PODCAST EPISODE: Tea Time with Ali Monjack with Su Bhuhi MBE, CEO and Founder of Aanchal Women’s Aid

Tea Time with Ali Monjack (Listen back via Spotify)

Episode Description

My next guest on the Tea Time sofa is Su Bhuhi MBE, Founder of Aanchal Women’s Aid. Su shares how she works with women to empower them after suffering domestic abuse! Aanchal Women’s Aid was founded by Su in 1984 after her own abusive situation and after a woman needed support to stop her children from being taken to South Asia against her will. Since then, the organization has worked with thousands of women from many different cultures across the UK. During the Pandemic domestic abuse has increased and more recently the organisation have received a grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and launched a digital support programme, to support hard to reach BAME women.

A = Ali Monjack and S = Su Bhuhi

A: It’s lovely to see you. So, I can see you’re at home like, like me, and it’s been quite a busy time hasn’t it, for Aanchal with the Jasmine project?

S: That’s right, a lot of different projects, but in particular the Jasmine has done really well because the pandemic highlighted that need and whereas at the start of the lockdown we thought ‘how are we going to deliver traditional services in a different way?’,  but in fact, the Jasmine project has been more successful, one of the most successful projects of Aanchal’s this year and that’s because more women through zoom can reach us from wherever they are. They’ve had the opportunity to warm up with us on one to one and straight into the Jasmine project. So yeah we’re very pleased with how the Jasmine project’s been running.  It did take us two and a half years to develop it before we actually received funds before we actually put it together as a full package to begin fundraising so it was a lot of time invested. It’s a sort of collection of all the best things that work to help women rebuild their lives that we have cherry-picked from our thirty-seven years of expertise, so it’s all of it cherry-picked together and put in one package, we love it too.

A: Ah Fantastic! I mean it does look like a really good programme and it’s all about empowering women who have been through domestic abuse as well isn’t it?

S: It is. It’s all about,  rebuilding a life, whether you’re at an early stage or whichever phase of the journey you are at so empowerment is a crucial factor but not many women actually use the word empowerment so people see it in different ways, empowerment might be courage, it might be been brave, it might be being who you are so all sorts of understanding so empowerment is a word that we use has providence as generally used but many women that come to us don’t actually use that word and understand it fully until they’ve been through the programme.

A: Now I understand and also, I mean you have the reason why you have done what you’ve done because you know you’ve experienced your own journey didn’t you, of domestic abuse?

S: That’s right, a long time ago. I’ve absolutely rebuilt my life.

A: Well completely and what an amazing lady you are. You’ve also got an MBE as well for your contribution to you, to helping others which is just brilliant, but I mean if we can just sort of turn the clock back, back to when you were living in you know Asia weren’t you and?

S: My history, yes, I was born in Africa, so my early childhood was in Africa and then for a few years in India before we came to settle in the UK because my grandparents were already here a long time before us. Yeah, that’s a long-time back Ali.

A: Yeah, I mean your own personal experience was to do with perhaps some of the cultures do you think or not really?

S: Yeah cultures I mean that’s a continuous battle we’re always fighting, this is what is it that as human beings as women that holds us back to do what we absolutely feel is right for us, sometimes we don’t know what is right and we could be confused but quite often we do know deep down in our hearts what should be and what shouldn’t so what stops us is peer pressure if we can reword the word culture or tradition into peer pressure different communities and different groups of people have different pressures which stops them from making decisions but unfortunately some of the traditions and cultures in South Asian countries is very rigid and very strict and very more controlling more so than in the western world.

A: Yeah, I understand that, so I mean you know whereas marriage in the western world is sort of like a 50/50 situation, almost in some cultures in Asia it’s really sort of like a 90%.

S: Yeah, I would even say a 0 to 100% in many cases. In the 80’s it was zero to 100% there has been some movement since then but yes you’ve taken me right back yes that’s er really, some interesting thoughts, some having what was it like, what brought me where I am now and what made me fight my case and my situation in the 70’sr because not many women did, it’s a just gone back to your question, so it is culture, so the culture in Kenya was different, its lived with many other South Asian communities who had moved to Africa because of the British colonies and the railways that were been built and jobs and opportunities. My parents went at that time. The cultures that were created from different people there was a sort of newness within that culture that was built in accordance with what the environment was like, what the time scale was at that time but still, there were lots of cultural traditions and beliefs that merged together.  In India when I was there it was also the very old cultures that stuck and it’s only in recent years that there has been some movement and then coming to the UK the South Asian communities that were settling here, those cultures somehow became even stronger and more rigid than in Kenya and then in India, so that was a surprise to me as a young girl, as a very young girl arriving here a different way of life and I would say in the 70’s when I experienced my experience, having lived here for a long time if you take the UK for example, we would see South Asian communities settled in the North, London, in the Midlands.  In London, they all lived differently so if they have arranged marriages within those areas their way of life was different that in itself was of new cultures and traditions that were knitted together.

