A Visit to North Down and Ards Women’s Aid
On Tuesday 15th August Mark Baillie and I visited North Down and Ards Women’s Aid in Bangor. North Down and Ards Women’s Aid provides advice, emotional and practical support and temporary refuge for women and their children who have experienced or are still experiencing domestic abuse in the wider Ards and North Down area. This is a wide geographical area including the Ards peninsula and they provide support to women of any age facing domestic abuse. The Women’s Aid Federation is the representative body for Women’s Aid refuges across in this society; however, each refuge stands as an individual charity.
Ards and North Down Women’s Aid employ 20 staff. In recent years, they have been able to increase the number of people in their staff team through seeking a variety of alternative sources of funding. However, even with the additional staff, their services remain significantly oversubscribed. They provide a floating support service and employ a family support worker at their refuge.
We met Emalyn Turkington at the office, the CEO of North Down and Ards Women’s Aid, and I took the opportunity to ask about a recent Participatory Budgeting Event in Ballymena that a team from North Down and Ards Women’s Aid had taken part in and won.
Emalyn spoke with great passion and respect for the lady who used her experience to show others the great work that goes on in Women’s Aid. Her passion for this work became apparent as she talks about the highly motivated staff team which has doubled in recent years and the different support programs they have for women and children in need. Emalyn struck me as the kind of person who combines deep compassion for the women she works to support with the steel you need to fight to for the rights and best interests of the women concerned.
After a brief introduction to the staff in the office, we were taken to the refuge. We walked through to a small welcoming room, and I noticed the décor was very homely. It was instantly apparent that careful thought had been given to the feel of the site, with bright colours and positive affirmations hanging in lovely frames on the walls. There was something different about this site.
We met Lisa, Kara and Karen. Kara was employed by North Down and Ards Women’s Aid to support women and children at their refuge. She has extensive experience working with and supporting women in need. She not only supports those families currently residing at the refuge, but also those on the waiting list and women who are working to be reunited with their children.
Karen has been working as the refuge team leader since October 22 and she works hard to keep up with the litany of ever-changing trends that technology brings to perpetrators of domestic abuse. In conversation, it became apparent that tragically perpetrators of domestic abuse are more than willing to use sophisticated technology as they seek to coerce and control women. She works closely with the women and children, providing a safe space for them to reside while working through the many complex issues that domestic abuse brings.
A Place of Safety
North Down and Ards Women’s Aid work hard to provide a safe space for women and their children. They provide a well-run service with 24 hour support from a friendly, understanding, vigilant staff team. We asked several staff members why they took the jump to join Ards and North Down Women’s Aid- a common theme was that the staff wanted to do a job that made a difference in women’s lives. We were impressed by the professionalism and care shown by all of the staff we met on our visit.
The women and children they work with have experienced complex trauma that goes beyond losing their homes.
A component of this safe space is the help, understanding and support of external agencies. The staff team have constructive working relationships with the local PSNI, Housing Executive and social services. Lisa is currently undertaking essential work with the PSNI to inform and shape responses to reports of domestic violence. She hopes to spend one year in this position, sharing her knowledge, understanding and experience of supporting women in crisis.
Bravery and Resolution
After talking extensively with the staff team, we were taken through to meet some of the ladies and children. They had prepared a lunch for myself and Mark and we all ate together. It was a wonderful experience. We heard stories of immense bravery and resolution. Both Mark and I left the group feeling inspired. In a deteriorating situation in terms of housing and homelessness in NI, it was valuable to us to see the difference that our members make. We are hugely grateful for the hospitality the women showed us on our visit.
We were shown the play rooms that the children used and one of the family rooms. Again, what was striking about these rooms was the care and attention paid to ensuring these were bright and homely spaces. The play rooms were filled with toys. It was a pleasure meeting Nicola at the end of our visit, who told us about some of the educational work Ards and North Down Women’s Aid engage in with the children of women who have experienced domestic abuse.
After we bade our farewells, I knew that this visit, like many others, would leave a lasting impression that I would carry with me.
Keeping in Touch
We are grateful to Ards and North Down Women’s Aid for facilitating our visit. If you would like to know more about their work please check out their website and give them a follow on Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter).
Nikki McConville is Lived Experience Co-ordinator for Homeless Connect