Saturday, March 8 was International Women’s Day, which recognises the achievements of women and continues to campaign for women’s equality.
But in Brighton and Hove it was also a special occasion for the Brighton Women’s Centre, which is celebrates its 40th birthday at the Brighton Dome.
Katy Rice reports.
“I can honestly say this place has saved my life.”
“It’s the only safe space for me to think, feel and speak ‘me’.”
These short, simple comments from some of the tens of thousands of women whose lives have been transformed by the support and help they received at Brighton Women’s Centre speak volumes.
“I felt supported and never judged” is another telling testimony, one of many treasured by the volunteers and staff who run the centre at its two sites in KempTown and close to St Peter’s Church in Brighton.
“Every day when I wake up I can’t believe my luck that I have got a job that is so satisfying and fulfilling,”
said Lisa Dando, the centre’s director.“ I feel humbled and privileged when women say things like they feel it has saved their lives, that the centre has had such an impact on women in the city that it can change their lives.”
Today the centre is 40 years old and the celebrations kicked off yesterday with a fundraising extravaganza at the Sallis Benney Theatre in Brighton and continue today with a special day at the Brighton Dome featuring entertainment, workshops, stalls and a panel discussion on sexism with Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas and No More Page 3 campaigner Lucy Holmes.
Ms Dando said: "It is a huge credit to the work of many women across the city that the centre is able to mark 40 years of supporting and empowering women with vulnerabilities and multiple complex needs.
"As we see the disproportionate impact of the austerity measures on women it is more important than ever that the centre continues to survive and thrive to address these ongoing and pervasive inequalities."
Brighton Women’s Centre is the only holistic women-centred organisation in Brighton and Hove and today has 18 employed staff and an army of around 40 volunteers.
Its mission statement proclaims its aim to “empower women and children to improve their life chances and lead independent lives by reducing inequalities through the provision of holistic and integrated services” and to do this it has developed into a hub for a series of services ranging from counselling to a drop-in service offering emotional support, from the Inspire project for women offenders to its partnerships with a variety of other women’s services.
And not only does it offer a safe haven for vulnerable women in need it has also inspired the development of services for women such as the Women’s Refuge Project, now RISE, and the women-only drugs service Brighton Oasis Project.
Ms Dando explained: “In order to tackle the persistent inequalities affecting families living in disadvantage we need to reduce inequalities for women. We’re committed to breaking the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage.”
The centre has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1974 when a group of women, determined in the era of Women’s Lib to raise consciousness of the needs of women, started to hold informal meetings in their homes around the city.
It remained homeless for years but by the 1980s its founders, including a woman called Shirley West, who would later become the centre’s president, wanted their work to be recognised and a contingent of women approached the then Brighton Borough Council and secured its first ever grant, enabling it to obtain a lease on premises in Marlborough Place.
While it was an important step the new centre was limited in what it could offer because of a lack of space and following protracted negotiations moved into its second home, Lettice House, just in time to host Brighton’s first International Women’s Day in 1988.
The women-only space was decorated by the volunteers themselves with the furnishings donated – “which is why the carpet is so hideous”, as they described it at the time – and housed drop-in and counselling services, information, pregnancy testing and a kitchen.
Alison Brook, one of its volunteers at the time, described it as “a place where women can meet other women in a safe environment, chat and relax”. Inquiries came in at a rate of up to 50 a week and it was at this time that the centre began to be seen as a channel to what is now RISE.
Volunteers, inspired by the centre’s mission, continued to offer their services, including fundraising in their own time. In 1994 one volunteer called Tanya said: “To some women this centre is a lifesaver.
It’s terrible that we have to do daft things like dress as rabbits and go out with collecting tins to raise enough serious money to keep it going.”
Achieving charitable status in 1991 allowed it to expand its services, including the creche ToyBox, its opening hours and its projects in the community on issues such as drugs and women offenders.
And the centre wasn’t afraid to court controversy: in 1990 it said an underwear advert for Hennes “exploits women and pokes fun at them”; in 1991 it described the Sport and Sunday Sport newspapers as “thinly veiled repugnant pornography” and demanded they be kept out of sight of children; in the same year its magazine ran an article claiming any unemployed woman with sense will seriously consider “going on the game” as a means of earning additional income; and in 1994 it compared the Government of the day to the British National Party for its “fascist” stance on oneparent families.
Struggle for funding
The centre’s fortunes continued to rise – a Lottery grant in 1996 funded its first paid employee – and fall – it struggled for funding after losing its council grant in 2001 – but has thrived since its fundraising committee secured the funding for a centre manager in 2001 and it moved to its current bigger premises in 2006.
“In the last six years there has been greater recognition of the centre in terms of appreciation and funding,” said Rachel Beck, the centre’s trustee and treasurer.
“That has done something for our own self-respect. We are really pleased that it exists as a partnership of resources for women, but at the same time knowing that it is there in recognition of the need and as a conduit to meeting a need that doesn’t seem to get any smaller.”
In April the centre plans to develop and expand its Inspire project for women offenders into East and West Sussex, including Eastbourne, Hastings, Worthing and Crawley.
“It’s very exciting,” said Ms Dando. “The centre will go from strength to strength and feeling the support that has come out for us for our 40th birthday has been fantastic.”
The sexual abuse victim
X, who had a severe hearing disability, was 33 and a regular user of the centre’s Drop-in when she referred herself for counselling.
At the age of five X was placed in a foster family because her mother was addicted to heroin and working as a prostitute.
In this new family she was then a victim of sexual abuse for many years until her foster father was imprisoned for his crimes when she was 16.
As an adult X had difficulties around trust, felt a great deal of anxiety and guilt and struggled to create healthy relationships. However, she felt determined to make some changes in her life.
She made tremendous strides during the period of counselling: her anxiety lessened, she was able to spend periods of time alone and she was able to recognise some unhealthy patterns of relating with her current partner.
Her confidence and self-esteem rose enormously and at the end of the sessions she was about to begin a training course in a local mental health charity.
X used the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle to describe her counselling experience: “It enabled me to find the corners and then the sides. I now have a container for filling in the middle.”
The criminal offender
Mother-of-three Y was introduced to the Inspire Project at Brighton Women’s Centre at a very rocky time in her life.
She committed a crime, went to court and was sentenced.
Probation Services recommended she serve her community order with the support of Inspire and she then “recognised something very important about myself and in a way I felt for a while as if I had committed another crime: the crime of personal ignorance to my own needs”.
A single mother for 20 years, Y explained: “Throughout my life I have seen and experienced a lot of social exclusion and in a strange way became the sort of person who remains strong by ignoring all of my own personal tragedy and stress and just got on with it, constantly fighting my corner.”
After her first meeting with her caseworker she came away in shock, because she was being heard and for the first time she was not left on her own to deal with her problems. She has now undergone counselling and no longer feels alone. She said: “I hated where I was and Inspire have helped me so much with that, by allowing me to mend and grow.”