The Belfast group of feminist leaders is sharing their experience of the COVID-19. Maybe you read this and become inspired, fired up, maybe it makes you feel less alone or maybe it makes you reach out and offer your support to a woman in your life.

Miriam

Emma

Marina

Bernie and Louise

Pascale

Vanessa

Miriam

We are all in this together. One of the most ironic slogans of our recent times, resurfaced during the pandemic by a multinational corporation that shall remain unnamed, whose questionable practices shall not be mentioned.

We are all in this together! The women who’ve been trapped in abusive relationships and the men who used the state-imposed lockdown to isolate and control them. The mothers who lost contact with their children and the fathers who refused to return them in order to “keep them safe” from the virus. Same old behaviours, new excuses.

We’re all in this together! The women who’ve been standing on street corners and the men who’ve flocked to my hometown to pay for ‘their services’. I guess I must have missed the small print that exploiting women is in fact essential travel.

We’re all in this together! The mums who’ve found a corner in their cluttered homes and their cluttered minds to provide support women and children fleeing abuse and violence whilst also looking after their own children and families. The nurses, the carers, the cleaners, the teachers, the key workers – the women (and men!) who run this country – and the men who rule this country.

It's not all bad news though. During the pandemic, the government allowed migrants with no recourse to public funds to be provided with assistance to put a roof over their heads in case they need to self-isolate. Restrictions were lifted so that they do not end up homeless; so that they can protect us from spreading the virus. But, if they can protect us from the coronavirus pandemic, why can’t we protect them from the pandemic that is violence against women and girls? A pandemic that claims the lives of two women a week in the UK alone and leaves thousands more in A&E departments, shelters and refuges, police stations, GP surgeries, psychiatric hospitals, homeless hostels and prisons; that leaves women with no recourse to public funds with the impossible decision of having to choose between destitution and unbearable abuse. 

We are not in it together because we never were.

Black and minoritised women have always had to content with men’s violence and the violence of the state that has targeted them with the hostile immigration environment, discrimination, Windrush, Brexit, the list goes on. More importantly the continuous de-investment in specialist BAME services has left them with very few places for them to turn to for safety, advocacy and support[1]

We are not all in it together because we never were. The pandemic has simply made existing inequalities more visible. When the ship is sailing smoothly, it doesn’t much matter if you are in the lower decks or the best cabin but when the ship is going down you can’t afford to be left behind because otherwise you’ll drown. And as things go back to normal, many people will not want to return to the old normal. I have a bookmark from the Women and Girls Network that asks: “Why should our rage be tidy?” and reminds me that it is ok to be angry in the face of violence and injustice. It’s ok not to want to go back to normal; to demand change.

Emma

For some of us our work was hit harder than ever from the outbreak of Covid-19 and often in unexpected ways. The initial impact on Alliance for Choice was a block to the abortion medicines, a block to being able to travel to England to access abortion care as thousands were used to doing every year and a block to telemedicine which would have enabled 100s more to get access without travel to a hospital or clinic or doctor at the height of a pandemic. The law was decriminalised but until 1st April we had no regulations laid down for services to begin, it was not illegal to provide and no longer could any person ordering pills online be arrested but medical staff had no clinical guidelines, on top of no training, and as far as we could tell absolutely no engagement with the department of health in NI. Even without Covid-19 we knew the Department of Health (DoH) were going to be difficult but now the health crisis gave them a further excuse not to act. In the end we had to threaten to become the providers of abortions ourselves (we were in truth already doing that service for many who couldn’t travel pre-pandemic.) We were so scared that we would face women in desperation and not be able to help. In the end our regulations got passed, we managed to get help for everyone who contacted us (though some holding them through weeks of needless delays and worry) and eventually some very brave medics and health trust personnel pushed through services despite the blockages caused by the department of health. 

Even without Covid-19 we knew the Department of Health (DoH) were going to be difficult but now the health crisis gave them a further excuse not to act

On a personal note, I am a single working parent who suddenly had no childcare, I was working all hours and answering calls from desperate women from home with my 3-year-old, getting so frustrated at his lack of
social interaction and play with anyone but me. Also, even though I had been trying to get back into university after a long post pregnancy hiatus, by March the 6-month long process had JUST come to a head and I was finally back to finish my PhD… except I suddenly couldn’t access the library, the very thing I had been hoping to get me back on track to finish. I cancelled a number of trips to see my partner in London (including her 40th Birthday celebration) and cancelled our much looked forward to holiday to Portugal.