A: Yeah, Yeah so I mean also I think you know, for people living in that situation they don’t really understand so much as well what is you know going on in a different community do they? They think it’s the norm. Is that fair to say?

S: Yeah the norm, different people had different norms and if you take arranged marriages, for example, it’s the female gender that’s expected to adapt to the norm, not the male so it’s always traditionally, historically its always been easier for the South Asian male to make the decisions because he does what he’s always done and it’s the female that moves into that environment that has to make all the changes and its dependant on who that female is, is she going to accept those and are those norms healthy norms? does it, is it senseless, er debates or battles? cos life has a lot more to offer us than to continuously fight within the cultures isn’t ? until we lose and waste a lot of our lives just fighting those battles. I don’t think it’s necessary.

A: No, I can see what you mean, it’s not necessary is it? I mean, I suppose a relationship of any kind whether that you know, should be an equal footing, don’t you think?

S: Yeah, equality was in the ’70s very hard. Today I think even in the younger generations we’ve done, delivered a lot of work, working with local schools in East London, workshops with young boys, but some of the younger women’s cases that we have, even today they might be different types of cultures or traditions or norms even within the younger community with the current generation teenagers, sixteen years old, seventeen, eighteen years old it’s they’ve created their own cultures that create their own pressures so trusting issues could be, happens, happens within relationships, and there’s that lack of understanding on how to manage those relationships let say healthy relationships, what’s healthy, what’s not but er yeah it’s sad to say that there are cultures we create ourselves as groups of people, it’s not the law, it’s what we make.

A: Yeah, No, I understand you’re saying yeah, and what’s interesting isn’t it really? Because you know we supposedly live by a code of conduct but yeah you’re right it’s they’re living by their own codes of conduct and creating these cultures so to speak to suit their own environment or suit them and that’s not you know necessarily the right thing to do and it is interesting the whole subject of healthy relationships isn’t it? Um, I mean, you’re saying that you’re doing lots of work in schools now, I mean part of your empowering project, with the Jasmine project, I mean would you say it’s, it’s fair to say that perhaps some of these women you know have benefitted from this course previously wouldn’t have known what a healthy relationship was?

S: Absolutely 100%, I mean if you could, if you could give you the quotes for women, towards the end of the Jasmine project, the jasmine project consists of 12 sessions of empowerment and then 8 sessions of managing homes, its where there’s lack of support for women once they have escaped domestic abuse and they can’t manage there’s certain skills  they don’t have so in those 8 days you know we give them the empowerment of learning those skills such as DIY, car maintenance, plumbing, fixing toilets, fixing drains and things like that so they don’t have to turn to other people so the 12 week total empowerment er, programme, er, we take them through the journey of understanding like historically we as individuals, as women, when the experience of domestic abuse happens it’s not only the experience of then and there, it was what, its what’s happened in their lives before and before and before  so historically even what is it that our grandparents and our parents have passed on to us, what are the losses? For some women it might be moving from country to country and it’s not necessarily happy experience in women’s lives to be able to make those moves cos those moves might be forced, it might be historically been in this country and experiencing loss, grief, other relationships and that adds, so we start the Jasmine project with trying to understand what’s happened before but we do it, we don’t take months and months so it’s as opposed to counselling we use healing techniques and we use the NLP techniques and experiential exercises so it’s the exercises, that the activities that we bring into the sessions that take women automatically back and then once you confront and face those, my belief is through all these years of work I’ve done at Aanchal is that no matter how much learning we have, what holds us back further on is cos if we haven’t tackled those and faced those demons we keep returning to that point my learning is that face the demons first, be very clear about decluttering your mind, decluttering your emotions, and it’s like if you can imagine a vessel that’s holding so much, so much has gone in, clear that first, take everything out, and then we come to sessions that start afresh, let’s look at what’s happening now, and then looking at what their visions and goals are so we wouldn’t necessarily say go, we say what is it? Make a wish, what is it that you might really want? You know, it doesn’t really matter if you can have it or not just make a wish, and we have that as a starting point and then we work towards what is stopping us gaining that wish? and getting that and not just dreaming it have the ability to dream it but also have the ability to experience it and then we talk, we break down the barriers, so some of, a lot of the barriers are peer pressure and some of the barriers could be finance, children lots of other things, so we go about in the Jasmine project breaking and crashing those barriers and then we come out the other end and towards the end of the programme we begin to make our plans very factual, sort of mini business plans of our mini wishes and our bigger wishes that how maybe do this and then helping  women in the Jasmine project to identify that they’re re not on their own sometimes we have a lot of resources around us but we don’t know, we don’t recognise them as resources so building your resources and if you think that’s there’s any risks we get you know people to see it clearly. With a clear mind, ok  I’ve got this risk it might happen it might not so I’m going to eliminate this in this way so slowly, slowly, slowly, it’s like different phases of the journey and I must say it’s truly empowering, it’s not what women expect but the bi-product of that is that you have groups of women that really gel together and er we have clusters of people of networks of that go away, come, can come back to us through try chats sort of weekly meetings and we have supported women getting to employment because once they feel empowered they have the ability, that we give them opportunities, while there are jobs going, there’s the University of East London for example that can support you with training courses, what else, what else, what else. So we give them the building blocks but I think more than anything it’s a very enjoyable process, er it’s I would say it takes the pain away and that’s something very powerful that we give to them.

