#ChooseToChallenge is the theme for the 2021 International Women’s Day. It is an invitation for us all to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world.
I have worked with women for most of my career, starting aged 22, as a support worker in a home for young women who were homeless. A team of female staff and volunteers supported young women to recover from experiences of abuse and exploitation, displacement and war, conflict and relationship breakdown, overcrowding and poverty. Within this context I learnt the importance of choosing to challenge.
Accompanying individual young women to housing appointments I saw the stereotypes that were pinned on them. Stereotypes that suggested a homeless 16 year old woman had got pregnant in order to get a council flat or that arriving in London as an unaccompanied minor was a calculated decision driven by ambition and not survival. Supporting a survivor of sexual assault to report the crime, I saw bias compromise the care she received and add to the trauma already experienced. I learnt that the young women I supported were resilient, talented and insightful. I also learnt that it was never one of these young women who were invited to attend an event in parliament or a working group at a think tank to discuss the issues impacting their lives, it was I who received the invitations. Their voices were needed and yet they were rarely listened to. Working with homeless young women challenged me to use the opportunities I had, to confront inequality, to call out bias and to help forge an inclusive world.
I stayed working with homeless women and their children for 15 years, including 7 years as Chief Executive of a homelessness organisation. Through these roles I became convinced that whist care for the individual woman experiencing inequality in its many forms is vital, we only have the possibility of forging a more inclusive, equitable world if we challenge the systems and behaviours that create and sustain inequality.
To #ChooseToChallenge is to risk backlash, it is to be prepared to disrupt, it is also to be prepared to lay down agenda’s and interests to work collaboratively to create positive change. At the Virgin Money Foundation we provide funding to charities who are doing important work in challenging inequality in their community. One of the questions we often ask when talking to organisations who have requested funding is whether they are working in partnership. Partnerships can be time consuming and tricky but when working to address issues created by social and economic inequalities, organisations working collectively have the best chance to agitate for change.
This week, whilst reflecting on International Women’s Day and the call to #ChooseToChallenge I read a report by IVAR into a partnership formed by a group of women’s organisations including two organisations we have funded – Changing Lives and A Way Out. The report spoke of the challenges of partnership working but also of its unique power in addressing the inequality, bias and stereotypes faced by women with histories of trauma and exploitation. One of the small organisations in the partnership said: ‘At a local level we’ve been raising these points for years and years, but to be able to get them into a national arena...(required) an influencing group that can show the scale of the issue and start to identify solutions.’ 1
International Women’s Day 2021 is a call to choose to challenge inequality, bias and stereotype where we see it. It is also a reminder to allow ourselves to be challenged to work in new ways, individually and collectively to build a more inclusive world.
1 IVAR (2021). The STAGE Partnership: Learning and Legacy.