We want to amplify the voices of a variety of different charities, community groups and individuals from home and abroad. While highlighting how COVID-19 has impacted them, how kindness plays a role in what they do, how people can get involved to support them and what the ideal future looks like.
Our special guest today is Afrah Qassim, founder and CEO of Savera UK, discussing their work tackling harmful practices in the UK and how they supported their clients during COVID-19.
Tell us about yourself - Where do you work and what is your role?
My name is Afrah Qassim, the founder and recently-appointed CEO of Savera UK. Savera UK is a leading specialist charity, tackling ‘Honour’-Based Abuse (HBA) and Harmful Practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) across the UK.
I am a woman from a Yemeni background and moving to the UK when I was 15-years-old was difficult. I moved here with my family. I had to learn a new language and whole new way of life. I was fortunate to have a very supportive and encouraging family. Despite that, I still struggled to find my identity when I was exposed to two very different cultures - one that promoted independence and the freedom to make your own choices, and another that could be very traditional and the expectations for women were very limited. Acting outside the norm of traditions in the Yemeni community could cause many consequences. Although my family gave me the opportunity to explore my identity and outside of our cultural ‘norms’, my community didn’t and I wanted to be accepted and belong to that community as well.
Going through this, growing up and finding myself within society, helped me to understand the issues, struggles and challenges faced by women belonging to communities following traditions that were unacceptable, in particular where HBA and other harmful practices were prevalent. These experiences gave me self-determination and motivated me to make changes.
Savera is Hindu word, meaning, “New Beginning”. I feel the name perfectly a fits the services and support that we offer, rescuing survivors from abusive relationships and families who are determined to harm them for the sake of their ‘honour’ and reputation within their community.
How has COVID-19 affected the work that Savera UK does?
The UK Government lockdown to combat the COVID-19 outbreak prompted a 30 percent increase in calls to Savera UK’s service, from both individuals and professionals requiring specialist support and guidance.
We also saw a significant spike in existing clients contacting the organisation for additional emotional and practical support during lockdown, increasing the number of active cases, putting a huge strain on our very small team. We were also unable to bring in new staff, due to the lack of funding.
Having to provide specialist support and emergency support in delivering supplies and medication during COVID-19 has been a real challenge. We have had to create new ways of communicating with and engaging our clients and others at risk, as well as continuing to raise awareness more widely. We have worked hard to ensure our clients do not suffer further isolation, as many live on their own, as well as implementing further safety measures and protection, particularly where services have moved online.
The organisation has also been hugely affected in its training delivery, which is not just about raising awareness, but it also helps us to generate income that allows us to continue our work.
What activities have Savera UK been undertaking since the start of COVID-19?
Savera UK’s team worked so hard to adapt quickly to the changes caused by COVID-19, from getting used to working from home, to moving one-to-one support from face-to-face support to telephone support. Due to the nature and the high risk of our clients, we needed to create a high security online platform to use with our clients.
The team was able to provide range of art activities and games that was sent to our clients for their children to use and support with their schoolwork, as well as activities and games that could be done with their children as a way of keeping them active.
Savera UK also moved the engagement with our youth members to an online programme. Through this, Savera UK Youth members were able to run a number of online events, including creating #ImSpeakingOut campaign videos and an online quiz with one of our celebrity ambassadors, Maya Jama, to engage other young people and raise awareness about harmful practices. I am so proud of how our team, youth and board continued to deliver and adapt to such a difficult situation.
Tell us about the role of kindness in your work.
Savera UK is committed to providing a holistic support service to all those who seek our support and help. As well as our critical support we offer emotional support and create opportunities for the people who come to us to meet new people and make friends. Every person who comes to us is more than a statistic, they are a real person with a real story – fears, hopes, dreams and much more. Kindness and understanding plays a big part in that.
Kindness is also at the heart of our team. Despite the challenges and difficulties with COVID-19, and despite the fact that everyone had their own personal struggles during lockdown, the Savera UK team stepped up and ensured support was available for those in need, often working outside their working hours to deliver this. We also worked with great key agencies who support us in delivering emergency supplies to those who needed them. I am so grateful and appreciate the kindness and humanity that I have seen from so many people and the staff and agencies we work with.
How can people help/get involved with what Savera UK is doing during COVID-19?
There are many ways people can help or get involved. With small charities so badly hit financially, you can donate or fundraise for us, which will allow us to continue to provide our services and expand the support we are able to give. If you have specialist skills you can offer time and support on a voluntary basis, you can join our advisory board. We are currently looking for those with skills in digital marketing, accounting, fundraising, family law and human resources.
Finally, you can educate yourself on harmful practices and join us in #SpeakingOut – if we continue to raise awareness and more people are able to identify and call out these practices, we will become closer to eradicating them for good – there are lots of resources on our website!
What is the most amazing act of kindness you have seen during the COVID-19 crisis?
There have been so many and every single one has been amazing to us. We are so grateful to every single person who supports us. Examples I can think of during COVID-19, are when an agency contacted us and offered us arts materials and school activities, which we distributed to our clients to support them with their children’s school work – this was so appreciated by the team and also our clients. Another was when we needed some emergency clothing for some of our clients. We put a call out locally and had such an incredible response. Acts of kindness don’t need to be big, it’s about the impact they have, and these things had an incredible, positive impact for our clients.
What initiatives/positives would Savera UK like to see come out of this crisis?
It’s so difficult at the moment to see beyond this week due to the current situation. As an organisation we continue to plan to ensure sustainability and development through fundraising to be able to continue providing our services. We also intend to expand and develop the services that Savera UK provides. For example, we want to see our training offered via a digital platform. We also want to develop more campaigns on the issues of harmful practices nationally, particularly targeting policy makers and people with influence, such as MPs and the media.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Just that we will keep going, be committed and passionate about what we want to change.
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Spotlight On: Violence Against Women and Girls
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