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Women Side by Side shows what can happen if women are given the space to grow

Naima Iqbal

I joined Women Side by Side as a part-time Regional Peer Researcher on the evaluation team led by the McPin Foundation. Women Side by Side is a women-led peer-support programme, run by Mind (the mental health charity) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, for women who are experiencing, or are at risk of developing, poor mental health. It focuses on women who experience ‘multiple disadvantage’. Alongside four other researchers, we formed a team that covered different regions of England and Wales. I visited projects in the Midlands, to observe their sessions, carry out interviews and support facilitators with data collection and submission issues.

I wanted to get involved in Women Side by Side, because I am passionate about supporting women who have experienced trauma. Prior to this project, I carried out peer research work interviewing women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, who had suffered trauma and/or abuse. I later questioned MPs in the House of Lords about these findings. For me, Women Side by Side “did exactly what it said on the tin”: women stood with one another, to support and encourage each other to feel more positive. These sessions broke down feelings of isolation. The programme got women connected with their local community again. It helped them to regain trust and ultimately it helped them to be able to move forward.

Uplifting experiences

During the project, I was conscious of having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was worried that it might suddenly flare up. Sure, I’ve worked in various other roles, but these all consisted of remote working – face-to-face contact can often feel too challenging when you are trying to hide having poor mental health. Interestingly, back then I never really enjoyed the work. Thankfully, this role has been a totally different experience.

As I mentioned, my self-confidence wasn’t brilliant when I first took on the role. However, this all changed when I started travelling around the Midlands to visit and observe projects. On a personal level, meeting these women has also helped me to validate my own lived experiences. Watching the women learn new skills and become empowered again after going through years of abuse and inner turmoil was so uplifting. It proves that recovery is possible if women are given the space to grow and freedom to be their best self.

I’ve accessed various mental health services over the years, including recovery and homeless centres. I’ve also needed psychotherapy, had counselling and tried CBT. However, nothing worked as well as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Because of this, I feel that therapy is vital and should always be easily accessible to anyone who has experienced long term trauma or abuse. Diagnosis without therapy and only medication is pointless.

One positive experience that I would like to share is when I was asked to pass on a skill to one of the groups I was working with. I decided to teach them crochet. I never thought anything of it until a month later, when one of the women from the group contacted me on social media to show me the amigurumi or crocheted animals she had been inspired to make. I was blown away by the fact that she had mastered crochet in four weeks from scratch! The things she made were absolutely amazing. She told me it helped her to cope emotionally with the abuse she was experiencing on a daily basis, from her ex-partner. I didn’t know how to react at first or what to say. I felt very proud of her for showing resilience.

Action needed

I hope that more funding will be made available for programmes like Women Side by Side, so that women who have experienced domestic abuse can be supported to start getting their life back on track. I appreciate that there are male victims of domestic abuse, but the statistics don’t lie: it’s predominantly females.

Right now during the pandemic, we are seeing a huge increase in the number of domestic violence cases worldwide. A current report from Women’s Aid cites that 64% of refuge referrals were declined last year – due to reduced levels of funding. This has gotten even worse during the present lockdown period. It’s truly heart breaking and the government needs to do more to tackle it.

I feel very passionately about these issues and as mentioned above, I have spoken in Parliament to MP’s and leading health care professionals on behalf of Agenda. I will continue to campaign for this, as well as for a better understanding of trauma treatment and prevention. I am currently involved in a study looking at the causes and impacts of trauma on both men and women, and how these could be prevented. This is funded by the Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network and run by St George’s, University of London. I am also working with Agenda to help them develop specialised  training materials for health care professionals on being trauma-informed around women who have experienced domestic and or sexual violence.


This is the first of four blogs in our series this month looking at the value of collaborative working and peer research in the evaluation of the women-led peer support programme, Women Side by Side.

Naima Iqbal worked as a Regional Peer Researcher at the McPin Foundation covering the Midlands of England.

The evaluators of Women Side by Side were a group of peer researchers at the McPin Foundation. The team was brought together specifically for this project along with five regional peer researchers recruited to work alongside the commissioned programme hubs in England and Wales. This meant that the evaluation was carried out by people who had similar lived experience to the women the projects were supporting, and experiential understanding of the structural and social challenges experienced by women, as a result of their gender. These experiences provide a level of insight that may not have been possible with researchers without lived experience.

Our report from Women Side by Side will be launched soon. For more information please visit this page.