Bristol Rise is a grass roots, fledgling organisation started up by and made up of 8 local Bristolian women who felt passionate about rising up against gender violence on a local and ultimately global level. These are some of our stories.
I grew up in South Africa. Not in a hut, not in a jungle, but in a city with neighbourhoods divided by security gates and security guards. A fifteen minute drive from the sunny beach which I would never dare to visit on my own. A ten minute drive from a gated school guarded by a uniformed guard. I grew up in a warm, loving home with caring parents, surrounded by burglar bars, barbed wire, panic buttons and alarm sensors. In the 19 months since I left behind my pepper spray and emigrated to Bristol, my parents’ house has been burgled twice and their garden now features a complex system of laser-beam trip alarms.
My daily crime-preventing and victim-blaming routine at university looked like this: walking out of my house with my keys jutting out through my closed fist, as an added safety measure to the pepper-spray dangling from my key-chain. Before I got too close to the car I would check underneath it, and as soon as I got inside I would lock all the doors. If I forgot to hide my laptop under the mattress, I’d go back inside and start from scratch, not forgetting to lock my bedroom door, front door and gate behind me. This is the part where the reader thinks I’m paranoid, and I have to ask you to just keep reading.
Coming home anytime after dark I would skip any red traffic lights in dodgy areas, because that’s what we’re told to do to avoid being hijacked. I’d turn on the brights before picking a place to park so I could scope out if anyone was hiding nearby. Rush out, lock doors, rush to house door, hurriedly find the right key in the dark because I am yet to live in a house with a functioning street or porch light outside. Heart thumping, get inside, lock door behind me, disengage the alarm before it goes off and alerts no-one to do nothing, because the number of times I’ve had to call armed response after waiting in vain for them to call me, tells me it’s naive to think a monthly fee earns you protection. Before going to sleep I peep from behind the curtains to check if there’s anyone in the garden or the balcony, and I never know if I should look scary, so they might feel threatened, or scared, so they feel sorry for me. I try out different faces into the darkness out there and I walk back to my bedroom, locking the door behind me. Despite the amazing weather, I never sleep with the windows open, because burglar bars are easy to cut, snap or bend, depending on what tickles your fancy. I fasten them tight until my knuckles whiten and then I lie down in bed, and put earplugs in. I fall asleep wondering if I have an anxiety disorder, some sort of paranoid mental illness, and I know some readers now are probably wondering the same thing.
That locked door, those earplugs, that sealed window, all the actions and thought patterns many South Africans and foreigners alike call “paranoia” – they saved my life. In the ten months that I lived in my first student digs, our property was trespassed seven times; 3 times thieves tried to gain entry by the windows, once they used a brick to smash a gate and door, once they used the back of a mop and a wire hanger to fish a laptop bag through a window, and once, when I was asleep with earplugs on in my sealed bedroom, they ripped up the burglar bars like they were spaghetti, and they burgled all of my housemates’ rooms. I know they stood outside mine, and tried the handle. I have to be grateful, I’m told, that they gave up and left at that point. I have been told to say thank you, for not raping me, robbing me, killing me. I have to be grateful they were never caught, so I wouldn’t have to stand in front of them in court and testify against them only for them to be released a few months later, in possession of my full name and contact details. But instead of saying “thank you” or “hey, but look at that gorgeous coast-line”, I’m saying I’M SICK OF LIVING IN FEAR.
None of the crimes against me were directed at me because I am a woman, but I have grown up in a massively violent society which has tried to make me imbibe rape culture, shut up and be grateful that I haven’t “lured” someone into raping me yet. I have met, studied and worked with far too many women and girls who have been victims of sexual discrimination, harassment, rape, abuse and neglect for me to shut up and be grateful about it. I have grown up with a sense of fear that has turned to outrage as I realised how pervasive VAWG is. Unfortunately the UK is not magically immune to this disease, but I believe it is much better equipped to deal with it. I, for one, feel so much safer here. Not just because Bristol is less violent than Durban or Grahamstown in South Africa, but because there are so many organisations, including governmental ones, who are on our side.
