Moving FAST; Giving Women a Voice

29 Aug 2018 |Written by Harriet Brown, Emily Redmond

In 2018 it’s sometimes easy to take for granted that women now have an equal say in the democratic processes that shape our lives. We’re celebrating 100 years since some women in the UK first won the right to vote - and 90 years since all women could vote - so surely by now, we’re all set? Right?

Except that’s not entirely true.

When attending a Voicebox Café event last week with Emily, we heard it put very clearly.

Naheed - the tutor at the session - explained to the room that the women who fought for the right to vote did so because they felt isolated and excluded from society. They wanted their voices to be as powerful as the men that they lived and worked with. They worked hard to keep their families and their communities going so why shouldn’t they be heard too?

These feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement that Naheed described from women 100 years ago were still relatable for the women in the room I was sitting in today - participants in the Voicebox Café - who talked about how they often feel like that themselves.

Cheetham Hill, where they are running the project, has a high proportion of women who are isolated. For all of the women in this session, English was not their first language. And although legally able to vote, these women are still distanced from taking part fully. Barriers, like language and the off-putting jargon of politics, were stopping them from not only understanding their democracy but how to participate in it.

It was great to see and experience first hand the informal but informative and supportive ways our Online Centres reach out to learners to remove barriers to engagement. By advertising the Voicebox Cafés as a women’s group, it helped to attract women from the local community, who would normally be intimidated by the language of politics and democracy. Linda, the Centre Manager, also believed that women saw it as another route to improving their English skills, which was a draw for many of the women.

Over the few weeks that women had been coming to the session, Naheed had seen the confidence levels in the room rise and rise. Women who at first were too afraid to speak out in class or come up to the front to write on the board became a lot more confident to express themselves and join in with group activities.

Sessions are taught bi-lingually by Naheed, who adeptly moved between English and Urdu during the session, explaining some of the keywords like choice, influence and victory. It was clear that this approach helped to build the confidence of women whose language was stopping them from getting the full picture.

Learners then turned the words that had the most resonance with them into Suffragette style-sashes, banners and decorated cards. Cue lots of glitter, colourful ribbon and most importantly, empowering messages! Not only was this a way to pass these ideas onto family, friends and other users of the Centre, but the creative approach was also helping to reinforce what they’d learned.

Women created manifestos, writing down the things that they wanted to change in their communities. By identifying local issues that were important to them, like rubbish collections or crime, women were actively taking their first steps to finding their voices and to shape the way they think about their role in society.

Salma was a great case in point. At 19 years old, Salma studies Business Studies at college but was interested in coming to the session because she wanted to learn more about democracy in the UK, and to understand her rights better.

Although she’d voted once before, she’d let her decision of who to vote for be influenced by her family. She explained that she now realises that she can vote for whoever she wants to represent her. Salma has even made up her mind about who she will vote for next time.

Coming to a Voicebox Café has given Salma the space to discuss her opinions with others, making her realise that her thoughts and opinions really do matter.

And that’s key - because it really matters what everyone thinks. 100 years on from that first female vote in the ballot box, let’s not kid ourselves that there aren’t still barriers to some women having their say. But with projects like Voicebox Cafés, we can move towards making sure that everyone gets to hear those opinions.

Find out more about the Voicebox Cafés project by visiting our Voicebox Cafes page, our Voicebox Cafés Tumblr and by following #VoiceboxCafes on Twitter!

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Voicebox Cafés