole of Hampshire and Dorset and in West Hampshire has 25 bed spaces available in 4 refuges. 68% of the families who have come into refuge have moved on within 12 weeks. Some families take longer to move on depending their personal circumstances. The occupancy rate across the UK for refuge bed spaces are near enough full to capacity. Amanda noted that there are 24 staff in the West Hants team, of whom 9 work in outreach services. She noted how helpful the items of food and gifts donated by the Winchester Soroptimist Club had been and put out a plea for good quality second hand school uniforms, so that mothers with school age children who had been moved to refuges away from their previous address could help their youngsters ‘fit in’ more readily.
Jane Walker CEO of the Purple Communities Fund, described her own life story where as an abused child herself, she had determined to give something back to the community. She described her work as ‘giving back one of the ways we can grow as individuals’ and explained that trust is one of the first things that is lost in abusive situations. She initially worked with disadvantaged and vulnerable women in the Philippines, where their livelihood consisted of ‘picking’ from rubbish tips for reuse or sale, combined with prostitution. Her project there has helped to stablish more than 50 women in business using donated recycled items such as ring pulls and selling their handmade items in the UK and it now funds the running of schools. In addition to this she now works with other disadvantaged groups of women in the UK such as asylum seekers, prisoners and migrants, to help transform and rebuild their lives.
Pauline Monk from the Purple Teardrop campaign described how she had been deeply affected by a presentation about trafficking and with other members of Soroptimist International of Poole, determined to take action to raise awareness of the trade and to support safe houses for survivors. She explained that the Government has placed a £8m contract with the Salvation Army to provide refuges for the individuals rescued from trafficking, but that there is always a need for clothing (especially maternity wear and baby clothes, baby food and toys, as often the rescued women and grs are pregnant as a result of rape or forced prostitution and often both. Pauline made the point that 45 days in a safe house (which is what UK law provides) is often not long enough for them to make far reaching life choices and to get themselves back ‘on track’ and asked delegates to lobby Government for a review of this.
Suzie Ford of Team Rubicon UK described how Rubicon was founded in the USA in the wake of the Haiti earthquake by veteran US Marines wanting to do something substantial and concrete to help affected families. In 2015 a team of UK veterans worked alongside US colleagues to provide aid in remote regions of Nepal following the earthquake there and shortly afterwards Team Rubicon UK was formed. Now led by General Sir Nick Parker, the organisation has responded to several emergencies internationally as well as in the UK. As well as providing much needed assistance to families affected by both natural and manmade disasters, the organisation helps to transform the lives of military veterans who may be suffering with PTSD and other mental health issues as a result of their experiences.
Margaret Barnfield of SI Winchester described the work of the Winchester Club over recent years. She outlined a number of projects that local club members have developed including ‘Girls 4 Girls’ where local school students and girl guides have transformed recycled pillowcases into stylish but simple dresses to be sent to young girls in The Gambia. So popular was the project that the club turned it into an inter-schools competition to design the dresses, and winners each year were presented with their own sewing machines, and with one local school even running a fashion show to display the finished garments. Several hundred dresses have now been distributed to deserving girls in The Gambia by SI Banjul, and more are shortky to be sent.
Ruth Healey, Regional President of Soroptimist International of Southern England brought the conference to a fitting close by putting in context the work done by clubs across the region. She noted that over the past four years the Great Britain and Ireland Federation raised a total of £4m and supported and helped 144,096 women and girls. Over the past two years Southern England with less than 300 members had raised £40,000 and helped 4,400 women and girls.
A discussion around many of the topics of the day followed and as a result a detailed letter was sent to Caroline Dinenage MP, thanking her for her message to the conference and calling on her to address a number of important issues.