It’s hard work running a charity. Not only do you have to make sure that day-to-day operations run with maximum impact on a shoestring budget to fully support those in need of your service, you have to justify your strategy to your Board of Trustees; spend hours and weeks filling out reams of forms for funding bids; contribute to government consultations, and on top of it all report on the measurable impact of your work constantly in order to secure future funding. One of the most powerful tools any charity CEO has to raise awareness of their cause to potential donors and policy makers is survivor voice.
As someone with personal experience of honour abuse who wants to highlight the suffering of others in my situation, I too have often taken the opportunity to speak out publicly about what happened to me. For about one and a half years I was a member of the Survivors’ Advisory Panel at one of the UK’s main charities providing support to victims of honour abuse and forced marriage. When I first took on the role, I was incredibly happy that painful experiences could be made meaningful and used to help others. Unfortunately, the reality was very different.
At every meeting I attended, the main item on the agenda was ‘survivor engagement’, a continual discussion about how each of us could contribute to the worthy cause by sharing our story. We were asked to create ‘survivor profiles’ for their main website and speak at endless roadshows, parliamentary receptions and training workshops. We were also asked to take part in media interviews and TV productions. I must stress that we were never placed under huge amounts of pressure to do any of this, and in fact taking part in this way has given me a platform to speak out in a way I never dreamed. But I did become frustrated over time that despite my sincere wish to make a difference, there was no support or acknowledgement of the ways my experiences were still affecting me. We were all still recovering from the abuse. When I was at my lowest, in the midst of a mental health crisis that made me want to take my own life, I was talked out of stepping down from my role on the panel and encouraged to simply take a step back. I was then asked if I wanted to take part in an interview with a journalist from a national paper to ‘raise awareness’. Having been failed miserably by the mental health system at the time, I was angry enough at the world to agree to do it. I don’t regret doing so, but now that I’m in a much safer place I can see how inappropriately my situation was handled. Only once were we asked if it was okay to have a journalist present in the room – at subsequent meetings, producers and TV researchers were simply introduced at the table. We certainly never received any emotional support, and in fact I never heard from the charity in between meetings at all, except for the odd urgent request for contributions to consultations or to take part as a speaker in their events. I can’t tell you what it’s like to pour out the most personal details of my life, about my family with whom I now have mostly no contact, to a room full of strangers, snottering and hyperventilating because I’m triggered in the telling of it. But these people didn’t care, and offered nothing except the odd perfunctory gesture that never amounted to anything meaningful.
I’m extremely glad that I did not sign their media consent form, which gave them exclusive rights to ‘use my story in any way that they promote the charitable aims and objectives of [The Charity]. This includes my story featuring on selected third party websites, as well as on [The Charity’s] website.’ Further, they stated in the form that whenever our story was used, we had to accept that ‘[The Charity] are indemnified from any potential courses of action arising out of the story I have provided herein.’ I certainly never got any emotional support or even a phone call to check that I was okay when my story hit the headlines. For others the consequences of their bravery in sharing stories could have been much more serious. Our abusers are still out there and we take an enormous risk in speaking out despite this.
I will never stop promoting the excellent work that most of these charities do to help people in need, and I don’t believe that any of this behaviour was borne out of malice. But when an organisation is unable to acknowledge its role in supporting and protecting the very people risking their health and even their safety to promote its work, you have to question how much victims of honour abuse are really at the heart of what they do.