This is the first in a series of interviews with brilliant women who are part of the women's movement. They may not be well known or have huge platforms. You might never have heard of them but you probably don't know a lot about them even if you have. These are the women who are working every day to help other women. They are the front line. So what do they do?
"you realise that victims lose so much, they lose their autonomy, some are physically damaged forever, or psychologically, but when you provide them just with a space ....of you know... what the movement was set up for, for women by women, it just.... it's like a type of magic that happens. That's when you start to see their laughter and the connections between women ... it's like... f*ckin... that's not a job. That's just a privilege."
Shonagh Dillon. Age . Portsmouth. CEO of Aurora New Dawn.
JH: Hey Shonagh. Thanks for agreeing to this. You are my first Unsung Shero! So tell me a little bit about your background.
Shonagh: I'm a Pompey girl, so from Portsmouth. My dad died young so it was me and my two sisters and my mum. It was a female only space, my childhood. I went off to do a Law degree.I found it the most boring three years of my life, but I did get interested in the law around men's violence against women. Even in my teens my friend and I shared books like 'The Female Eunuch' and anything we could lay our hands on. My friend still reminds me that Greer says in Eunuch you're not an emancipated woman unless you've tasted your own period blood. So we went home to do it and I did it and she fu*kin didn't! I went into school the next day and she was like "you fuckin idiot you didn't did you?!"
During my degree I started volunteering for the local domestic abuse helpline, I was 19, but I was also actually in a physically violent abusive relationship. Lots of control. Just an arsehole really. I left him but I kept on volunteering. Then I met another abusive partner but I ended it at the end of my finals and I moved to London. That was a rushed move. I psychologically fled. I knew I needed to get the f*ck out of Portsmouth. He was less physically violent but lots of controlling behaviour, degradation you know? Like urinating on me. Really shameful stuff.
JH: I do know about the degradation yes. Urinating on me was common too when I was abused. I'm sorry.
Shonagh: Then when I went to London and messed about and worked at a recording studio. Great time, but I also volunteered at the same time for the London Rape Crisis helpline (doesn't exist now) and also volunteered for 'Rights Of Women' as admin. Then I went for a volunteer's job at National Domestic Abuse helpline and they offered me a permanent job. I worked there for about a year and a half and then I went over to work in their refuges in South East London.
So I worked in London for about 7 years and I after that I wanted to move back to Portsmouth but I carried on working for Refuge and I managed their refuge in East Sussex. Massive commute, so I got a job in the end in Portsmouth for the 'Early Intervention Project' which was the first domestic abuse provision in a health-based setting in the country. That was in the maternity ward and we had a little office, like a little cupboard they gave us, boiling hot! I had the manager's job. There was 4 of us and one computer and one phone. But that project really grew from there. It went from being just maternity and A&E and then we started working with housing and with police.
This was round about the time that IDVAs and IDSVAs and risk assessments started happening. People think they've been around forever but they haven't. Prior to this we didn't have those layers of ... you know...those tools! I'm a fan of the DASH risk assessment tool. But I would say that the movement has always known what things mean in terms of risk. At this time we began to get more funding and I was managing around 19 members of staff on a 24/7 project because we were also the crisis workers in the sexual assault referral centre so we covered sexual violence and domestic abuse.
That was around 2004 and then 2010 the coalition government came in and I was pregnant with my second child and I always wanted to do something with going back into the voluntary sector because working in the local authority didn't allow for creativity and we knew that cuts were going to start happening. So we talked about what we wanted to do. I wrote a business plan and registered Aurora as a not for profit company and I decided I would go for charitable status later on which I did. So I had set up Aurora! I started applying for funding and we started getting it and no one was more surprised than me. It was like "Oh shit, we got some funding, we've got some staff what do we do? I haven't got an office or a phone or fu*k, I don't even know how to pay payroll, how do I do that?"
Our first member of staff is now our Director Of Services, and she was a part time ISVA and she was on her own, she's just one of those women who believes in the movement as it is meant to be, grassroots you know, and she has her own kids and she didn't know if it was going to work but she just believed in it. The senior management team have been here from the start. We are all co-founders if you like. We got other funding and we got an office, but we have moved six times. We have worked out of derelict buildings and shop fronts or friends that have offered space but now we are much more settled and have a proper office.
So that was 2010 and I now have about 19 members of staff and between 10-15 volunteers. We work across Hampshire, the Isle Of Wight, West Sussex and we have some commissions with female prisoners in HMP Bonsfield. What I like to do, which p*sses my friends off... I like change and so we like to try and find the gaps where victims and survivors needs aren't being met or they aren't coming forwards. For example the Armed Forces work we are doing or stalking in Hampshire, we have led the Stalking programme in Hampshire since inception. Or the DVA cars we have put in with the police. So we provide the generic provision that is desperately needed like Outreach and IDVAs but we also like to provide models of support where we see that victims aren't coming to generic services. We haven't got a refuge. Yet.
