Celebrating International Women's Day 8 March

Celebrated every year, International Women’s Day raises awareness of women’s achievements and challenges. This year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity.

Across Wiltshire and Swindon there are charities and groups who work tirelessly year-round to support women’s issues – some of which are incredibly challenging. They provide vital help and advice, mentoring and friendship, skills and opportunities and, most importantly, a platform so women's voices can be heard.

On International Women's Day we want to acknowledge these groups and the brilliant work they do to make life better for women in our local communities. One of these groups is Wiltshire Women’s Empowerment.

Based in Swindon, Wiltshire Women Empowerment Program provides services for women to equip themselves and to build their confidence and self-esteem. It has become a home from home for its members and has helped many make positive, possibly life-saving changes in their lives.

Thula Ndebele is the Chair of the charity. She formed the group during the pandemic, partly as an immediate response to the isolation felt by African, Caribbean and Asian families in Swindon but also because of a growing feeling that women in ethnic communities were without a voice or a platform.

Thula came to England from Zimbabwe with her sisters in 2000 and trained as a nurse.

“From the time I came to the UK I saw the challenges that people in our communities were faced with, so that was one of the reasons why I wanted to set up something like an organisation where you could help women who go through certain challenges – things like domestic violence,” she says.

“Domestic violence is not something that is spoken about openly in our communities because we are told when we are growing up that we shouldn’t discuss what happens within your own home. It is not only the women who suffer, it is the children too and the trauma that is passed on carries on into adulthood.

“Women feel that by speaking out about it they are bringing shame to their family by exposing it. Marriage is something that’s big and valued within our culture and it is important when families are brought together. But when you now say a son or daughter is abusing you it brings shame on both sides of the family.

“Along the way we have lost friends and people that we love through domestic abuse. I had someone I was very close to who was a nurse, she knew that what she was going through was wrong but because of that stigma that surrounds speaking out, today she is no longer with us.”

The pandemic gave Thula the first step towards founding a group when she became aware that friends, colleagues and others within the ethnic community were struggling, both mentally and financially. “We realised that so many people in the community we engaged with were so down because they lost their loved ones, they lost their jobs. They were going through these mental health challenges and of course they were not speaking about them so we set up a food bank.

“We thought what better way to reach out to our community now? What better time?”

Wiltshire Women Empowerment Program was awarded funding from a number of organisations including Wiltshire Community Foundation to buy culturally appropriate food for dozens of families. Thula says it was important to them to be able to cook the food they are used to making.

“Not having food that is part of your culture is like having your identity stripped from you. No matter if they are going through a low point, families want to cook from scratch and then they are taking charge of the situation.

“Food is important because it brings families together. When you eat a traditional meal that you have made you feel good because it reminds you of who you are and what you stand for.”

The regular contact with women allowed the group to set up the first of its mental health training sessions, at first via Zoom. When it was offered a base by Swindon Sisters Alliance above its shop in The Parade in the town centre it offered its courses face to face as well. Since then it has expanded its courses to stress management, cv writing and back to work training as well as running workshops in sewing, jewellery making and, soon, cookery.

The courses and the workshops provide women from ethnic communities a safe space to talk, share and understand they are not alone in their problems. The conversations can end with signposting to professional help or a stronger resolve to take charge of their own lives. “What we try and do is ask where they see themselves in a year or what do they want to achieve?” says Thula.

“Our training platform funded by Wiltshire Community Foundation offers courses in cv writing and getting back to work so that our ladies can start on that journey to becoming independent and start re-engaging with their community. Confidence building is a big part of that, so our course in stress awareness gives them coping mechanisms.

“We want them to have that sense of achievement to say ‘I have done this’. If a mum is happy and confident can you imagine the type of children she raises?”

Mental health courses, delivered by two nurses trained in mental health trauma who volunteer their time, are a vital part of the service. “I want to normalise talking about mental health, to say that it is part of who we are,” says Thula. “Showing that you have reached a point where you can’t cope is not a weakness, it is a strength to go out and seek help.

“Mental health is not something that is spoken about openly in our community. People think ‘I’m African, I can’t be seen to be depressed’ so it’s not normalised. This is where we are trying to break down barriers.”

Thula and her seven volunteers work with hair salons, churches and ethnic food stores to identify women who may be in need of help – or just encouragement. The group is also set to release its own smartphone app with sections on domestic abuse, mental health and stress awareness as well as places to find help.

At any one time the group will be working with up to 40 families but Thula knows there are many more who need assistance. She is driven on by the many successes she has seen in the last two years.

She says: “We had a lady who was really beaten down when she first come to us and she couldn’t use a simple laptop,” she says. “Now she has found herself, she looks brighter and she has completed computer courses online.

“She has the sense of hope that there is something for her out there, she has got her whole life ahead of her – and that’s why we are here.”

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