A: Yeah, it’s in a roundabout way, you’re giving them the tools to come out the other side, and  

S: Yeah Literally Yeah.

A: Putting themselves first, cos I can imagine that in that sort of situation that they didn’t put themselves first-ever it was always very. 

S: It was very hard too, literally and by tools we handing them on a piece of paper that this, if you think this way and if you plan this way you will get here in this way which means that in future events it’s not only the events, it’s not only these 12 sessions way ahead, years later, these are women’s tools, these are tools that women can use continuously so anything else that happens you use the same tools to move forward and I must say I didn’t have these tools in 1980s, 90’s its things that we’ve developed in all the learning that we have together as teams and bringing those and NLP has a lot of tools that one can use, it’s about using terms and triggers like making your decisions, so making your wishes come true, but ensure that those dreams are congruent so giving them those words such as what does congruent mean then? It means how do I create that balance? in your decision making, you know, making it more achievable more bite-sized, so that you can enjoy small successes going on to bigger successes cos if you do, if you go straight away for a big success but it’s not congruent to, its’ it’s not balanced it means one is likely to face risks and that brings people energies down when you go through that type of battle again, so what we try and do in the Jasmine project is to try and ensure that whatever we pass, the tools that we pass to the women and the experiences that it has to be workable, it’s bringing their confidence up but I think more important than anything, they come out the project feeling themselves it’s gaining that self-identify what is it that they’ve lost, who are they and how do they function. So Just as an example we cover in the Jasmine project give examples of say three children in a family, two children in a family, mother, father, grandparents but each harder, how do we recognise that each person within that unit feels and thinks differently so for all the children in a family one box doesn’t fit all because they’re individuals that they react to the same content differently so not to expect to reach back to them in the same way because it might not work so it’s like this in-depth sort of that sort of um, it’s quite an in-depth in the short space of time we manage the challenge.

A: Yeah I can imagine, and also I mean it would have to be in-depth through you know obviously what some of these women have been through I mean, you know, you and I are at a stage in our lives where we’re fully functioning people who make our own decisions, do our own thing but when you’ve been through something as traumatic as domestic abuse that must take a lot of rebuilding mustn’t? Really?

S: Yeah, so if you can imagine our lives are stacking bricks and foundations, and I think what domestic abuse does it chip away at those foundations bit by bit and it depends on who and how so much has been chipped away, how much you have to rebuild the impact is very traumatic and sometimes, you know, quite often we hold trauma that we don’t even recognise.

S: No, Yah.

S: Cos we react to certain situations in a certain way but we never recognise why am I acting in this way, it’s been, not been in touch with your emotions and one of the coping strategies that women often come up with is not been in touch with your emotions because you’ve got to just function and not go there again to keep moving.

A: I’m completely with you, so and I mean the thing is we to make it clear as well because I think a lot of people automatically think when you’ve experienced domestic abuse that it’s a physical thing, it’s not a physical thing, or it’s not just a physical thing, sometimes it can be purely an emotional thing.

