While at a training course a few months back, I was fortunate enough to meet Judit, the Partnerships and Community Engagement Manager at WIRE- Women’s Information and Referral Exchange. During a bartering exercise, I offered to feature WIRE’s important work on this blog and was then introduced to Nilmini who very graciously shared her story over coffee. In the short time I’ve known Nilmini, I’ve been in awe of her fiercely passionate and incredibly warm nature. Her work is something that resonates with me personally on a number of levels so I am humbled to feature it on this blog and look forward to following her journey.
“I was seven years old when I had my first feminist thought. As the only girl in a family with three boys, I realised there were different expectations, and freedoms for girls and boys but I didn’t follow these rules. I loved climbing trees and running around in comfortable clothes, not frilly dresses. But, it wasn’t until university that I found the words that explained what living life as a woman of colour in a white society is like.
Race and gender are identity markers that make hierarchies of our importance, our worth and our freedoms.
I’ve experienced this first hand and have found gendered racialization differs depending on the political and social context. As a Sri Lankan woman traveling during the civil war, I was pulled up at every airport in Europe. Living in London and dancing the Samba, people would ask if I was Brazilian. Walking in Brixton, people would call out ‘coolie girl’ (West Indian). Traveling in Egypt, locals would ask if I was Nubian. My personal experience in the family court going through a separation was also an experience that became overruled by sexism and racism.
My take on intersectionality is to unravel how these interlocking powers force racial and gendered identities and what political ‘work’ this does.
After extensive travel and completing my PhD, I started working at WIRE. WIRE is a feminist organization that informs and assists any woman on any issue. When women access our services, they often haven’t put a name to what they’re experiencing. They haven’t called it family violence.
There are so many norms, stigmas and enforced identity categories that stop people from trusting themselves and calling out what’s happening. At WIRE, we combat this by minimising blame. We really listen- allowing each woman to tell her own story which moves them into a more empowered frame of mind. WIRE’s services are inclusive of all women from all backgrounds, including those who identify as non-binary, trans or gender-diverse.
Through our support, they come to realise they are not alone. They start to understand that women are systematically disenfranchised and that gendered norms and structures foster conditions where perpetrators can control and abuse them. Most importantly, they realise it’s not their fault.
Most women are likely to turn to somebody informal first – a friend or family member – and they will often only share part of their story. Eight out of ten women who are physically assaulted don’t seek formal help and there are many reasons why- ranging from a fear that the abuse will get worse to fear that the police and courts won’t believe the victim. It is while exiting family violence that the risk of being killed is highest,
Unfortunately, women who are going through abuse or trauma are not only having to deal with the cognitive, emotional and physical pain, but also many different agencies to seek help. This fragmented approach to getting them safe leaves them vulnerable to further abuse.
We really need some public education campaigns around this because if women are believed and supported early on, they are more likely to seek formal help.
The experience of abuse comes with a lot of degradation and de-humanisation. The best response is to ensure victims are in an uplifting environment where their bodies, hearts and minds are getting attention.
At WIRE we offer a phone support service, a walk-in information centre, job coaching, access to computers, free seminars and clinics on topics including financial and legal support. We also run sessions on family violence and a beautiful service called AMICA Club. AMICA translates to friendship and the club offers an uplifting environment for women who are isolated or at risk of homelessness.
My role is in research and education, centering around the Purse Project, which looks at women’s financial capabilities and now, intersectionality. I recently completed a research project exploring the financial impacts of family violence by listening to stories from female survivors. Financial abuse has only recently been recognised because it is often embedded with other forms of abuse, and difficult to identify by victims, and professionals. It is crucial to ask about financial safety early on and to make it safe to talk about money, because money and love form a toxic currency in family violence. Financial health has a big impact on someone’s recovery from all other forms of abuse too.
Once women find a way to talk about abuse of any kind, they can start to move towards recovery. Recovery occurs when they have access to the right assistance, at the right time, in a way that re-empowers them, validates their strengths and most importantly believes them.
My work at WIRE is closely aligned with my personal values. We put women’s stories at the heart of everything we do – women working with women for women. And as a woman of colour, my call is for women with privileges to share with those with fewer privileges – to lift as you climb. While there are other feminist principles in everything I do, the strongest form of solidarity for me is love.”
Photography: Wendy Zhao @ K&W Events