Why language matters for those in the VAWG sector

Often I see terms like ‘clients’ or ‘service users’ across the VAWG sector. Whilst not incorrect terms both set up a position of power – a giver and a receiver. This unfortunately has consequences down the line especially when trying to think about how to ensure the needs of victim-survivors come first.

For example, I often see people say things like ‘we need to work out how to make sure our service meets everyone’s needs’ and then they proceed to pull together commissioners, service providers, and other professional stakeholders together to solve the issues they’re facing in doing this. How is it feasible to ensure a service meets someone’s need if they’re not an equal part of the solution or even invited to the table?

It also means we often end up with invites sent to ‘researchers, service providers, commissioners, and people with lived experience’. Being the end of that list is not inconsequential, or accidental. It’s a real reminder that those with lived experience are often an after thought. I see this time and time again when those of us with lived experience are the minority voice in the room, or are asked to attend for a far lower rate of remuneration than our professional counterparts.

You might think those of us who coordinate groups whilst naming our own lived experience as part of that are robust enough to hold that, and we might be when we are in spaces we are used to. But nothing fills me with more dread than realising I am the only named victim-survivor in a room of strangers. I know based on statistics I am not the only victim-survivor in that space, but everyone else makes a choice about whether or not to disclose, whilst I am there by virtue of being ‘out’ about my experiences.

You might also think £10 an hour, or a £25 voucher for a couple of hours meeting seems okay. But it really isn’t equivalent to what those in paid employment receive to turn up to meetings once you consider all the additional support they get, and all the benefits in kind. Remember if we’re drawing on our lived experience we are often drawing on experiences that are painful for us. That means we’re going to need to find extra ways to support ourselves. For example, I can only do this work full time with paid support in place and time to nurture myself after difficult meetings. Those things cost time and money. For me access to supervision and a gym membership is not a luxury, it’s the only way in which I can ensure I’m okay to do this work.

Likewise, you may think that having more than a couple of lived experience voices on a space is too many, but if you’re not choosing to limit service providers or other professionals to a select few, I’d argue this isn’t true. Yes, sometimes you need to do more prep work for those with lived experience. Yes, it might mean more time is spent listening to those with direct experience. Yes, it might slow the day down a little if they don’t understand all your jargon, but that’s doesn’t mean you won’t get better outcomes. In fact, I’d argue the opposite, you’ll get better outcomes and it will force you to take the time to do the work meaningfully.

In short there are a few very simple but key things all commissioners, funders, and service providers need to do to readdress the power imbalance and to ultimately improve provision for victim-survivors of VAWG:

  1. ensure lived experience people are invited to events;
  2. pay them an equitable wage, and provide the same support you would to staff;
  3. use more equalised language ‘women, survivor etc’ rather than client or service user;
  4. don’t limit the number of people with lived experience invited without good reason;
  5. change your order of wording to ‘this event is open to those with lived experience, professionals, and researchers’.