On top of which I was terrified for my mum and my sister working in frontline medical services at a GP city centre office and a Covid Step-down clinic, really frightened for them as we all watched the footage from Italy where everything just floored them and the health services. It was so hard no longer seeing my parents and we did our 1st attempt at a family video get together when we did Mother’s day by Skype. One of my best friends lives round the corner- I moved to Belfast to be closer to my support network at Xmas, so we settled on daily yoga sessions with each other on Skype and had a catch up before or after. The artist collective I’m in, Array Studios Collective, had a few groups zooms and a few Friday night’s dress-up and sing a long on zoom, and it was really key to keeping our spirits up in the first month whilst we all adjusted to the new normal.


Array representing during Covid, by Array

Once we all settled into more of a pattern I got braver at talking Luca out during the day for walks in the park, being gentle with myself regarding my PhD by focusing on reading (in the end I managed to get a whole chapter done). I had also begun some Abolition reading groups in early March with reclaim the Agenda and the appetite for these and for the Alliance for Choice online Happy Activist and Pills training workshops actually increased in interest during covid. Something else which seemed to help was volunteering for the The 343 /Framewerk Soup kitchen on Thursdays, doing deliveries around Belfast and beyond!

What also really helped was knowing that I was relatively lucky, no one I loved died from covid, my family were all coping, my friends took turns to be there for each other when one of us had a bad day. My sleep is still now, off the wall, but listening to calm podcasts like Blindboy, Renee Brown and Dear Jessamyn all soothed me at night. Making sure I had regular scheduled online dates with my partner in London, even though at first we just had no idea when we would be able to see each other again, helped ease that heartache a little. Alliance for Choice secured some emergency funding for our new exciting Doula project https://www.luchtcabhrach.com/ .

We are all easing out of the most extreme measures gently in our own ways, I have been able to have some childcare again and see friends in real life, my son has seen other children and I finally was able to have my partner stay for a couple of weeks. My mum and my sister are no longer having such a stressful time on the frontlines and women and pregnant people are now in a much better place in terms of accessing abortion services, even without any further commissioning as of yet, from the department of health. With noises of steroids easing symptoms and potential vaccines on the horizon I think for now if we can all mask up and hold tight, we will be able to make it safely through the other side.

Marina 

Anger and Hope in the times of COVID

I see a society that has woken up to domestic violence and it doesn’t like what it sees

We live in a society rife in inequality, I’m painfully aware of this.  I work in a sector that witnesses and addresses (as best we can) violence against women and girls facing disadvantage.  I know many women in my family and circle of friends who have been affected by male violence, all to a different degree, including myself. 

During COVID-19 I read two books written by very different female authors, Isabel Allende and Elena Ferrante, both following female protagonists through their lives and that of their families in the 1910s and 1950s. In both, gender violence was very present, it seems to be part and parcel of women’s lives, almost unavoidable.  I wonder how many women haven’t been affected in one way or another by male violence. 

COVID-19 seemed to exacerbate this feeling of injustice, imbalance, inequality and anger that I feel

The Home offices says that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse and 1 in 5 sexual assault during their lifetime in the UK[i].  This is a scandal in 2020.  Judging by my experience, this violence which was around for my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and me is likely to affect my daughters who are just teenagers.  I’m angry, in fact I’m furious that my children will have to face this, and that they will spend their formative years feeling wary and vulnerable, and if they become one of the 1 in 4 or 1 in 5, face a lifetime getting over their experience. 

COVID-19 seemed to exacerbate this feeling of injustice, imbalance, inequality and anger that I feel.  Women during lockdown have been bearing the brunt of extra childcare and housework, they were more likely to lose their jobs, there has been a huge increase in violence against women (globally it is estimated that every three months of lockdown will result in 15 million extra cases of sexual and gender-based violence[2]), and a lack of representation of women in the political stage tackling the pandemic in the UK. [ii] Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority women are overrepresented in the health force and they suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.    In addition to all of the above, women at the sharpest end of inequality and their children have had to resort to food parcels to survive through this pandemic. 

How long until we get equal pay; how long until we can walk down the street at night with no fear; how long until the female body stops being objectified through porn and bodily assault; until we don’t fear those who we love?

This anger, almost rage that I feel is maybe not such a bad thing after all.  It is a very natural response to the unfairness of the situation.  I have tried to manage by doing something, however big or small I could.  Sometimes it has been volunteering, sometimes it has been listening to a woman and just saying you are not alone, sometimes it has been coaching and joining a feminist group.