S: Yeah, I think er that we, it’s surprising how much discussions we need to hold in the Jasmine project just to talk about domestic abuse in its various shapes and forms and its shocking how many recognise one form of abuse and there might be ten other forms of abuse that they’ve not recognised, for example currently during the pandemic it’s the text messaging, it’s the digital, it’s the words, the words that say for example, threats is a form of abuse that someone constantly threatens you er, the threats could be belittling you, um, making threats that if you do this, I can take this away from you like, like taking things away, threatening to have the children put in care, threatening to take the children abroad, threatening to kidnap the children, and threatening to kill, threatening to physically hit, threatening to take the money away so lots of different sorts of threats and the language is one specific way but during the pandemic there has been more cases where there’s been digital threats so the words that come across in the text messages are far more powerful and specific than someone speaking face to face because it’s very manipulative but also the impact of having that abuse on text it means that those words don’t just go they’re there and someone experiencing this will keep re-visiting that text over and over again it’s there it lives a bit longer but there’s the treat of the unknown behind that, what else can happen, forms of abuses, emotional abuse, financial abuse, withholding money, sexual abuse, family, extended family, abusive cos of control, er stalking, harassing, force marriage, honour base violence, there are many, many forms of abuse, and that’s I think that’s one battle even say if Aanchal was founded in 1984 and we were talking about this then and we’re still talking about it something doesn’t, something hasn’t changed. Has it?

A: No, you’re absolutely right, and I mean it’s not just a cultural thing er we said er a lot is based er you know around culture and different views, and different opinions on how things should be but you know some people I think you know this has sort of sprung out of society especially in the Western world rather than you know maybe sort of Asia. It’s this thing that you know there’s still not quite there? er although we’re getting there, that the equality between male and female and I think you know that is still very much at the forefront of a lot of abusive relationships isn’t it?

S: Yes, it’s that equality I mean to different cultures and backgrounds, equalities have different meanings, for example, we received a fund from Sir Winston Churchill fellowship in 2016 and that was to go and travel around to India. So some on equalities what we understand about equalities here had a totally different meaning on equalities in India and it was very difficult to work with that because unless you have 50% of the people that you’re working with trying to make that change understand it, same, on the same platform you can’t move so equalities here, If I talk about the young people again and working in schools and then we all have these qualities and diversity policies er we have all these guidelines, and er we can make those documents as long as we can, add this, add this and add all sorts of thing that are coming up when I went to the schools er equalities hasn’t really meant anything to the young people.

A: No

S: So equalities in the UK with the generation that’s growing up might not have the same meaning. I think what I’m trying to say is that if you’re working in this field, you talk equalities all the time

A: Yeah

S: When you’re in other areas of work you might never face, you might never have to use the word equality and you going to the communities, it’s like what are you talking about, equality is a message, yeah.

A: Yeah, I mean it is strange as I said because you know even you know when we were sort of drawing er you know the equality comparison. I mean I think that the biggest inequality at the moment or one that is most spoken about in the western world is the gender pay gap, isn’t it?

S: Yeah, 

A: And we are getting there, you know 

S: We are still fighting that, here in Britain, yes.

A: Yeah, we are, still fighting that but I mean obviously you know there are still that, but that is er a lot more of a sort of focused area rather than the equalities between male and female I suppose it is you know the.

S: But that equality, if you addressed that, that would make all the difference because women will be able to manage their lives in a different way through that because their skill is the same, their education is the same, their expertise is the same in a similar role and the impact on how they run their lives is often based on that finance so that those, the pay difference between pay male and female pay there’s still huge gaps and that’s not an area that I focus on but I know the impact is there because er in this industry in this field in the women’s sector there are women fighting for different causes and that’s one of the causes of trying to reduce that gap so equalities that where does that end? But the thing is we need to make that change` if we don’t make that change we don’t make a difference.

A: You’re right, you know, you’re absolutely right, I mean I do feel that you know the younger generation now it’s you know they’re so much more aware of those issues than say we were when we were younger, I do feel like things are beginning to change but nevertheless there are still you know lots of domestic abuse situations and still a lot of inequality happening in different households and that really needs to be addressed doesn’t it.

S: It does and it’s just having that understanding for someone who wants to or is seeking help. It’s the thought process that no thought that comes to your head is not little enough or nothing is too small, nothing is too silly, just ask that question. Just reach out because a woman experiencing this on her own may think that she’s the only one but when she asks that question when the realisation happens, there’s many many other women that may be feeling exactly the same and the fears may be exactly the same as hers and is fighting that battle together is just coming out and talking about it but before talking about it, it’s just identifying; how does one identify that what I am experiencing is abuse. What does that mean? Just search for that word. Just go on the internet, talk to people, just use the word abuse – what does this mean? And I promise there will be a lot of information coming back and what we found in talking to women – whichever phase of the journey they are at, that before they ever sought help; would they have? what is it? What took them so long it’s because they didn’t understand, they identify as abuse and it took a long time and they also… women also say they don’t use the word abuse. They might be using other words we use the word abuse as professionals, but the women say they don’t use or recognise because they don’t use the word in relation to what they’re experiencing. Its layers aren’t they. It’s a layer of what we need to do is layers off if you are in that situation. What they need to do to come out of that situation and I think it’s about having that little dream isn’t it and that little dream might be just to wake up in the morning and have your cup of tea at the time that you want to, how you want to, with a biscuit or without a biscuit. For some women. For many women, it’s just that dream. ‘I want to get up in the morning, I’m going to have my cup of tea without all of the rest that happens around me in the morning.

