Empowering women with learning disabilities

By Jess Frampton, member of the London branch for the UK National Committee for UN Women

Michelle Bachelet, former Executive Director of UN Women, recently highlighted that women and girls with disabilities are three times more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse and that they have less access to social services and support systems. This set the scene for an event organised by the London branch of UN Women UKNC on 6 July with guest speaker Jane Chelliah, voluntary CEO of Powerhouse.

Powerhouse is an east London-based charity for women with learning disabilities that was originally set up in 1985 as a centre of excellence for the advancement of women with learning disabilities. The charity aims to challenge discrimination against, and the abuse of, women with learning difficulties by raising awareness of key issues; providing training, advice and support services; as well as working with other agencies to promote the inclusion of people with learning difficulties.

Helping women gain life skills and learn about their rights

Powerhouse opens Mondays and Wednesdays and works with up to 70 local women aged between 20 and 65. The small team of Powerhouse volunteers support the women with workshops and guidance including eating healthily and the importance of exercise; learning arts and crafts; as well as how to recognise the signs of abuse and report disability hate crimes committed against them. Through Powerhouse women make friends, gain life skills and also learn about their rights and choices.

“We work with the women that come to our centre to help them develop life skills and autonomy,” explained Jane. “Sometimes small everyday things that might come naturally to many people are difficult for them. One of the ladies who came to our centre had a male neighbour who came to her house and watched her TV for 14 hours a day. She didn’t know how to say ‘no’ to him. We worked with her to help her build confidence and understand that ‘no’ is acceptable.”

Supporting women in difficult situations

“We also supported a lady who was being forced by her own family to get married to a cousin. She lived at home with her family so it was a very difficult situation for her. She knew she didn’t want to get married but her family were intimidating her and telling her it was ‘for her own good’. We worked with her to help her so she could live somewhere safe with police protection.

“Another of the other ladies who came to our centre spoke with me about her three children and told me all about them in the present tense. It was only when it got to the end of the conversation that she confided that they had been taken away from her. The reason why was because her husband had abused her so it was felt that the house wasn’t safe for the children.  My heart really went out for her – she lost her children through no fault of her own. Our team supported her with guidance and advice on how to manage this difficult situation.”

The intersection of gender, disability and age

Jane also spoke about the intersections of discrimination and how the combination of being a woman with a disability makes it hard to make progress. “When other intersections are added in too – such as age – it gets even harder,” she added. “It can create divides and a feeling of ‘them and us’ that makes it difficult to encourage the inclusion of people with learning disabilities.”

Jane referred to an essay she had recently contributed to the publication “Has Sisterhood Forgotten Older Women?” from The International Longevity Centre – UK. The publication is a collection of essays looking at the challenges and opportunities of ageing for women. Jane’s essay looks at the experiences of older disabled women with learning difficulties and includes a poem written by one of the women who attends Powerhouse who describes her feelings about getting older.

The challenge of consent

Event attendees joined in the discussion contributing from their own experiences. “From my work in sexual health I know that consent is a big issue for women with learning disabilities,” commented attendee Camille Pegus. “When women with learning disabilities attend our clinic they often come with a family member – usually their mother – for consent reasons. But it can mean it’s difficult to engage with them in an open way which can leave them vulnerable. If you went to a sexual health clinic with your mother would you ask all of the questions you really wanted to?”

At the end of the event Nithya Nadar, Powerhouse’s Office Manager and Priti Tanvar, Powerhouse’s Fundraiser, facilitated brainstorming sessions with the attendees to help Powerhouse make the most of their strengths and address opportunities. Many thanks to Jane for speaking at the event and to Nithya and Priti for facilitating the brainstorming sessions as well as to all of the UN Women-UKNC attendees.

The next London branch event will be about forced and child marriage and will take place on Saturday 21 September. Details will shortly be posted on the events page.

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