But not all is anger.  I see more women bringing the female experience to the foreground through books, films, TV series and action groups. I see the Domestic Abuse Bill banning the ‘rough sex defence’ that perpetrators use to blame survivors.  I see a society that has woken up to domestic violence and it doesn’t like what it sees.  I see communities developing meals on wheels for those who are hungry, I see women survivors supporting other women making hope visible as if you could almost touch it.  I see a women’s sector that continues to address women’s needs with relentless doggedness and amplifying women’s voices.

I see hope.

Bernie and Louise

Hello, my name is Bernie Donaghy, Operations Manager at Footprints Women’s Centre and my name is Louise Harbinson, Community Food and Health Promotion Coordinator.  We would like to give you an overview of our work over the past months since the onslaught of Covid-19 and its impact on us all. 

Footprints and other Women’s centres in Northern Ireland were ideally situated within communities most in need and were able to respond immediately to the COVID 19 crisis

Footprints Women's Centre has provided services for women and children within the Colin area since 1991. Located in an area of multiple disadvantage and managed by a Voluntary Board of Directors the Centre has been acknowledged as a valuable asset within the community and has developed a diverse range of services in response to identified needs. These include Children's services, Family Support Services, Women's Support, Crisis Interventions and Referral, Women's Empowerment Programme, Social Supermarket, Training and Education, Diet, Nutritional Health and Physical Activity Programmes, Sustainable Living Project and Community Development.

What we know (various sources): 

  • It is widely acknowledged that the impact of COVID 19 has disproportionately affected women and children. A report published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) points out that disease outbreaks affect women and men differently, and pandemics make existing inequalities for women and girls worse.
  • With women representing 70 percent of the health and social sector workforce globally, special attention should be given to how their work environment may expose them to discrimination, as well as their sexual and reproductive health and psychosocial needs as frontline health workers.
  • In times of crisis, women and girls may be at higher risk of intimate partner violence and other forms of domestic violence due to increased tensions in the household.
  • Sexual and reproductive health and rights is a significant public health issue that requires high attention during pandemics. Safe pregnancies and childbirth depend on functioning health systems and strict adherence to infection prevention.
  • “Clearly, we must fight the virus for all of humanity, with a focus on people, especially the most affected: women, older persons, youth, low-wage workers, small and medium enterprises, the informal sector and vulnerable groups,” Secretary-General António Guterres has stressed throughout the pandemic.
  • Leaders must also find a way to include women in response and recovery decision-making. Whether at the local or national level, bringing the voices of women into decision-making will lead to better outcomes.

Footprints and other Women’s centres in Northern Ireland were ideally situated within communities most in need and were able to respond immediately to the COVID 19 crisis. Staff in Footprints immediately put into operation plans to maintain essential services and to keep the centre 'open' even if not physically there. The Senior Management team and key staff used laptops linked to Footprints server to access and update information. We responded to emails through remote access and a call diversion system to ensure phones were answered and requests for support during office hours Mon - Fri 9am-5pm. We continued to take referrals for Domestic violence incidents from the PSNI and women who contacted us.

Our staff continued communication and engagement to women and families providing support to women and children remotely through, telephone, text messages and social media posts. Over 300 of our members were contacted to provide a check in and assess their needs. We developed activity packs, play resources which were delivered to family’s homes along with food support packs. We delivered live streamed activities and story time sessions, and other activities that parents and children could follow along in own home including behaviour management, support and advice re anxiety plus educational toys to support learning outcomes for children.

Footprints Support continue to work with our parents and young girls through Zoom or via telephone or online on particular themes. Parents linked in to ask questions or post, and we share links and resources on a daily basis which had a gendered focus and provide information and awareness on the additional burdens that women had to deal with including rising levels of domestic violence, food poverty, home schooling and dependent care of both young children and/or elderly dependents.

Footprints social supermarket continues to operate and maintain access to food support to high need families. Food deliveries were and are made on a weekly basis to 200 adults and children identified as the most vulnerable families signed up to our membership. Each family will receive 3 packs, one of ambient good and the other with milk, butter, yoghurts, fresh meats and bread. Families with small children will also receive nappies and wipes.

The food was delivered to the family’s homes by staff who were vetted and who the families knew and had a relationship with.  This enabled our member to feel safe, secure, have a friendly face and voice but most importantly it allowed them to feel hope and that someone was there or at least a telephone call away. We provided our staff with refreshments each day and encouraged them to avail of the online training for staff which included Covid training, health and well-being programmes, psychological first aid to name a few.

