The Asha Women’s Centre provides women with a safe environment to rebuild self-esteem, writes Sam Thorp
Giving up alcohol is difficult enough for someone with a drink problem but Shivani* found that her south Asian background made the experience harder. Her loneliness was compounded by attending Alcoholics Anonymous groups, which, she says, were dominated by assertive white men. She found the groups intimidating and her self-esteem, already low, sank lower.
Shivani had lost her job as a result of her problems and it was only when she discovered the Asha Women’s Centre that she was able to rebuild her confidence and put her life back on track. The centre is a one-stop shop that offers services to disadvantaged women living in Worcester and was a lifeline for Shivani. “It was a godsend for me,” she says. “I was finding life challenging but the centre has helped me build my confidence. It was a very supportive environment. It’s almost as if it was divine intervention – it’s played a critical role in my recovery.”
The Asha Women’s Centre was set up in 2002 as a charity to offer women whose self-esteem has hit rock bottom a supportive environment to rebuild their confidence and learn to re-engage with society. Many of the women referred to the centre have a history of offending, mental health problems or experiences of violence and abuse. By offering a supportive women-only environment with a range of services, it is hoped that the women can break the cycle of offending behaviour or abuse.
The centre works with other agencies to offer mentoring, educational and personal development courses, a crèche, advice surgeries, outings and activities. There are opportunities for one-to-one support but most of the work is conducted in small groups. Constraints on resources may have originally dictated this approach, but it has also brought enormous benefits to service users according to Jenny Roberts, chair of the centre. “I don’t think we would have discovered exactly how well women help and support each other if we had just taken a case work approach,” she says.
One-to-one work can encourage dependency but working in groups can help women to normalise their experiences by meeting others who have faced the same problems. “Many women who come to us feel stigmatised and believe they’re the only person who hasn’t succeeded in life,” says Roberts. “When they discover they’re not alone they respond very positively.”
Helping severely disadvantaged women to engage with the service is not an easy task. The initial assessment given to users is kept deliberately short – an intensive grilling at the outset is unlikely to motivate the women to return. This approach helps to allay any initial anxiety and fits with the centre’s informality.
Roberts says that the women are often anxious when they first arrive but are soon helped to relax. “But they still might not come back unless you convince them you’ve got something to offer. We have no way of compelling them to come,” she adds.
It’s an approach that seems to work well the centre has been commended by the Department of Health and the Home Office. The 2007 Corsten review into women and the criminal justice system described the centre as demonstrating “quite extraordinary value for money”.
But despite the national recognition, funds remain a problem. Although some funding has been obtained from central and local government and the probation service, most of the money comes from other charities. Roberts acknowledges that the rural location of the centre limits access to funds that might be available in urban areas, but is puzzled why a service that sees 300 referrals a year doesn’t receive more financial support. She says that policymakers often overlook the needs of vulnerable women.
“Practitioners who meet these women understand there is a need to help them. But policy makers often ask why you need a women’s centre. That demonstrates a sheer lack of ability and imagination to understand what it’s like to be a vulnerable women, on benefits, with children, but isolated without any support.”
* Name has been changed
➔ To contact the centre call 01905 767552
● Strong partnerships should be established with local statutory and voluntary groups.
● You need to understand that long-term viability isn’t guaranteed – securing funding will be a significant challenge.
● Staff should have appropriate qualifications and experience and be able to deal with the emotional demands that working with this client group brings.
● Don’t overlook the benefits of group work – it offers a mutually supportive environment that helps service users.