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‘The best way to tackle domestic abuse is with services by women, for women’

Grassroots charity Rise recently lost out on a Brighton and Hove council contract to run vital women’s services, having operated in the city for 26 years. The Star prints here a transcript of the charity’s CEO, JO GOUGH, in conversation about this devastating blow for the community

TELL us about the history of Rise and the work it does for women.

We say that Rise has been around for 26 years but it’s actually been around for longer than that.

It started out as a more informal organisation, a women-led organisation, grassroots, and we grew out of our women’s centre in Brighton and Hove. That was our home.

It was essentially a couple of women who felt really strongly that domestic violence was an issue that just wasn’t being well supported in the city and they borrowed a space and borrowed a phone and did what they could.

We’ve also delivered across Sussex — in West Sussex previously and in East Sussex in our time early on we developed the helpline and then we set up a refuge. Those were the first two services that we developed.

We have always been women-led and we’ve always had a women-only board.

Out of the work we did with the refuge, not long after that, we also started to deliver a second refuge, in West Sussex — one of our sister organisations took over that.

So we had two refuges for a while and a helpline, then we started to grow outreach services — children and families services and at one point we had people across West Sussex and Brighton and Hove doing work in schools in local community centres reaching a whole range of children and families.

What we began to realise, like many of the domestic abuse sector organisations, is that we were fairly inward-looking … but we realised that some of the work we needed to do was in the community and we needed to have community involvement and community reach and we needed people to understand that [domestic violence] is everybody’s business.

So we started to develop a new branding and a new way of being as an organisation and it was back in 2007 that we became Rise.

We continued to develop our services and about 14 years ago we set up one of the first LGBT services in the country.

And along the way while we were doing all this, grassroots up, we started to get funding from the statutory sector, from the council, and there was bits of money here and there and grants “you can have a little bit more for this and a little bit more for that” and it slowly snowballed into a bigger service mainly very short term —  a year, six months’ funding.

So that was then and then we‚ again like other domestic violence services — things started to get a bit more formal, a bit more managerial, a bit more risk-focused. It’s all about risk, it’s all about safety, it’s all about stopping people being killed. Stopping women and children being killed — and in our case LGBT people.

So we went through that whole process and after several years of doing that work we realised that that had pulled us away from who we were as an organisation and it had pulled us away from the focus of what organisations like Rise are here to do — the recovery, the therapy.

And over the last couple of years we’ve reframed our thinking and tried to focus very much on being the Rise we were.

Tell us a little bit about what’s happened recently with the retendering of services by the council.

It was an absolute blow [to have lost the contract bid] but it wasn’t a shock. I think we’ve been expecting something like this to happen for a good six or seven years. 

The five separate lots were the Brighton and Hove community services, which is the IDVA [independent domestic abuse adviser] service.

The second lot was pretty much the same but in East Sussex; and the third lot was the rape and sexual violence service, and that was across the whole of Sussex, the fourth was the stalking and harassment service and the fifth was the Brighton and Hove refuge.

So we bid for three of those lots — lot 1, 2 and 5 — and we were unsuccessful with all of those. 

The procurement process is competitive, it is confidential — it’s a bit like when Richard Branson went for the Virgin trains. All of those things apply exactly the same.

So a small grassroots-grown charity has to follow the same legal competitive process that Richard Branson does, just to put it in context.

The advert went out across Europe and in my experience you’re not allowed to know who competes with you, you’re not allowed to share the information.

So that in itself is just really daunting. The amount of time that you’re allowed to give in a formal competitive process is 30 days — 30 actual days, not working days — and that’s what we got, we got 30 days to complete the process and we had to submit bids to three lots and we don’t have specialist tendering services, we don’t have specialist legal advice. We’ve got a brilliant board and we’ve got legal people on our board but it’s not paid legal advice.

[After hearing in January that Rise’s bid had not been successful] eventually, after a period of time, we went public with a very carefully worded statement and it was at that point, on February 12, that it was picked up by our survivors and literally within 24 hours there was a petition online.

I remember I was watching the activity on Twitter over the weekend and they knew how many signatures they would need to be heard at the council and I kept saying to my family “Oh, they’ve got 500, oh, they’ve got 1,000” — and it was going up and up and up over the weekend and by the end of the weekend they’d absolutely smashed the number they needed to be heard at the council. It’s now at 30,000 signatures, which is absolutely amazing. 

On top of that, reading some of the things that people are saying, people who’ve used our services, people who’ve had friends and family that have used our services, people that have been involved in the history — it’s just been hugely heartening to see that.

Meanwhile we are transitioning our services to the new providers while we’re also trying to plan for the future Rise, trying to secure funding, trying to retain staff that might be lost due to this process. 

Some of them are core central staff because the projects help pay for things like HR and some of them are front-line workers that just wouldn’t be eligible for the Tupe process, so we’re working really hard on that, whilst also continuing to have conversations with the local authority and the commissioners around new funding opportunities.

I’ve got brilliant, brilliant people in my staff team, not one of them would we want to let go and we’re hugely proud of their work and we know they’ll continue to do it, those of them that Tupe over to the new services. 

But we also know that some of those are already going elsewhere because they’re choosing not to. They don’t want to work in a non-specialist organisation, they want to work in a specialist sector organisation.

Voice and leadership is one of our strategic aims — we’re community focused. We’re not just about “let’s do this high-level risk work.” It’s not about that — it’s much bigger than that, it’s family-wide, it’s community-wide, it’s everybody’s business, it’s on everybody’s street, it’s in everybody’s neighbourhood and we all have to tackle it, and the best way to tackle it is by women, for women.

 

What can we do? How can we help Rise and other specialist services?

 

If you can please donate and help us do our work. We have benefited from generous donations over the last year or so from people who believe in us and what we do. We would welcome anybody who wishes to do that.

On a bigger-picture level, at the national level, there has been a splitting of strategy … and one of the biggest things, for Rise and for the whole of the sector, is domestic violence has to be seen as part of the VAWG agenda, it cannot be fragmented. 

We now have, in our area, a fragmented approach to the work and it cannot be fragmented — the impact of domestic violence in the context of migrant women, in the context of so-called honour-based violence, sexual violence, in the context of domestic violence — you can’t separate them. Street-based harassment, you can’t separate these things and it will not make sense if it is separated and it will leave people in danger.

Rise’s mission is freedom from domestic abuse, it’s liberation, it’s freedom — that’s what we’re here to do and sometimes people say to me, “Well, that’s a big ask. How are you going to achieve that?”

Well, there’s no point in existing unless we want that to be achieved and we have to be able to influence at a national level, change government thinking and policy and filter that down at a local level.

As we come out of lockdown we need to be loud about this. Companies are winning contracts to support women who’ve experienced violence and we’re not recognising the importance of those women-only services and women-led services — so it’s time to be loud and to shout and to make sure people realise that these are life-saving and life-enhancing services by women with the skills and knowledge to deliver that care.

I’ve spent many an International Women’s Day sending my love to my women friends and suggesting books to read from women authors and encouraging people to celebrate women in their lives and in politics and this year I didn’t do that — because I’m quite angry, I’m quite annoyed, I’m fed up really of the platitudes. International Women’s Day was born out protest and we have got a lot to protest for. 

This is an edited transcript of a podcast interview conducted by Sally Jackson of women-led volunteer organisation FiLiA. You can listen to the full interview at www.filia.org.uk.

For more information about Rise and how you can support it visit www.riseuk.org.uk.

Sign the petition to require local authorities to fund specific domestic abuse services for women at petition.parliament.uk/petitions/577718.

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