We opened our childcare again in June to vulnerable children under a Temporary Covid-19 Certificate for 25% of Footprints registration.  In order to receive this certificate Footpirnts had to follow the strict guidelines of the Public Health Agency, Social Services and Government.  As Government changed their restrictions on Lockdown this impacted on our Daycare and a further Temporary Certificate was applied for to increase the number of children we could enable to avail of Footprints Daycare which is currently operating under guidance if Daycare pods of 12 children, this is working quite well but has its limitations. 

As part of our ongoing collaborative working partnerships and intersectional working Footprints held and attended regular zoom meetings with a range of different Community, Voluntary and Statutory organisations and our CEO met weekly with other local leaders in assessing local need and discuss local response to the pandemic.

Footprints physically opened our doors this week, 27th July 2020, with a strict Risk Assessment and Government guidance on Covid to our members for health, nutrition, art therapy, gardening classes and lunch in our first steps to get our women physically back in to the centre.

  

Footprints continue to work with women and children and setting up projects to provide immediate response to need and lobbying with other women centre for the additional support and awareness of the additional impact on women which will have a significant effect on them for the significant future.

Pascale

My name is Pascale and I am the mother of Khem, 7 who, like many children in the world during the pandemic, stopped going to school from mid-March until the end of the academic year at the end of July. I work as a teaching assistant in an independent, specialist school for children with additional emotional needs. I am a key worker. Lockdown was challenging but also made me realise how much I love my job and how grateful I am for it. I refused to go onto total lockdown yet remained safe and every two days, my son and I would be in contact with nature: woodlands in our area Croydon. Being in nature has helped us to have another perspective of lockdown. We kept on top of our mental health, ate a lot more fruits and vegetables from local farmers and lived intuitively (we were listening to our bodies not the clock). During the pandemic, I worked on site one week and two consecutive weeks remotely from home doing zoom lessons with my year 6 students. The head teacher put this system in place to limit the risks of covid spread. When I was at work, Khem would spend time at his father, we are separated and he lives around 20 minutes drive from where I live.

Covid-19 pandemic made me realise the importance of a support system, a community system to sustain people.

We cannot face and succeed in time of crisis without helping each other, genuinely caring for one another and supporting community projects. In time of doubt, we become our own leaders and we follow our hearts, don’t we? 

While Earth is unsettling,

And fainting,

The show is showing

And the light, coming.

While I caress you, Earth,

Under my foot sole resides my Heart.

I am attentive,

To Earth calling,

I am sensitive,

To the renewing.

Vanessa

I call it a blessing!

 

For a minute I thought I was going to be stuck in Belfast after the amazing opportunity with

WRC - Feminist Leadership Training.

I made a decision to not panic and remember this too shall pass!

I made it home!                       

 

Suddenly

 

The shopping shelves were empty and the viral videos started going around

People fighting over toilet roll!

I didn’t get it!

But I prayed that this too shall pass!

 

Slowly anxiety started to creep in!

Schools were closing!

But I believed that this would pass!

Well it worked out for me as my child was struggling with it!

 

Mums On a Mission had to sit back and wait,

something I didn’t even know was possible.

I realised that actually we can make this work!

We can use the little skills and resources we have to make something great happen.

We got busy with soil and the whatever seeds we already had!

 

Guess what!

The wait was worth it

We managed to get some food parcels, we managed to help some families with laptops to help

the children with their schooling!

We managed to start outdoor activities 3 months later, all with caution and awareness!

 

4 months into this & my home looks really green and fresh after all, things are falling into place.

What I learnt

The Lord’s prayer by heart!

To stay grateful through every season

The fear of the unknown is a real joy killer but

My faith is bigger than that

I passed that faith on to the people who live with me and that’s a blessing!

 


Notes and References 

[1] More information on the dual pandemic for BAME women – https://www.imkaan.org.uk/covid19-position-paper

[2] UNFPA, New UNFPA projections predict calamitous impact on women’s health as COVID-19 pandemic continues, 28 April 2020 https://www.unfpa.org/press/new-unfpa-projections-predict-calamitous-impact-womens-health-covid-19-pandemic-continues

[i] https://homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2019/03/07/violence-against-women-and-girls-and-male-position-factsheets/

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/29/covid-19-crisis-could-set-women-back-decades-experts-fear

 


Thank you to the Belfast cohort of Feminist Leaders for sharing your experience and perspectives on the COVID-19 Outbreak!