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The power of activism – Birgit Wolf

As part of our campaign for this year’s 16 days of activism, we have been interviewing a number of women’s rights activists in order to showcase their work and their values in both written and recorded form. Today, we dive into the world of Birgit Wolf, counsellor at the Frauenhelpline gegen Gewalt (Women’s helpline against violence), based in Vienna, Austria, as well as researcher and lecturer on the topic of gender-based violence and media, which takes a crucial role in primary prevention.

Frauenhelpline was founded in 1998 and is run 24/7 and free of charge, offers multilingual support, and can be contacted anonymously. Birgit has been actively involved since 2006, occupying different roles – for example as a member of the board or working on the frontline offering support and advice, as she has been doing since last year. Birgit’s activism focuses on the protection of women from violence and their right to live a life free from violence.

Challenges

In her line of work, Birgit has experienced different challenges. Sometimes, women that call the helpline are in a very bad or dangerous situation. However, it is not possible to call them back, and it is therefore unknown what might happen after the call, which can be hard. What is also difficult, is that some women are so anxious about what their violent partner might do if they reach out for help, that they cannot contact any women’s organisations or the police. In such cases, it is challenging to see how to ensure women’s safety and how to facilitate a safe escape.

Currently, a big concern is the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on violence against women. Due to periods of lockdown, during which many people either faced unemployment or had to work from home, the time spent together by couples has significantly increased. In some cases, this has meant that the control of the perpetrator could be held 24/7, meaning no moments of respite for the victim. Birgit explained to us that there has been an increase in calls to the helpline by people in the social environment of victims; how can they give support? The same goes for the employers of victims, who notice something is wrong and step in at the only time the victim is away from the violent partner. Victims often call from other such safe places, for instance from the houses of family or friends. Otherwise, it is also possible when the perpetrator is asleep.

Another aspect linked to the COVID-19 pandemic is the challenging situation for separated parents. In Austria, violence against the mother is often not taken into account when it comes to custody arrangements, which women suffer from extremely. This is something that, according to Birgit, must become more visible, as such situations have a toxic effect on children as well.

We also asked Birgit whether she ever finds her work challenging on a personal level. She answered that as she has a lot of experience and a good education as a counsellor for crisis and trauma, she knows a lot about the cycle of violence and is able to help women without herself going through any psychological challenges. When women feel anxious or nervous, or when they have to hide out of fear of what their violent partner might do, she is glad to be able to support them and listen to their story. Telling a story of violence can be hard, therefore she has different ways to create a calm atmosphere; for example, certain exercises can help to feel more ready to speak. Birgit did admit that perhaps once or twice a year a certain story or situation can affect her more than usual – however, the Frauenhelpline has a good internal support system in place. Between shifts, there is a thirty-minute interval during which the colleague that has finished speaks with the colleague who is starting, to exchange what has happened during the shift. Additionally, all colleagues work part-time, which Birgit believes gives them the time to create some distance to this work in their personal lives.

Achievements

Recently, Frauenhelpline has received a lot of positive feedback, which gives a special kind of empowerment, explained Birgit, seeing that the work they do has an effect. The Austrian network for women and girls’ counselling for example expressed their contentment about the good cooperation and work and the fact that the Frauenhelpline is always available – this is very useful for when other women’s organisations are closed, at night or at the weekend. Alongside this, a particularly touching piece of feedback was received: one woman called the helpline after her initial consultation and said she was symbolically sending a bunch of roses to show her appreciation.

 

More generally, every time a women can successful be referred to the correct services is an important achievement. The Frauenhelpline looks at every woman’s individual situation: is she safe, how long as she been in a violent relationship, does she realise it is violence, is it psychological violence, is it physical violence? Is there evidence? Does she think no one will believe her if she tells her story? What is her social environment? The Frauenhelpline takes all of these questions into consideration and many more, in order to refer women to the most suitable services in their region. The police is only called if the victim wants this – the Frauenhelpline only intervenes with permission.

Recommended resources

Birgit recommended two resources that she believes are useful in understanding the dynamics of sexism and sexual harassment. One is ‘It’s not that grey’, or ‘Grauzonen gibt es nicht’ in German. It is a practical guide that provides concrete tools to identify sexism and harassment as well as busting myths around these topics. The second is only available in German, ‘Kraft-Rucksack’, which is aimed at all women who have experienced forms of violence. It is a helpful mechanism to deal with the consequences of living with memories of bad experiences, as it includes different exercises to do to feel calm and different ways to feel better in bad moments. Links to where these resources can be found are at the end of this article.

How should people act if they have suspicions that someone in their environment might be suffering violence?

Birgit replied to this question with what she and her colleagues always say: ‘call us. Call us if you observe that a woman may be in a violent relationship, or experiencing any kind of violence, we can provide support to clarify what kind of violence, what the signals are.’ The Frauenhelpline can explain the cycle of violence as well as what can be done in support – there are many ways to help victims, the most important being to signalise that ‘you are there. You understand the difficult situation. Even if she stays in the relationship, you are there. When she is ready, when she has the possibility to escape or change something to find a way out of violence, you are there.’

Something else that Birgit highlighted is her viewpoint on the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor.’ She herself is an activist for changing the expression from victim to survivor, because she believes it gives the survivor a lot of empowerment and energy. It gives agency and acknowledges that on top of experiencing violence, survivors manage to keep up their daily tasks, their children, etc. Therefore, people should have a profound respect for survivors of violence, especially in Austria this needs to be strengthened, as victim blaming is still very widespread. The one issue with the term ‘survivor’ is that it does not coincide with legal definitions of experiencing violence; here, the term and the status of ‘victim’ is important in order for women to have rights and gain legal support. However, for personal development, the term ‘survivor’ helps women gain back a feeling of power and independence. Birgit therefore encourages the use of this term.

We would like to warmly thank Birgit for her participation in our 16 days of activism project. She brings an interesting insight into the world of frontline work in women’s specialist support services from which we have learnt a lot and we hope all readers do too.

Written by WAVE Intern India Stotesbury 


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