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Why women’s peer support should be rooted in safety

For many groups involved in the Women Side by Side programme, safety was synonymous with a trauma-informed or compassionate approach. Trauma-informed practice is important for all groups, not just those working with survivors. Trauma- informed practice means we are aware of the impact of trauma, on people and their feelings and behaviour.

Trauma-informed practice goes beyond knowledge and applies to understanding women’s needs and behaviours to ensure interventions do not traumatise them further. At the Swan Women’s Centre, staff peer supporters were encouraged to be aware of their own traumas and triggers and, through supervision, develop ways of dealing with them.

Working with your group to create a safe and inclusive space

The most important point is that safety is not something that is ‘done with/to women’ – rather safety is built collectively through relationships and experiences and can change day to day. So it is vital that discussions about building/creating more safety, and how to make spaces safer, happen regularly.

The other tips which came from the Women’s Side by Side programme include:

    • Approaching the topic carefully, maybe with an open question: what does it mean to be safe today? Or what do you associate safety with? Or where have you felt most safe? Or who do you feel more safe with?

    • Women-only spaces were preferred over mixed spaces.

    • Safety should be discussed before the first meeting to ensure women understand that their safety is paramount while attending a peer support group. Confidentiality should be stressed.

    • The safe space should not be easily identifiable to others (eg. no obvious signs in reception) but identifiable to the women who attend.

    • The meeting venue should be easy to find and the attendee should have clear directions.

    • The surrounding areas leading to the peer support space should be well lit, especially during winter months.

    • Childcare and travel expenses should be provided when necessary.

    • Women should be able to leave the room whenever they need or wish to do so, especially if they are upset. Another safe space or side room could be provided for this. Ideally two facilitators should attend each group so that one of them can provide extra support if required.

    • Once safety is established, meetings could be carried out in other venues such as coffee shops, galleries, museums, etc. - but only at a pace that the women feel comfortable with and after conducting a risk assessment to ensure confidentiality and safety.

    • You should ensure that you are aware of the safeguarding process for any safeguarding concerns that are raised during peer support sessions. It may be beneficial to undertake an introductory safeguarding course run by your local authority.

The human knot game

The Human Knot (also known as the Human Knot Game or Human Knot Activity) is a popular game in which people learn to work together and many Women Side by Side projects found that it was ideal for helping to create a safe environment. This game is a great icebreaker or getting-to-know-you activity.

Starting in a circle, participants connect hands with two other people in the group to form the human knot. As a team, the must then try to unravel the “human knot” by untangling themselves without breaking the chain of hands. Women gained a lot from this activity as it helped develop communication between the peers by fostering teamwork as well as generating much laughter.

Preparation/equipment required: None
Space required: Small. Indoors or outdoors
Group size: 8 to 12 ideally. You must have at least 4 participants to play
Total time: 20-30 minutes: 5 minutes to brief and set up; 10-20 minutes to achieve outcome; 5 minutes to review and debrief.

Instructions

  1. Ask the group to form a circle.
  2. Tell everyone to put their right hand up in the air, and then grab the hand of someone across the circle from them.
  3. They then repeat this with the left hand, ensuring they grab a different person’s hand.
  4. Check to make sure that everyone is holding the hands of two different people and that they are not holding hands with someone either side of them.
  5. They must now try to untangle themselves to form a circle without breaking the chain of hands. Allocate a specific time to complete this challenge (generally 10 to 20 minutes).
  6. Remind participants to take their time in order to prevent injuries. Ask the group not to tug or pull on each other and keep an eye on participants as they pass over other participants. Monitor everyone throughout the challenge and stop them if you need to.
  7. If the chain of hands is broken at any point, they must then start over again.

Adaptations

If you have a person or group who are not comfortable with touching one another due to sensory issues, personal space, or triggering distress, you can still play the game by having the pairs hold a scarf or short length of rope between them. If you are worried that people might become overexcited or a bit too boisterous, you can even play the game with a length of sewing thread that you try not to break.

Why consider a women-only space when planning your peer support group?

Within the women’s sector, providing a women-only space is a given. It is evidenced to provide services that respond to women’s needs and provide safety and healing for women.

However, mental health and community organisations do not always appreciate, nor perhaps understand, the value of women-only spaces. There are clear reasons why women-only spaces create such value, safety and containment for the members of women-only groups. The commonality of a shared experience is powerful foundation to build upon.

Gender is a critical determinant of both mental health and mental ill health. The morbidity associated with mental health problems has received substantially more attention than the gender-specific determinants and mechanisms that promote and protect mental health and foster resilience to stress and adversity.

Gender determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socioeconomic determinants of their mental health and indeed their lives. It affects their social position, treatment in society. and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks such as trauma.

Gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and somatic complaints.

These problems affect approximately 1 in 3 people in the community, most of whom are women, and constitute a serious public health issue, according to the World Health Organisation.

It is imperative to explain why women-only spaces are vital for certain types of women and not just assume that people know. Some of reasons are listed below:

  • Refer to the top of your triangle (Freedom to be oneself) – women’s spaces give women rare opportunities to be themselves and express themselves in a way that is healing and confirming
  • Having observers or visitors who are not part of the group can negatively impact the emotional safety of the group, whether they are male or female.
  • There are religious and cultural reasons why some women won’t access a space where men are also present. For example, in one of the groups with a young Muslim woman, she felt she would not have been comfortable to attend if males would also be joining the group.
  • Many women who have experienced trauma at the hands of male perpetrators may find any male presence threatening. This is particularly the case in a peer support setting, where we are creating that safe space to share personal stories.
  • It’s important for some women to not have to be in the male gaze, to not have to feel like they are prey or a commodity. Being in women-only spaces can provide this freedom and safety.

Trans inclusion in women's peer support

The Women Side by Side programme included anyone who identified as a woman. In providing services, we need to be mindful of the full spectrum of gender identities and be inclusive of self-identifying women, acknowledging the correct use of pronouns and accepting non-binary and intersex people.

Some people argue that supporting trans women in ‘women-only’ services might compromise the integrity of those safe spaces, suggesting that a trans woman would be a ‘threat’ in this environment or that men might pretend to be trans women in order to gain access to these spaces. This is not the case according to the Trans Mental Health Survey 2012, almost three in four (70 per cent) trans people avoid certain places and situations for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed.

In fact, trans women are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Furthermore, men who wish to assault women are evidently able to do so without pretending to be trans.

It is vital to ensure that everyone involved in women’s peer support who may have difficulties with this due to a lack of knowledge about gender is provided with appropriate support and training. Peer support spaces are a uniquely empowering offer to all women regardless of self identification because they are built on shared experiences and life experience.

So it is also vital to show that you make your peer support an inclusive space for all women – those with specific religious or cultural experiences, disabled women and women from different generations, as women have differing needs. In order to make sure there are no experiences of discrimination, appropriate training and support may need to be provided to facilitators.

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