A: It is the simple things isn’t it? I mean, you know you’ve done much work as you say you started Aanchal in 1984. That’s incredible, I mean that’s getting on for you know gosh 40 years isn’t it gosh crikey that’s amazing.

S: It was not a life plan believe me it wasn’t a life plan but once you’re in it and you realise the barriers women have to face. The trauma women have to face, I think anything we can put in there to try and help that process to make that change and makes it worthwhile and I think that’s why I’m still here.

A: Well, Su, you’re doing some brilliant work. So, you know. It’s been lovely to meet you, it really has as well and I think especially when you’re doing, working with people and the communities, and helping people, it is nice to be recognised. Almost like a sort of statement to say you know I must be doing something right – which to are!

S: Yes, Yes although I must say that in this field of work do you know you would be so shocked at how busy it is that I’ve never really had the time to sit back and reflect gosh I went to the palace – it’s almost like a by-product isn’t it. So maybe when I retire, I’ll sit down and I’ll think, but I think more rewarding than anything else is the number of lives that we have changed.

A: Yep

S: And I’m not on the front line, I have a team of people on the front line. At the beginning of this year in January I had a surprise email from a young woman who said I don’t know if you’ll remember me – she sent it to the general email address hoping that she might find me – she said that when she was nine, I supported her mother and she remembers the times well and if it hadn’t been for Aanchal, she wouldn’t be where she is and now she’s 42 and she’s got two children of her own and after all these years she just – you know it just came to her mind that she just wanted to thank you because it has, you do change lives and those are the rewarding things and more than the MBE, rewards like that stay with you because you feel you’ve contributed your lifetime to something.

A: Well, you’ve certainly don’t that, you really really have, so you know, what an amazing work you’ve done, I mean seriously. So many women have needed your help and it continues now with the Jasmine project, which is a great project isn’t it in itself.

S: It’s not, they’re nothing like it anyway it’s the total development of Aanchal, it’s not something that’s been pulled out from thin air – it’s through women telling us what’s worked for them and we’ve literally picked out and like I said it did take us two years to design this. It hasn’t failed anyone yet.

A: That’s brilliant. That is so brilliant, you know as you said, I mean during this pandemic, gosh I mean, you must be inundated at times.

S: Most of the time and we have a 24hr helpline. What we find is the most destitute the most vulnerable during out of office hours trying to find them accommodation and trying to get other services to support, try and get financial help and get toiletries, trying to make them feel not bad about the situation they’re in – if you can imagine how one feels destitute on the street. They don’t feel that they deserve it in that situation and it’s not their fault because many women end up blaming themselves for being in that situation and I think the most empowering self-talk is you’re not to blame. It’s a step to move forward. Yet the pandemic has brought a lot of that to us when the courts and the solicitors’ firms were closing, minimised their workloads, they’ve got a backlog of court hearings and not being able to gain sufficient finance because legally it takes that much longer to provide that support, so you need women in hotels longer than that so it’s more finance per day and we found at Christmas because it was Christmas the costs of rooms, we escalating…

A: Oh gosh

S: Doubling, tripling but at the same time we’ve had a lot of businesses that have supported us, collaborated for Christmas, donated food, fresh food, canned food, rice tomato tins and we’ve had companies donating their time to us in helping us with digital development so there’s the need and the demand and we have all groups of people ready to help us and yet that becomes conglomerative so It helps us balance so in no way is it me on my own doing this. There’s wholes teams and there’s whole communities on this journey with me.

A: No, and it’s a brilliant journey as well because as you said you’re making a huge difference to many many women’s lives, which is you know, amazing it really is and thank you Su for coming on.

S: Thank you, Ali, thank you.

A: Just one very small question before you go; are you going to write a book?

S: I always wanted to, and I think now that you’ve said it’s a trigger. I’d love to, I think I might do a number of books, but I have to have a starting point, I’m not one that has written – it’s just starting, but I have a lot of things in my head and I’d love to and if there’s anyone out there listening who can support me with the start, how do I get going, I’d love that support.

A: Lovely, well Su thank you very much

S:  Thank you, thank Ali. Bye.