“No one listens to a woman,” said Zarina when she approached the British Red Cross last year. Sobering words to hear in the year 2013, but years of abuse at the hands of her husband, and death threats from his politically connected family, meant Zarina could never feel safe in her home country of Pakistan.
Zarina isn’t alone in her experiences or in her desire to speak out about them. Acts of violence against women aged 15-44 are the cause of more death and disability worldwide than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. And now the world is talking about this in a way that it hasn’t before.
The consequences of gender-based violence stretch far further than the violation itself – damaging families and communities, hampering women’s ability to work, and devastating local economies. For those that have to leave their countries altogether in search of protection, life is altered entirely.
For Zarina, and other women who have fled violence in their home countries, the British Red Cross offers a safe space through its weekly women’s groups. Prossy Kakooza, women’s project coordinator for Bolton, said: “The biggest difficulty for many women we meet is loneliness. Tragic past experiences can mean they feel disconnected from the world.
“They also face the practical challenges of being in a new country with cultural and language barriers, which adds to the feeling of isolation.
“We try to change this through our meetings – from running English language classes, to arts and crafts sessions – we want women to feel comfortable and grow in confidence here.”
Uniting women from different backgrounds, the women’s group is reflective of the diversity of women affected by violence on a global scale. Prossy said: “Most women we see in the Manchester area are from Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iran and Pakistan – this is an issue that does not just affect one particular geographical area, age, race or class.”
For many of the women, this is more than just a weekly group – it is the start of new opportunities and new friendships. Zarina is now a volunteer for the British Red Cross, helping other women who feel they do not have a voice.
It isn’t unusual for former women’s group members to become volunteers. Also donating her time to the Red Cross is Alma* – forced to flee Gaza following the conflict, she has a special empathy for those she supports.
The group hopes to have a lasting impact on the women it helps. In Alma’s words: “Red Cross has given me a purpose. For the first time I feel part of a community. I have a life and feel useful and important. I want to help other women feel the same.”
Read more about Red Cross women’s groups.
* Name has been changed to protect identity.