The London borough of Kingston has worked with local partners to set up the Kingston Women’s Hub to help women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse. Alongside crisis support, it offers a holistic range of individual and community support to help women thrive.
More than just crisis support
Like all councils, Kingston provides crisis support to women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse. The council commissions voluntary sector group Refuge to provide this with input from social services and the police.
The help is offered via a drop-in one-stop service at a local church centre, KingsGate Church. Women can access an advocate worker who can help coordinate support. This can include legal advice, temporary accommodation and one-to-one emotional and practical support. But following a review in 2019, the council decided it wanted to do more.
Kavitha Ramakrishnan, the Domestic and Sexual Violence Reduction Policy Officer for the Safer Kingston Partnership, said: “The service was set up to provide immediate support when there is a crisis, but we realised there was more that could be done to support recovery in the long-term. COVID-19 hit and that slowed things down, but over the course of the last year we have begun to expand our offer.”
The key organisation in the development of the hub has been Voices of Hope, which at the time was running women’s groups at Kingsgate Church, but these were not directly linked to the crisis service.
Working with the council, Voices of Hope drew together a partnership of local organisations and developed a range of services and a referral pathway to complement the work being done by the crisis support team. This includes peer mentoring led by women with lived experience of abuse, known as the Charis Team, and a range of community activities. These services all help women to establish healthy friendships and empower them to build their self-esteem, confidence, skills and hobbies.
There is a choir group, wellbeing sanctuary, creative writing, mindfulness exercise class, coffee morning, arts group and community gardening project. Women can also access practical support such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
To help women access the help, the council has funded a childcare service at the centre. This has been done with investment from both public health and the domestic violence budget. A safeguarding officer is also being taken on to manage the case load as well as a part-time hub manager with funding for the latter being provided by a local housing association.
“The support has been vital,” said Ms Ramakrishnan.
During the pandemic we saw a rise in referrals as families were forced to spend more time together and financial stress exacerbated problems.
“We have also set up a survivors forum to act as a sounding board and influence the development of services and policies. They have just produced a video and booklet about victim-blaming language. These developments have meant we are providing much better support to women who experience domestic abuse.”
The hub is making a difference to the lives of women
Since the Hub went live in September 2021 more than 200 women have been helped. The experience of Maisy (not her real name) is typical of the impact the service has had. She suffered verbal, physical, mental and sexual abuse in her marriage. “I lost my confidence, my identity and didn’t even know who I was anymore.”
She said the support she has received has transformed her life. “I started singing at the Sisterhood Choir - I cried many tears at the beginning of that journey. It was so lovely to feel accepted, that I mattered, that it was ok to feel like this. The women there have many different stories and other similar stories, but everyone has an understanding and there is no judgement.”
She has now gone on to become one of the peer mentors. “Having walked this incredibly hard journey for several years, I now have a passion and fire in me to want to be a voice for women who have gone through similar journeys to mine.”
Sarah Clay, the Chief Executive Officer of Voices of Hope, said: “One of the key strengths is how holistic and seamless the service is. While there are a variety of organisations involved, because it is based from one centre, the women see it as one service. That is really important for this group of women – it takes time for them to build up trust because of what they have gone through.
“We find women stay with us for quite a while. Some go on to become active contributors such as peer mentors – it is so important that women hear from those who have been through what they have so they can see there is a way out. Others stay and support the sanctuary or help run other groups.
"A key aim in everything we do is to support people to thrive – to help them at a point of need but then to be a source of hope and practical support to empower them to move forward in their lives.
“This happens by providing safe spaces where people can rebuild trust, develop meaningful relationships, regain confidence and be given opportunities to contribute, volunteer and be helped into employment as appropriate.
“To achieve that we work very closely with other services. We don’t believe in duplicating support so help the women access services, such as mental health and adult education where appropriate.”
Ambitious plans for the future
To build on what has been achieved so far, Voices of Hope and the council are now looking to do more preventative work. They are currently working on a project, the Pearl Project, which aims to raise awareness about domestic abuse through writing, photography and film.
It will involve survivors of abuse sharing their stories of survival and describing the challenges they face during and after abuse. This will culminate in a live event in November to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign.
Another project in the pipeline involves working with boys in schools. Ms Clay said: “We want to take a survivor's story to share the impact of abuse, how it affects physical and mental health, the impact on children and even society as a whole. Then we will get them thinking about violence against women and explore the role of things such as porn and video games through a series of guided conversations. Off the back of this, we will work with the boys to develop a social justice project to help empower them to become part of the solution.
"The increase of reports of domestic violence and abuse in BME and faith communities is another issue we want to tackle. It can be more hidden from view so we would like to co-develop training with community leaders to raise awareness about it.”
Kavitha Ramakrishnan, Domestic and Sexual Violence Reduction Policy Officer, Safer Kingston Partnership: [email protected]
Sarah Clay, Chief Executive Officer, Voices of Hope: [email protected]