Standing proudly at the end of Chaucer Street, Nottingham Women’s Centre enables women in our area to reach their full potential, providing the tools to achieve social, political and economic equality. Having just been presented with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, we thought it was high time we had a word with CEO, Helen Voce, who’s now a year into her post...
The Nottingham Women’s Centre began in 1971, during the second wave feminist movement. “It’s one of the largest, if not the largest women’s centre in the UK,” Helen says, proudly, “It all began as a campaign for equal pay, access to free childcare and reproductive rights.” Fifty years later, the centre still campaigns and lobbies on behalf of these issues, organises the Nottingham Reclaim the Night march, and provides direct services for women who need them. “Women need a safe, all-female environment, where they can take time out from the chaos of the world and find their feet again,” explains Helen. “We provide training, help them to gain new skills, and even provide counselling and therapy where necessary. We have a lot of fun, too. It’s a place for women to celebrate being women.”
A pivotal force behind the ruling that made misogyny a hate crime, staff and volunteers at Nottingham Women’s Centre have campaigned to ensure acts including, but not limited to, wolf-whistling, cat-calling and up-skirting (taking a photograph up a woman’s skirt without her consent) are now considered hate crimes under Nottingham by-law. As a result, Labour MP Melanie Onn recently urged the Nottinghamshire Police’s pilot to be rolled out across the nation.
Following the recent launch of their Community Safety Fund, the Centre receives financial support from the Police and Crime Commissioner, to spread their message and help to tackle hate crime. “It’s made a difference in Nottingham,” says Helen. “We’re still working to make sure everyone’s aware, but women who know about it say it makes them proud to be from Nottingham.
“There are two things about it: one, it’s a statement from Nottingham that says ‘That sort of behaviour is not acceptable.’ The biggest thing it’s done, really, is to say: ‘We’re not accepting that here.’ Second, if something does happen, you can go to the police and they will listen to you, believe you and, if necessary, take action.”
According to the Huffington Post, over 150 incidents have been reported since 2016, yet there have been just two prosecutions for sexual harassment offences under the Public Order Act. I wanted to know what Helen thought about this. “The prosecutions are low so that women still want to report incidents,” she says. “We want to find out how much it’s happening, but it’s unlikely that a lot of criminal outcomes will happen and that’s fine. That’s not what women want. Women have told us that they just don’t want it to happen to other women, so I don’t think it’s about making more criminals; it’s about educating women and men – men in particular – about what is an appropriate way to behave.”
Online, the centre responded to the #MeToo movement with campaigns of their own. #NottACompliment was launched on social media with the objective of tackling sexual harassment and encouraging women to report instances of harassment to authorities. #TimesUpNotts was used as a way to enable women to tell their stories of sexual harassment in the workplace: “In February this year, we started the #TimesUpNotts network,” says Helen. “Rather than going into HR departments and unions and saying, ‘What are you doing about this?’, I wanted women who were experiencing these things to come together and say ‘How do we stop it?’
“They all wanted something preventative,” Helen continues. “They wanted to start conversations within their workplace about healthy work cultures, taking it wider than gender and expanding into racism and ableism. Women have generated these conversations, and really interesting things have come from them, like the fact that often, cases of sexual harassment aren’t always between colleagues, but customers and colleagues.”
I asked Helen why she thinks women in Nottingham are so proactive with feminism and social issues, showing no tolerance when it comes to misogyny. “Good question,” she begins. “There’s room for so many women in the city that we can make new connections. Normally when you approach a woman to ask for help, in whatever capacity, she’s willing to listen to you and try and help you if she can. Women should watch each other’s back and celebrate successes, not put each other down.”
Without the contributions made by volunteers, the centre wouldn’t be able to achieve half of what it does. “We’ve got three times as many volunteers as paid staff,” says Helen. Over the last twelve months, 48 new volunteers have been inducted, each helping to undertake research, support women in educational classes, run groups, events and activities, and support staff with administrative tasks. That’s a whopping 3,679 hours with an economic value of almost £70,000.
And that work hasn’t gone unnoticed; the Women’s Centre has just been presented with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, which is the highest award given to volunteer groups across the UK. “We were so pleased that their efforts were recognised,” says Helen, “We’ve got an amazing volunteer coordinator, and her energy and support has meant that volunteers have really enjoyed their time with us. I think that’s one reason why we won.”
To receive the award, an organisation must be nominated, recognised and supported by the local community, as well as meeting the needs of service users. Helen reflects: “To think somebody took the time to nominate us because they think we’re doing good work, that was really humbling.”
Nottingham Women’s Centre, 30 Chaucer Street, NG1 5LP. 0115 941 1475