Local Leaders: Rose Ssali, Support and Action Women’s Network

Rose Ssali, SAWN (Support and Action Women’s Network)

For our first ever Local Leaders column we interviewed Rose Ssali, Project Coordinator at Support and Action Women’s Network (SAWN). SAWN are based in Greater Manchester.

Why was SAWN set up and what are its aims?

SAWN was set up in 2007 to respond to the needs of Black and African women in the local area.

I set up SAWN with two friends after a migrant African woman who had a cancerous tumour died alone in her house with no support, because she was unaware of support services that she could access. SAWN supports communities and women to integrate, and not lose who they are just because they’ve moved to a different country. We enable women to be part of communities and to flourish.

We work with women because by working with women we’re working with the whole family unit.

In the beginning we started with a small project to enable women to realise their full potential. Many women haven’t had the chance to do that, and this has been made worse by migrating to a new country and being unable to speak the language. Very often there are issues with immigration, domestic violence, and a lack of community, so we’re trying to address these issues as well.

Lastly, we aim to influence policy, and get policymakers to understand the needs of African women and their families.

What projects are you currently working on?

We have multiple projects at the moment. We are running a project on FGM awareness, as well as the Money Matters project, where we train community champions who can share knowledge and information about changes to the benefits system within their communities.

We also offer debt management, and a community drop-in service that provides support with housing, domestic abuse, and other key issues.

We also run a food bank and have our own charity shop. The charity shop is part of a small project to reduce isolation, as volunteers from the local community run the charity shop.

Finally, we run a prisoner project, visiting people who are detained.

What do you think makes SAWN unique?

All of us are from a single background: SAWN is led by African women for African women, so we understand and have lived the issues that they face. It gives women courage that when they come and see us we can say, “actually, I’ve been where you’ve been” and so they know that the situation can get better.

Is there anything that you think other women’s organisations can learn from the work that you do?

Yes – when women come to us we always look at them holistically in order to meet their needs. It’s not just about providing support with the issue they’re presenting, but also with other issues. For example, if someone is sat before you saying that the issue is that they’ve struggled to integrate, there’s usually also domestic violence, linked with early marriage, and also immigration. These issues walk hand in hand, so we have to deal with all of these different issues together.

We work hard to maximise the resources that we have, and we really rely on the work of volunteers. We have relied on volunteers for the last ten years. Take the charity shop – it’s not about profit, as the women who volunteer there are asylum seekers. The shop gives them life, because they are not allowed to work, as well as a place they can come and exchange difficulties. It is more than a charity shop; it is a community meeting place.

The charity shop is expensive to maintain – it’s only open 3 days a week, staffed by volunteers – but it could be a good idea for other charities.