The importance of a listening ear

By Sarah, a volunteer on Women and Girls Network’s helpline

Volunteering on an advice and helpline for survivors of gender-based violence can be incredibly rewarding and empowering. But hearing directly from survivors makes it clear how much more needs to be done. A major challenge is a lack of funding for services like these that help survivors when they need it the most.

For more than a year I have been volunteering for Women and Girls Network – an organisation providing advice, advocacy and emotional support for survivors of violence against women and girls in London. I volunteer on two lines: the sexual violence helpline offering emotional support to survivors of sexual violence, and the advice line for survivors of all forms of gender-based violence including domestic abuse. I also provide advice and support on the webchat, which is available for survivors who prefer not to talk over the phone.

During a typical call I will talk to survivors about their experiences of abuse, their current situation, and the support or advice they need. During this conversation, I am assessing the immediate risk to the survivor as well as any children or vulnerable adults involved, sometimes pausing to discuss with my colleagues so we can ensure everyone is kept safe.

It sounds obvious but the most important job of a helpline worker is to really listen: to tune out every distraction and be present for the survivor on the other end of the phone. Too often I hear survivors who are not believed by the people in their lives or the agencies they reach out to, and they may even have been told that what happened to them was their fault. That’s why on the lines my priority is to listen to the woman I am speaking to and make sure she knows I hear her, I believe her, and I am here to support her.

We are often the first port of call, so we often help survivors access ongoing support, mostly through community-based services like advocacy and counselling, or safe accommodation like refuge. While I’m on the phone I will check what support is available through the Ascent Partnership, which brings together organisations in London providing advocacy and counselling to survivors in every London borough.

When waiting lists for these partnership services are closed, I do what I can to find the right alternative support – checking through our directories of services across London and in specific boroughs that the survivor is connected to. Sometimes, there is nothing available, and I have to signpost to less specialist support or ask the survivor to call back when our waiting lists are reopened. These are some of my hardest and most frustrating shifts – where I feel I haven’t been able to do enough.

That’s why I want to see better funding for violence against women and girls’ services – because a survivor should never be in a situation where she’s taken the brave steps to reach out for support only to find that there’s nothing available for her.

In England, there is a duty for local authorities to commission accommodation-based services like refuge. But for community-based services, there is no such duty, and early evidence from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s mapping research shows that community-based services are less likely to receive statutory funding even before the accommodation duty came into force. That’s why the Commissioner is calling for a duty to commission community-based services to bring this type of support onto equal statutory footing.

Working on the lines a lot of things can be out of your hands: I can’t control how the police will respond to a survivor, whether a refuge bedspace is available, or whether the waiting lists for support will be open or closed. But I can make sure that a survivor has the information and advice she needs for the next stage in her journey , that she leaves a call feeling heard and understood, and that she knows that even when it feels like the world is against her – there is an organisation of women who are fighting her corner.

Find out more about Women and Girls Network and how to volunteer here: Volunteer with us | Women and Girls Network (