When my friend in New Zealand told me about the One Billion Rising project in Auckland, she urged me to find one in Bristol. A quick Google search brought up Jodi Ahmed and it was a massive relief not only to find a few more friends, but to find people who are equally outraged. Together we form a strong and passionate group. They have given me a lot of insight into Bristol’s particular issues with gender equality and a real hope that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
My conception was less than romantic, there was certainly no love lost between my mother and father. Only they know how I was brought into the world. I did not meet my biological father until I was 18.
Not long before I was born, my mother ‘gave in’ to a relationship to her then ‘friend’ (not my biological father) and they eventually married when I was still a baby. This was an extremely abusive relationship that lasted for 6 years. My memories of early childhood are mainly of being scared and lonely and watching my mum being physically and emotionally attacked by who I then believed to be my father. One memory that sticks out is of my dad throttling my mother whilst trying at the same time to push her over the town bridge. I was strapped in my pram and nobody tried to help. My mother also talks of a time when he punched her to the ground and stamped on her face in the street, again nobody stepped in to help… these were times when people believed that you kept yourself to yourself and out of other people’s business. Funny how little things have changed.
Interestingly, my favourite Christmas present came out of a time when my dad had sold all of our Christmas presents for which my mum had worked in the local supermarket, to make sure we would have a good Christmas. The day before Christmas Eve, she went excitedly to get them out of the cupboard, only to find that they had all gone. My dad had sold them for drugs. She spent her last £10 on a wooden doll’s high chair that folded down to a play chair. I loved it more than anything!
Eventually, in fact not long after giving birth to her second child, my little sister, she drew enough courage to leave him, and I remember that excited but nervous feeling in my stomach that we had finally escaped his tyranny. Unfortunately it didn’t last very long.
After an amazing 6 months of having my mum and my sister to myself, she met the next ‘stepfather’. I guess he wasn’t as bad as the first, but he wasn’t exactly great. Again the fear returned and the cycle of abuse began again. I remember also the anger, when after yet another beating my mum would promise us no more…but a little bit of sweet talking and back we would all go. I will never forget that feeling again of nervous excitement when mum said ‘that’s it, it’s over’ and the unbelievable disappointment when it wasn’t.
Also during this relationship, he seemed to have a number of friends with less than healthy attitudes to women and children. I remember when I was about 9, one such person showing me and my best friend a picture of a Page Three girl and commenting “Cor, that’s what you girls are going to turn into one day…”
Another of his so-called friends, molested me and my little sister whilst ‘babysitting’ us on a number of occasions… for the life of me, I cannot remember what we were doing in his house in nighties! He then went on to seriously abuse a family relation (she was 7 years old at the time) after developing a relationship with her mother through my mum. He eventually went to prison for 6 years, god only knows where he is now.
My mother gave birth to her third daughter, my youngest sister and not long after, she left our stepfather. My mother then went into rehabilitation when I was 14. This is how I began to learn that behaviours are cyclical and that I did not have to repeat my mother’s mistakes. It was an incredibly important and transformative stage in my life. My mum did really well: she gained a lot of knowledge and began to be able to acknowledge her patterns of behaviour with men and how they linked to her own childhood. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of her tendency to attract abusive men, and she went on to have one more physically and emotionally abusive relationship which lasted 6 years.
After I lost my virginity, I went on to have a very promiscuous period in my life that was born out of the lethal combination of a young girl with very low self esteem surrounded by preying, often older, men. This period in my life is very hard to think about even now, and for a long time the shame and guilt pervaded my very being. The situations that I ended up in on many occasions were beyond gross. I am now no longer ashamed of myself but rather full of rage at how these men took advantage of a 16 year old girl who clearly had not the voice to protect herself.
I have never been in a physically abusive relationship, however my first serious relationship was with a misogynist who was emotionally very abusive. He had me believe that I was mad, imagining things, that his behaviour was perfectly reasonable and that it was my perception that was a problem. I was perpetually on egg shells, forever fearful of upsetting him. Thinking and rethinking every sentence so as not to start an argument. This could be as simple as “what do you want for dinner?” How can I broach this subject in a way that won’t cause conflict!! He would get drunk and tell me how much he loved me, how amazing I was, but the very next day we would be back to the same situation… does this man even like me?? I don’t regret this relationship – out of it came my beautiful daughter and many lessons learnt!
