The COVID- 19 crisis is exposing deep underlying fragilities in our economic and social systems. At the same time, as evidenced in SURF’s series of special bulletins, many under resourced communities and their organisations have responded effectively to meeting immediate local challenges. Policy makers are increasingly interested in how it might be possible to sustain raised levels of collaborative community action, in a way that could rebalance local regeneration power, resources and decision making.
SURF is using its community focused, cross sector role and networks to better inform those considerations. One aspect of SURF’s broader contribution to building back better is a series of articles here in the SURF Journal.
During the COVID pandemic, SURF’s network of frontline delivery organisations have adapted existing programmes and created new ones to deal with the crisis.
The COVID lockdown has amplified the inequalities facing women across Scotland – especially those who were already isolated and vulnerable.
Susan A’Brook, the Evaluation and Impact Officer for the SURF Award winning Dundee International Women’s Centre explains how they stepped up to meet the challenge in their community.
Overcoming the Odds – Women in Dundee Reflecting the National Picture
“I can’t believe you looked after my needs. You gave me support when I was on my lowest”
Dundee International Women’s Centre is not just a learning centre, it is also a home from home for many very isolated women. The only place where they feel accepted and respected as an individual. Where they know they can speak their mind, ask for information or help and see friendly faces every week.
It was very sad when we had to cancel all face to face teaching on 17 March. But we continued to keep in touch with as many learners as we could, through emails, video calls and over the phone. Staff had to learn to use new technology and find new ways to teach in just a few days. The fact that the timetable remained almost the same, with a few adjustments for home schooling is testament to both to the need for our services and to the dedication of our learners.
Most of our learners have continued to engage with their classes to some extent, but of course the lessons can’t be as effective as before. Women, particularly those from minority ethnic communities face barriers in accessing digital communications. This has been highlighted in a report produced by the Women’s Equality Steering Group, made up of organisations funded through the Promoting Equality and Cohesion Fund.
- Men often act as gatekeepers to women’s socialisation times and activities, and IT equipment (laptops and phones) and social media. Women are often relegated to the private or family sphere and only men have access to the public sphere.
- There are issues around privacy. Organisations can no longer guarantee a safe space for women and children. Other family or community members may be in the background.
- Women can find it difficult to engage with services digitally – they don’t have access to the technology (laptops and smart phones) or don’t have the knowledge or skills to use them and the software tools. Some people, especially older women, just don’t want to do things digitally.
- Lack of access to data allowances which can be expensive. Women on low incomes would often use the free Wi-Fi of cafes and supermarkets which are now not open to them.
- The issue of access to data and digital devices is a major problem which is going to continue, certainly into the medium term and perhaps long-term, pending development of a vaccine.
- Women’s Equality Steering Group (WESG): A report on how COVID- 19 has exacerbated women’s inequality in Scotland
Even where these wouldn’t normally be issues within a household, lockdown has meant that more people within the home have needed access to equipment and data. With extended families, there may be several working adults as well as children needing to be home schooled. The needs of Mum to get an education often comes last in the queue.
But this is only part of the story, because women depend on DIWC for social interaction, weekly structure, me-time and information. Suddenly this face to face support disappeared and many of our learners were left with families at home and children needing help with school work. We all know that women have borne the brunt of extra responsibilities over the past few months, but those from some communities have experienced even more pressures.
Imagine being expected to home school a child when your level of English is lower than theirs. This is a recurring problem at the best of times. Some children look down on their mother because she doesn’t speak the same language as them, “they’re like Scottish, so they don’t really respect their mum. “Shut up, just go in the kitchen”, that’s how they talk.” As one learner put it.
We have tried to offer as much one to one support as staffing has allowed with phone calls to our social groups, especially the elders’ Queen Bees group. Most said they were very bored and lonely and really appreciated hearing a friendly voice and one was putting up with a hearing aid which didn’t work because she didn’t want to bother the doctor. We were able to get that put right for her. The women are absolutely desperate to be able to get back to the Centre, something which we may not be able to organize for some time.