JH: So how many women do you help in a year?
Shonagh: Last year over 3000 women were supported through various different services through Aurora.
JH: If you're allowed to can you tell me about your DHR work? (Domestic Homicide Review)
Shonagh:I did the training through AAFDA, brilliant organisation. I was really nervous and thought "I can't do this justice!" I haven't done many and I am only on my third. They take a really long time and if you're going to do it justice you need to invest time in it. One of the things I notice about DHRs is how little victims are placed at the centre of any service provision or strategy and just .... how women's voices can just be entirely missed from communities.
It's real privilege to do a DHR. And my view on DHRs is that I will do them, obviously there's a cost to it, so I have to charge but then if I do a DHR then I put whatever we earn for doing the DHR goes back to victims and services, preferably in the woman's area.
JH: You are so lovely. You really are.
Shonagh: Yes everyone needs to be paid for work and I get that but some professionals who don't have a background in the MVAWG sector are earning tens of thousands....and it sound crass.... but to me you are earning money off the back of a woman's death. It's uncomfortable for me.
JH: How does writing a DHR affect you on a personal level?
Shonagh: I'm not going to lie it's really hard and I talk to my team a lot. But also at every panel meeting around the woman's death I put up her picture at the start of the meeting. So it is important that she is centred in what we do and how we are responding.We mustn't forget her and so in that sense I don't forget her either and I'd be lying if I said it didn't keep me up at night. I read some DHRs like for example Davina James-Hanman and I think "Oh my god, they are just amazing and she has done that woman justice, and the family and she has really drilled down" so for me I lose sleep asking have i missed anything? Have I done her justice.
I mean when I read the Femicide Census it's just like a mammoth DHR isn't it? I had to walk away from reading it on several occasions because I felt sick to my stomach at that stuff. I have a visceral reaction. I actually think that .... at the point at which I don't.... I need to get the f*ck out of the movement. So yes it causes me a physical, horrible response. Damn f*ckin right it should! Because that's the fire in my belly. If that's what I'm feeling I think....well it's just a tiny fraction..... now just imagine what she was feeling. Now imagine what her family are feeling. It is a physical response because it's heartbreaking. <Shonagh begins to cry >
JH : You're making me cry. I'm so proud of you. This is why I wanted to do this because women don't know what you do or what women like you do. <also crying> Break.
JH: What's one of the best things about your job?
Shonagh: Oh Gawd! Well. It's not a job is it? It's being part of a movement. I just feel so lucky to do what I do. I just love listening to team members telling me about women who have just turned their lives around. The bravery. There is nothing like seeing the smile of a woman who has been.... who's had the experience of men trying to take everything from them... and when you see a woman hold her head up high and smile and laugh and just be herself.... its just.... its f*cking priceless. I mean that just drives me. Data is just data... it's when you get to speak to women ... it sends shivers up my spine.
There's this perception "oh god that's a really hard job" but it isn't. The best anti-dote to trauma is laughter and I have had to hold my womb in place with laughing so f*ckin hard with victims sometimes, some of the funniest women I've ever met.... because they are just....you have to find a way ... and you realise that victims lose so much, they lose their autonomy, some are physically damaged forever, or psychologically, but when you provide them just with a space ....of you know... what the movement was set up for, for women by women, it just.... it's like a type of magic that happens. That's when you start to see their laughter and the connections between women ... it's like... f*ckin... that's not a job. That's just a privilege.
JH: What are the worst things?
Shonagh: <sigh> The obvious is funding. We still not valued. We are not given.... women still don't matter. The fact that 1425 women have been murdered in the last ten years.... it just goes to show that the Femicide Census wasn't even picked up by MPs.. I mean it was by women in the movement don't get me wrong.... but the fact that we aren't funded and my staff are on yearly contracts for not a lot of pay and I have to relentlessly bid.... It's not good enough for politicians to keep giving soundbites about male violence and the X amount of money...that doesn't mean jack sh*t because by the time it filters down to grass roots groups we are left with very little and those funds don't last very long. Having done this for over two decades... yes the conversation has got better but the data hasn't changed has it?
All the stuff that happens online is fascinating to watch ...so things get picked up by social media ...but then its passed. That tweet has been and gone. I started and there was no social media we just got the f*ck on with it. Now it's like "Oh we really need to have this conversation" and we are like " we have been asking you to have this conversation for years and you can't ....now that it's on a platform or people are tweeting about.... it say that you care and it's all hot air unless you fund us sustainably, adequately, in a specialist, independent for women and by women environment. Otherwise the rest is bullish*t.
JH and Shonagh: <Have a rant about ratifying the Istanbul Convention.>
Shonagh: The network of the domestic abuse sector and the women's movement, men's violence against women sector, amazes me. The connections we have ....the only reason we have law changes is down to the work of feminist women over decades. There's a through line ....and it's time they started f*ckin listening to us.