After a lot of therapy and a few more less than healthy relationships, I finally came into my own. Gaining the confidence and self esteem to allow a good man who was my equal in every way restored my faith in men (clearly not all of them!!) I am beginning to see that men do have the ability to relate to women in a way that is not solely based on their wanting to have sex with them or wanting to control and manipulate them. I’m not there yet, I still don’t really have male friends because that nagging suspicion is difficult to shift, especially in a world where one in three women will be beaten or abused in her lifetime.
I try not to regret anything that has happened to me in my life, but rather embrace it as it has made me who I am today. Someone who will strive to ensure that these things cease to happen to our children, to begin to break the cycle for myself, my daughter and my sons.
I came to One Billion Rising after my husband forwarded me a link to an article in the Guardian. I was moved to explore what was going on in Bristol to take part in this global movement and at that time there was nothing so I decided to start one. I simply registered an event on the OBR website and started a Facebook page. Through this I met 8 women who were as passionate to take part in this event as I was and so together we organised One Billion Rising Bristol 2013 (click for links to all our past events).
After the events were over, a number of us really felt that we did not want it to end there and so Bristol Rise was born! We hope that we will continue to take part in events in Bristol but also grow and develop into an organisation that becomes organised in the local community in a more day-to-day formula. We hope to increase our involvement in many ways, from continuing to campaign and raise awareness about gender violence and gender equality, to playing a supporting role in creating workshops and spaces in which young men and women can develop positive and healthy relationships so they can break the cycle of abuse and inequality.
I got involved with Bristol Rise by accident really. I saw a post on Facebook about a flashmob (our first One Billion Rising event), and went along to a meeting thinking I was going to be taught a dance routine. I really knew very little about the extent of violence there is towards women, especially in this country. But when I heard that one in three women in the world (one billion women!) will be a victim of gender violence at least once in their lifetime, I was shocked. I wanted to get involved. Jodi was looking for volunteers to organise an event for One Billion Rising on Valentine’s Day, to raise awareness of gender violence and to raise money for local charities.
That was back in February 2013. It was such an inspirational day. Loads of people came to support and dance with us, and in April we put on a charity gig and raised over £2000 in aid of Next Link, a local Bristol Charity who provide services for women and children from abusive homes.
Now we’re branching out and getting involved in other things such as sex and relationship education, and raising money for other charities and of course we’re organising another flashmob for One Billion Rising 2014! Being involved has been an educational and inspirational experience for me, and I’m proud to be doing it.
I joined the One Billion Rising campaign this year as I am a survivor of domestic abuse. If I look back on most of my sexual relationships I can see a pattern of unhealthy interactions, yet I was brought up to believe that sex counted as “making love” and it should be within the confines of a loving and respectful relationship. For reasons I have not yet pinpointed something happened in my head in my teens that meant that from the get go it was all about me being accepted and wanted by the “other”; rarely vice versa. There is more than one past relationship that I count as seriously abusive and ultimately I felt so much self hate that I had no idea how to embrace a truly loving and caring individual when I had the chance to do so.
This all came to a head after I had children. I did not count myself as someone who had been abused as I have had limited experiences with being physically hurt by a partner, but I was approached by a Health Visitor when she saw I was clearly in fear of my ex despite the fact we had separated some time previously. I denied it, but ended up enrolling on the Freedom programme which changed my life…initially as it emphasised how long I had been controlled, manipulated and put down; its impact rocked me and opened my eyes to the shell of the person I had become. Once I processed this, I realised I was not “crazy” or “over-reacting” and that I could fight back through the courts with the help of Next Link ;that the constant fear, panic and depression which overshadowed my life every day could at last end; that this was not “it” for the rest of my life….. At the time those connected with this particular relationship told me I had not been abused as I was “no angel” and had “given as good as I got”; though it pains me to say it even some of my closest friends and family questioned it as an exaggeration as I had no broken bones, no bruises and “you know how you tend to overreact”…Through this year’s campaign I took to local media and tried to push home that abuse does not need to be the stereotype of physical attack but a slow process of grinding yourself belief down until you question your own sanity; until the idea of sexual contact becomes so disgusting that you flinch from touch and the only way you can become intimate is to be so loaded you forget most of it…lest you get back to the stage that all you want to do is scrub yourself till you feel “clean”…And that this feeling can last and last so that sometimes you start sourcing sex that will lead you to feel the same way as it becomes your “norm”….so relationship after relationship follows the same pattern….