Lockdown has highlighted the problem of isolation for many women from minority ethnic communities and also that they have few places where they access help and information. One of the women in our parenting group had a child with very serious behavioral problems at the start of lockdown, stemming from her understandable fear of what was happening. It was contact with DIWC staff which enabled her to get the information and advice she needed to understand what was happening and get the help she needed. She wouldn’t have called anyone for help, but the fact that our Family Learning Worker called her meant that she was able to find it.
Our knowledge of our learners has also meant that we have been able to signpost and refer families to emergency help like food banks and we have also worked in partnership with staff from Kings Cross Hospital to provide toiletries and with Dundee Community Arts to supply materials for children. These things have helped families to stay connected with DIWC and to know that they have not been forgotten.
Social media has also provided a way of reaching different communities with important messages about Covid 19, handwashing and government regulations. Many of our learners don’t read newspapers or watch mainstream media, so they weren’t keeping up to date. Fortunately, they do follow us on Facebook and we posted regular updates with information in different languages to make sure families knew what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
For Dundee International Women’s Centre our biggest challenge has been adjusting to working more digitally and we expect that to continue for the medium and even the long term. There has been an increase in workload for staff as they have adjusted their teaching styles for the benefit of different learners. In the same class, they may have run a video session as well as phoning some learners and emailing others. We’ve faced problems with phoning because staff are using their own phones and have to withhold their number, so a lot of women won’t answer. Like many organisations moving to home working, we’ve also had the cost of buying extra laptops.
WESG also reported that women’s organisations will:
- Need to spend time and resources delivering IT equipment and training to clients before services can be delivered online.
- Produce guides on how to use the IT equipment in different languages.
- Need to spend time and funds on converting existing resources so they can be accessed digitally.
- The move to “blended” learning in the future will mean a big investment in IT, training, possibly consultancy. It will also create problems around who accesses learning centres and who learns from home. Are rota systems introduced, or does individual need take priority?
- If the latter, how to balance digital inclusion against isolation and other disadvantages?
On the plus side we have been touched at the generosity and flexibility of several of our funders who have topped up existing grants or allowed us to move money around so that we can spend it more effectively. This has allowed us to plug the gap left by the enforced closure of our social enterprise childcare business.
We have also received help from members of the Scottish Tech Army, who are volunteering to help us with the move towards blended learning. We hope that being able to film lessons at the Centre to be watched by learners in their own time will mean that women will gain more from our services. They won’t be as disadvantaged by unexpected caring needs, lack of money for bus fares or worries about leaving the house. Women who have never had the chance to learn before will have access and those whose attendance isn’t regular will be able to catch up at home.
In turn, our need to support learners in digital skills will increase their ability to make more out of their smartphones. We’ll be helping them to set up email addresses and encouraging them to check for messages regularly. That will mean that they will be able to access other services and, most importantly, help them in moving on to college or deal with government agencies. This doesn’t overcome the problem of lack of data, and of course, not all our learners have smartphones so further help from the government is still needed in that area.
Unfortunately, most of our learners do not qualify for help under the current digital scheme despite being disproportionately disadvantaged by lack of access. It will be up to the third sector to fill this gap.
The big challenge now is to return safely to working from our Centre. We are working on the constantly changing risk assessments like everyone else, with the added importance of taking care of staff, volunteers and learners from more vulnerable communities as well explaining new rules to people who speak English as a second language. It will be a gradual return, one class at a time as we see how new systems work, but hopefully we will be able to give everyone a chance to benefit from their home from home before too long.
This is the last week of the Journal’s themed reviews of the ways in which the COVID19 crisis is exacerbating inequalities. SURF’s unique position as Scotland’s regeneration forum allowed us to access the views of frontline workers, academics, policymakers, politicians and of those people living and working in the communities which are being hardest hit.
Through the contributions from our network we have been able to do more than record the damage that has been caused and rejoice in the innovative and collective creativity of those who stepped up to meet the challenges. We have also been able to present ideas and processes which encourage debate about how our many national and local partner organisations should support and sustain the most effective of these responses to collaboratively build back better. Thank you to all who have contributed.
SURF welcomes all feedback and suggestions for future Journal articles. Please email Elaine Cooper at Elaine@surf-old.local