All women count, but it is a shame that we have to shout about what should be obvious. Women who seek protection in the UK often find that their voices are marginalised or absent from debates in Parliament.
At Freedom from Torture a central principle of our work is to support survivors of torture, both women and men, to creatively engage and influence public opinion and the policies that affect them.
Through survivor activism, we support those who are experts through experience and help them to develop advocacy skills through formal training, through accessing opportunities to influence others, helping to write speeches, formulating key messages and developing their identity as activists so that they are recognised in their own right.
One strand of our survivor activism is Write to Life, our creative writing and performance group who reach out to audiences through poems, films and theatre, most of which the members perform themselves. At the moment, the group is predominately made up of women and all our members work together on an equal footing.
Five members of our group recently contributed to a brilliant new play, The Claim, by sharing their experiences of their asylum interview in an audio installation which toured with the play and was available for the audience to listen to both before and after the performance. Elif, a member of our group who supported this project says, “Where I grew up, women were always submissive and silent. Men didn’t like women talking. I grew up like that, my father always liked to tell me to shush! and most of the men I met were like that too. They don’t like women thinking, nor creating, having freedom, having power... you have to keep your voice clear and loud whatever happens.”
Another strand is Survivors Speak OUT (SSO), a torture survivor-led activist network who in recent years have focused their efforts on direct advocacy with domestic and international decision makers.
After years of working with the UK Foreign Office’s global initiative to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict, the network recently succeeded in inserting into the new Principles for Global Action a commitment which calls for victims and survivors to be at the centre of initiatives to tackle stigma around sexual violence.
Further, the Principles make direct reference to engagement with survivor networks so that their voices are present in any initiative about them. But it doesn’t end there. This is just the beginning of a long road ahead and the UK government needs to practice what it preaches abroad, at home too.
That’s why survivor activists have also been calling on the UK Home Office to end inconsistency in government policy by making sure that their testimonies or expert medical evidence on sexual violence are believed rather than inappropriately questioned in line with the findings from our 2016 report Proving Torture.
The Foreign Office developed the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict which promotes good practice for documentation and states the importance of a survivor-centred approach, including a starting position of accepting survivor testimony. Clearly it is wrong that the government should expect one standard from foreign governments but disregard its own advice domestically.
No matter how much a survivor activist wants their voice to be heard, it is hard to speak about these experiences. That’s why we’ve developed a number of guiding principles that we promote across our survivor activism including the following:
Survivor activists are not merely a source of testimony. This work is not about reinforcing sensationalist headlines or horror stories. It is instead about sharing unique insights that shape solutions so that they can create change.
It is important that survivor activists understand how, when and where information about them is going to be used. That way they can assess any risk and make a meaningful decision about whether to proceed.
We work in collaboration with survivor activists, not for them.
We recognise that women’s voices are often missing from debates and always ensure that their voices are prominent.
Survivor activists we work with are resilient. They don’t need to be wrapped up in cotton wool, they just need to be treated with respect, dignity and on an equal footing. Just treat people as you would like to be treated.
And we will be supporting the 8 March lobby because women survivor activists who are asylum applicants and refugees in the UK should have a voice as they have so much to offer. If all women count then their voices need to be made more prominent in the halls of Parliament too.