I am proud to campaign as part of Bristol Rise towards improved Sex Education for years 3-13 not just to try and promote healthy sexual relationships, but also as part of the LGBT community. Currently, Sex Ed talks about me and those who identify as LGBT as “Them”; to promote understanding, tolerance and equal opportunities towards “Them”, but are not allowed to suggest it is “Normal” or “OK”. I was a teen in a social environment where any signs of homosexuality led to bullying and it took me a long time to accept and be comfortable with that part of me. I have 3 boys who grow up being told that their mother is a someone to be nice to rather than just accepting her as her. When one of my sons decided he wanted to “be a girl” I let him dress as he chose and act as he chose and though a few years later he identifies as a male I am still proud he was confident enough to explore that option. What bothered me was that certain parents reacted negatively and told others I was “obviously trying to MAKE him gay” and “it was not right” to allow him to choose what he wore. Funnily enough, his peers never judged him…they were four years old. Now he is in Year 5 and the word “gay” is used to be derogatory towards others. All my kids battle between understanding what I tell them about sexual orientation and hearing such slurs against their mother; hence feeling guilt and confusion about where their views should lie. If the Right to Marry is now law, why is it not law to allow individuals to explore where their sexuality lies without them feeling “wrong” or “different”? The focus should be on having the self confidence and right to say what you as an individual wants; what you are comfortable with and what really does NOT feel ok. So many adolescents feel driven to do things they are unhappy with or accept they should conform to behave in a certain way because others do and there is not enough emphasis on what feels right for “me”.
Rising up against this and any kind of abuse towards women and children has been life affirming and empowering. I am proud to say my children are behind me and we make sure there is always an open dialogue about sex and relationships on every level. And together we keep on learning…
What is Bristol Rise
We are a grass roots, fledgeling organisation started up by and made up of local Bristolian women who felt passionate about rising up against gender violence on a local and ultimately global level.
We started out as one of the biggest events in Bristol on 14 February 2013 participating in One Billion Rising through a city-wide flashmob, which we then followed up with a community day and a gig in April 2013. Through these events we aim to signpost some of the great charities in Bristol that provide services such as counselling, legal representation and safehouses. We also raise funds for these charities, for example over the course of the past 12 months we raised over £2000 for Next Link through a gig at the Attic and a raffle. We couldn’t have succeeded if it wasn’t for all the bands and business owners who offered their services for free.
Next year we will again participate in One Billion Rising on 14 February 2014 and we will be fundraising for a different charity. We hope that our community day will offer even more dance workshops and kids activities, but also a safe space for male and female survivors to seek support.
We are currently focusing our efforts on improving PHSE (Personal,Health and Social Education) in English and Welsh schools. We need to provide a far more reliable and helpful source for our children, when their key sources of information are currently porn, gossip magazines and other equally confused children. PHSE should not only be a source of factual knowledge, but a regular opportunity for children to ask questions in a safe space, and receive advice and support with an aim to raise confidence and self esteem.
In light of this, we believe schools should offer PHSE as a statutory, specialist, stand-alone subject from Year 3 to Year 13 offering lessons which are taught regularly by a specialist teacher and which discuss healthy and consensual sexual relationships, in the context of heterosexual and LGBTI relationships. This must include promoting a zero tolerance towards abuse and violence and promoting the same rights for boys and girls.
Please support our petition here. We aim to get at least 5000 signatures by 15 February 2014, when we will present the petition to the government. We also hope to collaborate with schools and with organisations that run school-based workshops to raise the profile of PHSE and encourage schools to give it more time and resources. This petition is only the beginning.