International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Take five: “Sometimes we have to ‘throw the forms out the window’ and ask survivors what support they need the most”

Date: Thursday, February 27, 2020

Rebecca Vagi, programme manager for the Whole Housing Approach project in London, UK. Credit: UN Women/Kotaro Nakaoka
Rebecca Vagi, programme manager for the Whole Housing Approach project in London, UK. Credit: UN Women/Kotaro Nakaoka

Rebecca Vagi is a programme manager for the Whole Housing Approach project in London, led by Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, a United Kingdom charity bringing communities together to end domestic abuse. During her visit to Albania, she met with representatives of referral mechanisms, local civil society organizations, women’s shelters and young feminists, with whom she shared the United Kingdom experience. She focused on successful approaches to reintegrate survivors into society and challenges faced in the system entrusted with protecting women. Her visit was part of the European Union–UN Women regional programme on ending violence against women in the Western Balkans and Turkey.

What are some key messages from your visit to Tirana?

The common theme among all the professionals I met during my visit is that they are passionate, dedicated and committed to working in this area and fighting this cause. However, there is a lack of financial resources, which makes it difficult for responses to be delivered and implemented effectively. There is a minimal number of shelters for women to flee to when their lives are at risk or they are frightened of their husbands or family members. In Albania I saw a lot of awareness-raising work. That is a good approach for people to report violence; however, you need to make sure services are available for the anticipated number of women who will need them.

I would encourage policymakers, funders and stakeholders to think beyond the criminal justice system and focus on how we can empower women and give them free choice and control over what happens to them. In the United Kingdom we consult with survivors to find out from them how they are experiencing the support, what means the most to them, and what would make the most impact in their lives.

Referring to your experience, what would you say are some key ingredients in having effective community responses to domestic violence?

As my background is in humanistic psychology, I believe in a person-centred approach. The core condition of this approach is to be non-judgemental, be empathic and do no harm. I worked hard over the years to understand the practical implications of this approach. I think there are sometimes tensions between what the system needs you to do – form-filling – versus what the person needs when entering a service. I have learned that you can have a different starting point based on what the person needs help with. Sometimes we have to “throw the forms out the window” and ask what support the woman needs the most. You can get better engagement and better outcomes in this way. I believe in taking a needs-led approach, where women should be in the driving seat – so let them inform you. Further advice would be to focus on resilience. Many women live with violence for many years, so it becomes important to explore how they have survived it, and what measures they took to protect themselves and their children to turn their perceived weaknesses into strength.

What inspired you to choose this area of work?

I grew up in a traditional family in Canada. My dad in particular identified with the gender norms of what it is to be a man and raised me and my brother differently to conform to that traditional view.

I noticed early on that there were differences and tried to challenge them – by playing on the boys’ baseball team, for instance. I carried this way of thinking throughout my life and career. Later on, while I was studying, I volunteered for a helpline. One of the biggest reasons people called the helpline was for domestic abuse, and there were a lot of women calling to report sexual abuse, sexual violence or rape. There was an opportunity to get involved at the local hospital emergency department – somewhere a woman could go if she was sexually assaulted or raped and asking for medical treatment. I would go as a volunteer – my role was to sit alongside them and make their experience waiting less painful.

They were made to sit out in front of other people for up to 10 hours. The police would come to the hospital and take evidence, but it was more an interrogation than information-gathering – accusing the woman of being out at a particular hour, or questioning what she was wearing or the people she was hanging around with. I feel like this is one of the biggest injustices: not only have your basic human rights been violated, and you are wearing the same clothes you were wearing the day before, but now you’re being doubly abused by the system that is there to support you. That stayed with me for a long time. I didn’t, maybe, have the words of feminism at that point, but I felt strongly aligned with trying to help and take on some of the burden of the system.

Did you encounter any common challenges with Albania, and can we overcome them?

The low status of services for women is one of the common challenges. The biggest issue in this regard is that funding of services is inadequate and does not meet the demand. In Albania it was quite striking to see how underfunded and underresourced these services are. I was impressed, however, with how much has been achieved with the limited resources available, with many organizations working on a shoestring. Governments need to see the value for money they get from women’s organizations and their work against gender-based violence – and gender equality more generally. They should put these services at the centre of their agendas, priorities and budgets, because I think this would transform our society and would eradicate some of the other systematic issues we see, especially in terms of housing and links between gender-based violence and health. In the end we would be saving money if we effectively tackle gender-based violence against women.

Another resemblance is the overreliance on the criminal justice system. Research shows that access to housing is a greater justice to women. We need to rethink what meaningful change is for women, and what is necessary to reach other stages of the hierarchy of needs.

What is a key message for yourself and for the people you met in Albania who are engaged in ending violence against women?

I think the issue is there is a risk of people burning out if they don’t get adequate resources and support. For people working in shelters, it is important to provide support to them and value their work. When working with survivors of domestic violence and abuse, you are bearing witness to trauma and pain that women have experienced. It is important to share ideas, create a safe space for employees to discuss their work, offer support, and recognize it as an important profession that is properly funded and valued.