A celebration of women rediscovering their strength & joy @dvsouthbham

Me with Donna and Jacky, of The Freedom Project, Helen Kelly , of the Lottery Community Fund, and actress Maya Sondhi (who you’ll recognise as Maneet, from Line of Duty)

As soon as I opened the doors to the hall, the sound of happy chatter hit me. Women gathered together, looking happy and relaxed and having a bit of a pamper day – what could be simpler than that? Get talking to these women, though, and every one of them has an incredible story to tell of pain, suffering and cruelty, but also ultimately of rediscovery, triumph and strength. All of them have been affected by domestic abuse.

As an author of psychological thrillers where characters sometimes have abusive backgrounds, I felt honoured to be invited to this event by the Birmingham Freedom Project. Two or three times a year they stage them to celebrate the women who have successfully completed empowering programmes such as the:

Freedom Programme (an 11 week programme open to women 16+ who want to learn more about the reality of domestic abuse in relationships. Each session explores the abusive tactics, controlling behaviours and belief systems of the dominator and the effects on women’s health and well-being. This programme is run continuously so you can join in at any week as each session stands on its own.)

Recovery Toolkit Programme (a 12 week programme for those who are no longer at risk from the abuse, designed to assist you to build your confidence and self esteem and look at ways to develop positive lifestyle coping strategies. This programme runs January – March,  April – July,  September – December.)

ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Recovery Toolkit  (A 10-week programme aimed at helping adults develop positive coping strategies. It has been developed to educate parents about the impact of ACEs on themselves and their children. The programme offers guidance on protective factors that can help reduce the impact of ACEs, and provides practical methods for parents to develop resilience within themselves and their children. This programme runs January – March,  April – July,  September – December.)

These women had been through so much, yet the overwhelming feeling filling the rooms and spilling through the doors and windows was of joy. Everyone was smiling. But the biggest grin of all was on the face of Jacky, who is absolutely vital to the project. What an incredible, inspirational woman – and what a powerhouse of positive energy she is! She positively glowed as she looked around. On offer at the event were massages, hair cuts, manicures and henna tattoos; all pampering pleasures that represented so much more than looking good, they were about feeling good, too, and realising you are worth so much more than you’ve been led to believe.

One woman in particular embodied this for me (I won’t name names for obvious reasons). I first met her when I was invited to visit the Freedom Project about five years ago. She was shy, had clearly had a tough time, but there was a spark about her that was starting to grow brighter. Now it is burning bright. She’s studying speech and language therapy, and her eyes sparkle – positively sparkle – with passion when she talks about her future.

She is just one example of the incredible success stories these women represented. In a corner of the room was a Thought Tree covered in little notes of positivity that the women had written. One in particular brought a lump to my throat with its simple eloquence: ‘I have the right to be me.’ It’s not much to ask, yet it’s something that is so often stolen from people – male and female alike.

To raise awareness of domestic abuse and the work done by the Freedom Project, I’d also been asked to read a ‘Dear Friend’ letter (I’ll share the video of this in a few weeks, when it becomes available). These letters are written by women who have managed to break free, in order to empower other women. Well, first I had to choose one and as I read a selection it brought tears to my eyes.

‘Choose one that really speaks to you,’ I was advised. The problem was, so many of them leapt out at me. Once again, what struck me was that the messages weren’t angry or bitter, they were supportive and positive, each one concentrating on how far they’d come and encouraging others to take that step, too. The photo below is of the one I chose, with its overall message I think we can all learn from: ‘Be proud of yourself.’ ❤️💪

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