Thoughts on my time at The Sussex Beacon Women and Families Service

Thoughts on my time at The Sussex Beacon Women and Families Service, in relation to our learning and development to support women living with HIV affected by domestic abuse.

As I sit in my local coffee bar on this leap year day I find myself reflecting on the women living with HIV I’ve had the privilege of getting to know and working with, their amazing stories of bravery, strength and survival.  Many of the women we worked with had experience of domestic abuse.

The Women and Families Service started at The Sussex Beacon in 2008 funded by The Big Lottery. I managed and developed services alongside a dedicated and passionate team. Very quickly we become aware of the lack of equality for women living with HIV as they try to juggle child care, work, home life, finances, their own health and often challenging relationships. Many of the women felt silenced by their HIV and disempowered in being able to be their fabulous selves, often they had never talked about their HIV status to anyone and so our service became an essential women only space.

As our work developed, women started to open up about their relationships and worries within the home, we realised that we needed a greater understanding of what women were facing in their relationships and got in touch with our local domestic abuse organisation Rise who were happy to give our team training.  As our experience grew we in turn started talking to our local HIV consultants and nurses about working more closely to support women where there might be domestic abuse issues.

At Sussex Beacon our support offers another route in for women to talk about abuse, the focused work we were able to give was supporting women to go into a refuge, to continue to adhere to their medication, to plan and leave safely, offering them a voice with social services as well as educating social workers about HIV. We also offered longer term psychological support and helped to decrease the woman’s sense of isolation through the women and families women’s group or signposting to other community organisations.

As our experience grew we recognised the strong correlation between HIV and domestic abuse and so we created a one day training for Rise caseworkers to educate them about HIV. This was a very successful day and the domestic violence caseworkers were able to feel more confident in addressing HIV related issues with their service users, and of course it continued to support our partnership working which fundamentally supports better outcomes for women!

Other extended partnerships across the city came out of this work including a very successful event with The Migrant Forum run by Brighton and Hove City Council, East Sussex Police, Stop The Traffik and The Sussex Beacon. This event was to raise awareness around human trafficking and to raise aware of The Sussex Beacon to BME communities.

We also raised awareness of HIV and abuse through an international film called ASMAA which was shown as part of The SICK festival in 2013. With a Q&A panel including experts and women living with HIV.

Having a dedicated service for women living with HIV I believe has been crucial in enabling women to feel safe and empowered to talk about their issues of abuse, share their experience with other women and to learn and be inspired by other women.Fundamentally we know we have saved a number of women’s lives  as an HIV service supporting women suffering from domestic abuse. However this is not done in isolation and needs the partnership work of domestic abuse organisations, social services and health care services and the local police services as recommended in The Sophia Forum Feasability Study. As national funding cuts continue to impact on many important services it is vital that we learn from this unique work and continue to have a voice for the inequalities that women face in 2016.

Paula Evenden: Previous Women and Families Service Manager, Sussex Beacon