Welcome to part two of our August 2021 Inspirational Interview with Sarah Benson, the chief executive officer of Women’s Aid Ireland. Ms. Benson previously worked as the CEO of Ruhama, an Irish NGO working nationally with women involved in sex work, including victims of sex trafficking, and as the manager of the 24-hour National Freephone Domestic Abuse Helpline. She has extensive experience in work in the community and voluntary sector both in Ireland and abroad. Throughout her career, Sarah’s passion for human rights, social justice and equality — in particular for women and girls — has been a constant feature.
In this part of the interview, Sarah discusses Women’s Aid’s programmes addressing domestic abuse during pregnancy, femicide in Ireland, and the COVID-19’s pandemic’s effect on the organisation’s work.
Part 1 of this interview was published on 29 August 2021.
Photos courtesy of Women’s Aid Ireland.
6. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging on, the rates of violence against women (VAW) including domestic violence have been surging worldwide. What are some of the strategies that Women’s Aid has adopted in order to continue helping women and girls during this pandemic?
When Covid-19 hit, we had to immediately adapt much of our work. We adapted our frontline services to balance a hybrid of telephone support and information while retaining face-to-face support for women at high risk of serious harm. We also worked to drive public awareness from the outset through the development and delivery of national campaigns, including campaigns targeting young people (18-25). We pivoted our specialist training to an online format and also adapted to deliver our Power to Change programme for victim/survivors to an online format.
We collaborated widely with other key stakeholders to ensure the experiences of those subjected to domestic violence and abuse were not forgotten, and during Covid-19 we were also in Ireland forming a new government, so with our allies we were able to secure public commitment to ensure that domestic and sexual violence would be policy priorities. While there remains much progress to achieve, this has been very instrumental in initiating some important developments to enhance our government’s response to preventing and combating these issues through a more victim-centered approach.
7. How do you think men and boys can help to end violence against girls and women?
Without the support and cooperation of men and boys, ending male violence against women is not possible. It is true that not all men are violent. However, the majority of violence against women (and indeed men) is perpetrated by men, and that’s something that we need to recognise and respond to as a whole society.
Often the conversation around ending violence against women ignores the perpetrator and focuses instead on the victim/survivor. While it is vital to have adequate supports in place for those subjected to abuse this is no solution to prevention. Placing a focus on what we can do as women to improve our safety, for example, is futile when the causal factor is the perpetrator.
Prevention work requires men as active allies and should include male peer-to-peer engagement. Men modelling healthy and respectful relationships and challenging abusive behaviour by boys and their adult peers is vital. An understanding and acceptance of broader male privilege and the additional gender inequalities (e.g. uneven distribution of care work, gender pay gap etc) which persist and create a social context that better enables abuse of women and girls should also inform our responses. Work needs to be targeted towards systemic change at a whole community level, not simply an individualised one.
8. Tell us about Women’s Aid’s plans for the future? What campaigns, programmes, or projects do you have coming up in the next five years?
Continuing to deliver our National Helpline, our face-to-face services and expanding the reach of those services to improve accessibility for all women will always be a key priority for us. We also plan to develop and expand our Too Into You, 16 Days of Action Against Violence Women campaigns and the Femicide Watch project. We want to continue to reach out to women during pregnancy and postpartum with our new maternity project.
Other work we have planned includes the continuation of our training initiatives and the development of domestic violence policies in the workplace and training frontline professionals to recognise, respond to and refer within the context of domestic violence and abuse.
9. How can The Pixel Project’s supporters engage with and support the efforts of Women’s Aid to stop violence against women?
Supporters who wish to engage with our work can connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where we share information about our campaigns as well as our awareness-raising, policy and fundraising initiatives. You’ll also find information about our latest publications, policy submissions, changes to our frontline work and events here. You can also make a once-off donation or become a monthly donor at womensaid.ie.
10. In your considered opinion, how can we end violence against women for good?
Bringing an end to violence against women is deeply intertwined with the achievement of more gender equitable societies that are underpinned by feminist principles. Violence against women is a cause and consequence of gender inequality and so the work we do as a society to free men and women from restrictive sex and gender roles is work towards safer societies for women and children.
We see ending violence against women as a strategy that is a three-legged stool based on prevention, protection and punishment. This ultimately means adequate preventative measures are put in place through awareness-raising and educational initiatives from an early age that allow for the exploration of healthy relationships and sexuality. Protective measures that ensure adequate legislative and policy initiatives to keep women safe as well as adequately resourced refuges, support organisations other facilities available to victim/survivors are also important. Lastly, perpetrators need to be deterred through adequate and appropriate sanctions.