Talking to a member of staff this week who runs a group for women required to attend for a court order. She had been doing some work about victims and encouraging them to consider the impact their behaviour had on those around them.
Experiences in the group were surprising, even to us veterans of working with groups. Nearly said ‘groups like this’ but in all honesty no two are ever the same.
The things that stopped us short:
Of the group of 8, 7 had never been out of the country, only 1 had been on an aeroplane.
Half of them had been no further than Manchester and had never been to London.
1 had never seen the sea.
3 of them would be classed as illiterate, unable to read or write beyond a very basic recognition of their names and addresses.
All had been a victim of some sort of trauma or abuse, ranging from ‘casual’ neglect by parents to being imprisoned and repeatedly sexually abused by a partner. 7 of the 8 had children, though 3 did not have custody.
Hardly surprising then that attitudes in the group were a little black and white. No one knew what political party was in power ( I will ignore the ‘does anyone?’ )
Conservative/Labour was only understood as ‘The Men’s Club- where my dad used to go and drink’
Police were universally hated.
Polish people were ‘here for our jobs’ – not said with any particular intended malice, just as a matter of fact, as were other statements of casual racism handed on from family and friends as beliefs not to be challenged.
I could go on.
Crispin Blunt MP, former Justice Minister came round one of our centres about 18months ago. Unsurprisingly, I do not share his political viewpoint. However, he sat with 2 women we were working with at the time. One had been released from hospital the night before after an umpteenth suicide attempt , having tried to slit her throat. She was bandaged up but surprisingly chirpy. She had an encyclopaedia of mental health diagnoses and seemed about 12 years old. The other was an alcoholic of longstanding, drinking again as her drug dealing neighbours tormented her day and night.
Mr Blunt, to his credit, spent a long time talking to them. He was visibly taken aback by their lives and the gulf between his frame of reference and theirs.
It was almost as difficult for him to imagine their lives, their way of thinking and surviving, as it was for the women in the group to step outside themselves and see that broad brush strokes are dehumanising and that everyone has a story that is valid.
Both the women that he spoke to are now in HMP Styal. One breached her order because she wanted to feel safe from persecution, and to her prison is a safe place. The other, well , it’s a long and tragic story.
We don’t know what the future holds for Women’s Community Projects. We can evidence that we change the lives of many, others we fail to reach.
Rehabilitation is transforming indeed. I worry that the time it takes to walk alongside a woman, understand her story and support her to reach for a better life for herself, her family and her community will be seen as too expensive, too ‘soft’ , too easy to get rid of.
Now that thinking is black and white.