JH: As your friend, and knowing you and what upsets you...one of the things that has always struck me when you're anxious or very upset.... is when you don't get there on time.
Shonagh: Yeah. There have been cases we have worked on where women have died and it is heartbreaking. Devastating. There are tears in our office. It's the frustration as well... when we know that it's just about to happen and we are like "why won't you f*ckin listen to us??!" The statutory bodies often just ignore my front line staff and I have to get involved because I'm CEO and I think "hang on a minute why won't you listen to her?" I think if you're not listening to the victim's advocate then you aren't listening to the victim. You don't give two sh*ts about the victim. What I always say is "I hope I'm f*ckin wrong. I hope my f*ckin prediction on this case is wrong! I won't be embarrassed because I raised it. Women don't die because I've raised things, they die because you won't listen."
JH: Tell me about your PHD and what do you hope it will do for the movement?
Shonagh: The title is "TERF, Bigot, Transphobe. We found the witch, burn her". They aren't my words I've taken it out of data. It's about the silencing of feminist discourse on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act and policy capture and the impact on female only spaces for victims of male violence. I interviewed 31 participants from both sides of the debate, 16 feminist women, i specifically chose women for those who were against reform of the GRA because I believe in the "by women for women" and I knew that women were being silenced, so i wanted to transfer that model of what we do on the front line to my thesis, and then in the pro self-ID respondents it's a mixture of adults.I also used online ethnography "immersing myself in the data" observing tweets etc which is why I went quiet for about 2 years on Twitter on the topic. The results are really surprising because I expected there to be a real sort of polarised view of self-ID in male violence against women but there wasn't!
Even those that agreed with self-ID said that we should retain female only spaces, and they could understand the need for that in terms of trauma. In the participants on both sides there were women who work in the sector. On the pro self_ID side some of those participants were also part of the Stonewall research... the one that reported that there is no issue with self-ID and that's not what my findings say.
I want women in the movement to start talking about it. Obviously terrified of funding and losing funding. But there is a real passivity about it in the umbrella bodies and the conversation needs to happen. This is a piece of academic research that I hope helps start the conversation and shows that you can have a conversation with people with whom you are fundamentally disagreeing. That's ok. There is no "literal violence".
There is a hard line. Because there will be no movement left if we don't speak up. So it's like funding is hard... I get it...we are all worried about being attacked and social media is the place where that will happen. You might be called transphobic.... but the position will be that you will be forced into gender neutral provision and there won't be a woman's sector left anyway.
JH: Are you frightened on a personal level about your PHD coming out?
Shonagh: I'd be lying if I said I wasn't trepidatious about it. But I'm pleased I did it. I can't claim to feel frightened when women are experiencing real fear, every day, in their lives. How can I do 26 years worth of this work... I think it would be cowardly of me and I wouldn't be doing any woman justice if I wasn't promoting it and standing by it.
JH: When did you first realise the threat to women's rights from the transgender movement.
Shonagh: It was 'reclaim the night' years ago. They effectively shut it down. The fact that Aurora were organising and we were facilitating a radical feminist group....meant that we were targeted by the other group of feminists - obviously not feminist in the way that we understand it...and they just shut it down.
JH: Was the central disagreement around including trans women.
Shonagh: Yes. The central disagreement was because we were supporting TERFs. We were supporting a radical feminist grass roots group and we wouldn't back down on that. It was a t that point that I was like 'what is going ON here?!"
JH: Yeah. First time i was called a TERF and told to Die In a Fire was 2013 before the reform of GRA had been given breath.
Shonagh: It's the same attack on radical feminism because it is for and by women. I've never really understood the others. It doesn't make sense to me because of my background in the male violence against women sector. What the theory built up and what came out of it is the only reason we have refuges. It's the only reason why they call them IDVAs today. You wouldn't even have an IDVA if it wasn't for a second wave woman. You can put some shiny business on it all you like but it's grass roots activism.
JH: Could you even imagine the body count if that had never happened?
Shonagh: I daren't think about it.
JH: What niggles you at the moment about the women's movement?
Shonagh: We are a victim of our own success in some ways, as we seem to be centrally and locally funded by the patriarchy, so we've lost our voice, and I don't know when we are going to find our ovaries about that but actually i see far too much passivity in the movement. That annoys me.
I also think that there are so many women who have done this work for years, who have no Twitter, who have no platform whatsoever, who are changing women's lives every day. If I had a wish list of who should be platformed, most of those women are also victims themselves.
Where male violence against women has become a topic that is mainstream, that people talk about, there are opportunists who make money out of what has ostensibly been going on for years anyway. That feels uncomfortable to me.
You can find the incredible voice of the unsung shero that is Shonagh Dillon on Twitter at @ShonaghDillon.