Working during the pandemic

Parliament Square statue of Dame Millicent Fawcett © Creative Commons

Working in the male violence against women movement is such a privilege, I absolutely love my job, but it takes a certain type of personality. You must really want to do it for the love because the pay isn’t that great, and the hours are long. The work is vocational and must be combined with a good routine of self-care. I’ve been lucky enough to work in this movement for nearly 30 years and during that time my mental health has been tested to capacity, but none more so than during the global pandemic.

‘So, I was naïve and kept thinking it would all die down eventually, and we wouldn’t really be affected, or at least that my sector would keep going in just the same way. But as we all know, that isn’t what happened.’

I remember the news filtering through in the months leading up to lockdown, the buzz around whether the UK government would make the move that other countries had already applied and tell us all to remain at home. If I am honest, I avoided the news really, I had worked in a busy sexual assault referral centre when I was pregnant and swine flu was the biggest warning to our health and I had witnessed the scares around Ebola. So, I was naïve and kept thinking it would all die down eventually, and we wouldn’t really be affected, or at least that my sector would keep going in just the same way. But as we all know, that isn’t what happened.

In the week leading up to lockdown, the reality was that it was definitely happening and as an employer I needed to be able to respond. I have the luxury of an expert senior management team, they are women who I have worked with for over eighteen years, so we know each other very well and we all seem to fit together like a blended jigsaw. Our connection to each other means we are especially good in a crisis. That week we all pulled together in a way that only those who work in crisis response can. We amended all our policies, ensured that staff had IT access to be able to work from home, liaised with our partner organisations about our plans and packed up the office.

That same week I wrote a blog about how I was feeling with regards to the pandemic and the fear I felt for victims and survivors. I won’t lie, I felt terrified about the prospect of so many women being locked in with their abusive partners and my fears were justified, because in the first three weeks of lockdown 16 women were murdered by men, which was the highest rate in eleven years.

‘The pandemic taught me a lot of things about myself, I wasn’t just running a busy charity, I was all of a sudden home schooling my kids and trying to finish my PhD.’

To respond to my fear my team and I set up a 24/7 helpline in the space of a week. We reached over 2,500 victims through this service alone and I am still so proud of the response my team were able to give at such a difficult time. We didn’t know if the project would be fully funded when we set it up but that wasn’t the priority – the point was we couldn’t get to victims and so we found the only possible way they could get to us and thankfully it paid off.

The pandemic taught me a lot of things about myself, I wasn’t just running a busy charity, I was all of a sudden home schooling my kids and trying to finish my PhD. It was a crazy time when I think back. My husband is a key worker, so he wasn’t at home, and I was left to seemingly manage what often felt like the unmanageable.

I look back and can laugh now at the fact that I have one kid who had all her work done by 11am and wanted to start making brownies (with my help), and the other kid who I would drag out of bed, only to find he had jumped right back in when my back was turned because I was on another endless zoom call.

I think the pandemic shifted so much for all of us really, some of it good but a lot of it bad for so many. I feel like one of the lucky ones. I didn’t lose anyone to the virus, I had no other health needs to worry about, I had a job and a home, and I am not in an abusive relationship. I definitely struggled but my family and friendships pulled me through. At the end of it I walked away very proud of the women I work with, proud of my kids and chuffed at myself for being awarded my doctorate in June 2021.

The affects of the pandemic still rage on – however, when challenges arise, I feel more able to respond to not only the needs of victims and survivors but to rely on my own resilience and know that it is absolutely ok to shout when I am not coping.

Dr Shonagh Dillon LLB, DCrimJ

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