Rizwana Saeed is a women’s rights activist and project coordinator for the Feel Good Women’s Group based in Govanhill Glasgow. Rizwana talks to Joanna Zawadzka - Campaigns and Engagement Officer at Zero Tolerance - about how she transformed her life through community activism, and her work to alleviate the struggles of Ethnic Minority women. 

I moved to Glasgow 30 years ago. It wasn’t easy to adapt to life in another country and I felt that my mental health was deteriorating. I reached out for help and someone had recommended a meet-up exercise group. At that time I was also experiencing problems at home and physical health issues, and many women in this group were also in similar situations, so we supported each other.

Being part of it helped me so much I started promoting it to all women. I knew there are a lot of women that would benefit from being a part of it and the group kept on growing. At one point we had 101 members, the youngest being 16 and the oldest 89. 

The majority of women joined the group because they were encouraged to do so by me - someone who understands them and speaks their language. The group helped us to be active, make connections, share stories and support each other. 

We offer a wide range of activities from lunch club, healthy cooking classes, meetings with speakers on different topics, self-care to fitness and swimming classes. These classes help women to improve their physical health, combat isolation, gain confidence and also help them to develop skills. 

A few women who attended the group are now in training to become swimming/fitness instructors, which is a great achievement considering that most of the women in that group had never swam in their lives! 

We had to adapt to the new situation very quickly, and move our activities online. We now have classes twice a week and online fitness sessions 3 times a week due to popular demand. We also have a WhatsApp group and regular online chats to support each other. One day at an online fitness class we were experiencing some technical difficulties. I thought there was something wrong with my computer but no, it was because 54 women joined the online fitness class! 

However, not all of our members have digital literacy skills, equipment and access to the internet, and it is very hard for them to cope. The COVID-19 crisis exacerbated already existing inequalities, leaving a lot of women with very little or no support. 

Govanhill - where we live - is one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, the communities who live here struggle with high levels of poverty and violence against women. There is a limited access to support services that are tailored to the needs of women.  

I am very worried about some women in our group; they experience high levels of domestic abuse. Their language skills are often limited, there is a lot of stigma about this issue, they don’t have any financial independence, they rely on their husbands’ visas to stay here and they can’t go back to families in their home countries. 

Women with small children are often trapped with their abusers for years, they suffer in silence, they don’t look for help. One woman who reported her abusive husband stayed with her in-laws and her life became unbearable. Another woman was locked in the house when she wanted to go for a walk. For many women their own homes turned into prisons. I have many more examples of how the COVID-19 crisis worsened the lives of women and empowered the perpetrators. 

The families I work with struggle financially a lot. Very often there is only one bread-winner in the family and because of the precarious nature of the work they do, many families have been left with nothing to live on. One woman phoned me recently to look for help, they were 4 months behind with their rent and had no money for food. Thanks to help from Govanhill Housing Association we can distribute food vouchers to many families on a regular basis, but that is not enough, other financial liabilities mount up and this situation is creating financial hardship for these families for years to come. 

We recently found out that the Red Cross offers help for women who have No Recourse To Public Funds; we have made 4 successful applications already but there is a lot of demand for help. We are a small community group and we struggle to get funding for our activities. Bigger charities who have the capacity to fundraise don’t have the links with groups like ours and the wider minority ethnic communities. This leaves us with very little capacity to help those who need it most. 

We know that women from BAME backgrounds have been the most affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Our group helps to improve health outcomes for women and combat isolation. One of our members is 85-years-old. She takes two buses to get to us and this is the only time she leaves the house every week. I don’t know how she is doing now because she doesn’t have access to the internet or a smartphone. 

Since the lockdown restrictions were lifted I organised a meeting in the local park but many of our members wouldn’t come, because their families don’t feel comfortable with them being out. 

Some women have been racially abused when they were out in public, and not only verbally: they were spat on, someone snatched their head scarf, etc. Most of these cases are not reported to the Police. It is not surprising they are worried to go out with everything that is currently happening. 

Mental health is a big issue and I know it is affecting whole families. Organisations who provide mental health support are very busy and it takes a long time to get any help, and on top of that Asian women with language barriers find it very difficult to find help in their language. So they don’t look for help at all. 

I keep in touch with a lot of members of our group over the phone and even if I can’t do much to help them with their situations, they say that having someone to talk to on the phone helps. 

We will need to try to slowly get back to normal - little by little. Helping others makes me very proud, because I know my work has a real impact on the lives of these women. When they ask me what they can do for me, I reply ‘just keep me in your prayers’. 

How can you help? 

  • If you work for an organisation that could help us - please get in touch. Our group is trying to provide some support but the range of problems we have to cope with is beyond our ability. We would like to be informed about any help that might be available to our members. 

Rizwana Saeed has been a community worker and activist for over 20 years. She began her career as a school teacher in Lahore Pakistan before taking a career break to raise a family. Her personal experience of some physical and mental well-being problems stirred up a desire to lead a more active and healthy lifestyle which is where her passion for changing women’s lives grew from and her direction changed. 

The Feel Good Women’s Group has been serving ethnic minority women in Govanhill for over 15 years now. The group is a health and well-being non-profit for women that provides fitness classes, swimming classes, a nutritional lunch club, education and awareness services and outdoor day trips. It’s a safe space for women of all ages and backgrounds to come together, socialise, exercise selfcare and work on their physical and mental fitness. Classes and activities are held on a weekly basis, mostly in the local community centre.

Our blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of all participating organisations/projects, and all language used is the author's own. Bloggers have received some editorial support from the group, and may have received a fee from the Women's Resource Centre’s social action project budget.