In the business of rebuilding lives
Alla Kvinnors Hus case
At a secret address in a small one-way street in Stockholm, behind two majestic, closed doors, one can find a group of truly extraordinary people. Not just your typical kind of extraordinary people, like the ones you read about in the paper or envy at a dinner party when they unfold their most recent achievements. But the ones who change the lives of others, and the ones who have managed to gather the strength and courage to take a first step towards turning their lives around.
“We have everything from lawyers, researchers, teachers and women in other high positions coming here”.
Ann Isaksson, Operations Manager at Alla Kvinnors Hus
Operations Manager at Alla Kvinnors Hus
Ann has been with Alla Kvinnors Hus for the past six years, and during this period, she has nearly doubled its revenue as well as the number of employees. Ann is used to a rough environment, having previously worked with the police in Stockholm for 20 years. When not devoting her time to the women and children at Alla Kvinnors Hus, she spends time with her family including her three grown-up daughters.
A day in a life
“There was a woman who lived here about six months ago, and the social services decided that it was safe for her children to go home again. Since the woman wanted to be with her children, she went home too. She was murdered when she returned home”. These are the words of Ann Isaksson, describing the fate of one of the residents at Alla Kvinnors Hus (All Women’s House), the largest and first-established women’s shelter in Sweden.
Ann is one of those truly extraordinary people you don’t come across every day. Six years ago, she left her position in the police force after 20 years of service, in order to become Operations Manager at Alla Kvinnors Hus (AKH). Driven by a desire to help and a wish to make use of her vast experience of domestic abuse after many years with the police, Ann was motivated to take on new tasks. The job she chose, however, isn’t your common 9-5 job.
“This is quite common, this monotonous abuse; something every day. Everything from just a slap to a push and the blow of a fist to the woman lying on the floor, being kicked – often in front of the children. The children often try to interfere to save their mother. All the children who are staying here have special needs because of what they’ve been through”, Ann explains. AKH provides support and counselling to women who are victims of domestic violence, as well as to their children. In an open office service, the staff engage in dialogues with the women through individual talks and support groups. Also, AKH offers housing for up to 20 women and their children at a time, for whom it’s too dangerous to return home.
Back on track
AKH’s work is centred on helping the women and children t get their lives back on track. This is their value proposition, one could say. They help the women become autonomous, and break the pattern of the former victims of abuse returning to either old or new abusive relationships.
“We have had women come here who have been locked up for years in an apartment and not been allowed to go out. Then they come here, and are supposed to eventually lead independent lives. But they often need to learn basic skills before they can take care of themselves. One woman did not dare to press the buttons on an ATM machine to withdraw money”.
The picture painted by Ann is harsh. Practicalities such as filling out police reports, going to the bank or employment office, shopping for groceries and protecting not only their children, but also themselves, are essential parts of rebuilding a life. Since Ann joined the organisation, AKH now provides kindergartens for the younger children and helps find new schools for the older children. If it’s deemed too dangerous for the children to leave the area, a teacher comes to AKH instead. Due to security reasons, the women and children at AKH have to cut all strings that may reveal their whereabouts.
This involves social relations, jobs, schools and children’s institutions. This is no easy task for any woman, and definitely not for one who is already vulnerable and mentally frail, and the staff have an important role to play. Their ambition is to make the lives of these women and children as normal as possible, while at the same time keeping their vulnerable situation in mind. While the women staying at the shelter are primarily women of different ethnical backgrounds, the women seeking help in the open office are often ethnical Swedish women, with very diverse social backgrounds.
“We have everything from lawyers, researchers, teachers and women in other high positions coming to our open office, while the women who stay here are mostly immigrant women. The immigrant women are often very lonely and therefore more vulnerable”. Ann elaborates: “We have to teach the women that they are allowed to be women. Many of them experience difficulties in the attachment to their children, and we help them work on this as well. The violence affects the entire family. We see young boys, who have witnessed their father be abusive, repeat this pattern. It’s important that we focus on this and make them understand that it’s not ok. Sometimes these boys won’t look at women; they avert their eyes when I look at them”.
“We have had women come here who have been locked up for years in an apartment and not been allowed to go out”.
Ann Isaksson, Operations Manager at Alla Kvinnors Hus
An increasing demand
AKH saw the light of day back in 1978, initiated by the women’s movement. In the beginning, it was run by volunteers only, and at that point open to all women. Throughout the years, AKH has undergone a remarkable development. Unfortunately, women’s shelters are a growing business, as the need for help is increasing. “When I started, six years ago, there were nine employees and approximately 50 volunteers. The revenue was SEK 9 million. Today, we have expanded our operations and we are now 18 employees, with a revenue of approximately SEK 16 million”, Ann explains.
Last year alone, AKH housed 133 children and 103 women, but still, they had to turn down 217 women who they did not have the resources or capacity to help. Accordingly, Ann wants to expand their operations further, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the amount of resources available.
Besides an increase in demand, the needs have changed as well: “The violence is becoming rougher. This demands a lot of co-operation between the social services, the police and us. It requires an understanding of the problems; that we are all knowledgeable in what we do”. To illustrate her point, Ann continues her story, “the incident with the woman who recently got killed shows how important it is that we work together with the social services and the police, so that these things don’t happen”.
The process of handling cases of domestic violence varies across Sweden. One municipality may allow the women to stay at AKH for one year, while another municipality has a different perspective, and might not want to pay for accommodation at all. This creates a very unfortunate situation for the women in need of help: “It may depend on the executing officer at the municipality, and what knowledge this person has. We work a lot with this: the officers’ knowledge should not be the decisive factor, the threatening picture should be”, Ann explains.
“The violence is becoming rougher.This demands a lot of co-operation between the social services, the police and us. It requires an understanding of the problems; that we are all knowledgeable in what we do”.
Ann Isaksson, Operations Manager at Alla Kvinnors Hus
When love is dangerous
After 4 to 12 months, the women and their children are phased out into society again. Some women find a new place to live, others move to new cities and may even be forced to take on new identities. And some are picked up by the same man who caused the violence, and return to their old homes. “That’s of course very unfortunate. But love also plays a part. The man is not only evil; there are other aspects as well. This is what we work with all the time. On the one hand, they love the man, and he is the father of their children. On the other hand, he is dangerous. These are opposites that are difficult to handle, and which require a lot of time”. Some of the women staying at AKH return to the same abusive patterns. But
it’s not only the women who initiate new dangerous relationships, the men also find women who they can subject to violence – ranging from harsh violence to a high level of control. A tendency that is becoming increasingly common among younger generations. “Sometimes people ask: ‘Why do these women go after the same type of man again?’ I would rather turn the question around and ask: ‘Why do these men look for this type of woman?’ If he tries to control a woman and she says no and goodbye, that is one thing. But if he finds a woman, and the abuse increases gradually, she’s stuck. The man needs to know and understand what kind of behaviour he displays that creates the situation of abuse. In order to reduce this behaviour, the man needs to gain insight into these mechanisms”, Ann explains. In order to engage in dialogues about violence, AKH also provides individual talks and support groups for men. However, they find it challenging to engage the men and motivate them to participate in the dialogues.
Looking into the future, Ann’s ambitions for AKH are high. She has three overall targets going forward: growing AKH’s capacity, educating the social services and ensuring financial predictability. “First of all, I want to expand our operations and build an additional house, so we can help even more women. Three years from now, I hope that we will have a completely new house, with 20 more living quarters. Second, I would like our co-operation with the social services to become even better. I would like to train and educate the social services on these issues. My vision is to be able to go in and examine how a case is being handled: what thoughts form the background for decisions being made, and so on”, says Ann, and elaborates on her third and final ambition, “we’ve existed since 1978, but we still we need to apply for the same money each year. To me, it would make much more sense if we could focus our resources on what we do best helping the women in need”.
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