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How Art Therapy Is Helping Survivors Of Abuse

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Artwork by Anna Jay
Two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner, with one in four experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime. Today, Friday 25 November, is the UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (or White Ribbon Day, by way of a snappier name) and, at a time of harsh austerity cuts to indispensable public services, it is a particularly important one.

The charity Refuge states that police in the UK receive a domestic assistance call every minute, with a woman assaulted 35 times on average before ringing for help. Just 35% of violent incidents are reported, while a lack of funding has forced the closure of one in six UK refuges in the last decade. Last weekend, feminist group Sisters Uncut blocked bridges in London to reflect the dangerous lack of safety routes available to all women, but particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Crucially, survivors’ journeys do not end with an escape from their abuser, with many suffering severe post-traumatic stress symptoms. Numerous studies have proven art therapy to be effective in helping those struggling with the after-effects of abuse, particularly when the survivor is unable to discuss their experience verbally. While professional therapists offer formal sessions, there are multiple small, independent charities liberating survivors with their own innovative arts initiatives. Much of this work happens under the radar and often goes unrecognised.

One such brilliant project is Little Paper Slipper, set up by London-based visual artist Marie-Louise Jones, who runs papier-mâché workshops in the safety of women’s refuges. Survivors bond with each other while making and decorating shoes, which are exhibited to the public biennially as an ever-growing activist art installation. Jones founded the tiny charity in 2012 after taking part in a fundraising art project led by Women’s Aid. “The therapeutic value of art is hugely overlooked by schools and the government,” she says. “It’s an enlightening way of working through trauma.”
While the first step is escaping the abuser, a holistic approach to helping women rebuild their lives can prove deeply effective. “Lots of organisations provide the practical things but the funding isn’t there for wellbeing support,” says Jones, adding that she joined the Sisters Uncut march on Sunday to raise awareness of the difficulties charities face. “Many women enter refuges with limited confidence, so our sessions are centred around building self-esteem and making them feel empowered. There’s something raw and powerful about the early part of their journeys when they’re coming out the other side of abuse.”

Involving the public through the exhibitions has a strong positive impact on the women that Little Paper Slipper helps. “Domestic abuse is the act of silencing another person’s voice, so survivors really get something out of others engaging with what they have to say,” Jones says. The first exhibition was held in 2014, with a second, featuring 112 slippers, taking place in September. Now, the charity is looking for a place to display a permanent collection ahead of their third chapter launch on International Women’s Day next March and, depending on funding, hopes to expand from 2018 onwards so that more women can access the workshops.

Other survivors have been exploring their rediscovered identities through art with Solace Women’s Aid, an independent pan-London charity providing lifesaving support to over 11,000 women and children who have escaped domestic and sexual violence every year. Facilitator Anat Toffell recently ran the Blue Skies photography project in partnership with arts charity Spare Tyre. Survivors were encouraged to experiment with painting and drawing before being sent off with cameras to explore the themes of hope, transformation and aspiration. “The impact of abuse is a real attack on a woman’s sense of self, so part of their recovery involves trying to work their way back to remembering who they were,” says Toffell. “Through art they’re able to explore their feelings and rediscover what they’re interested in without an abuser dictating their lives.”
The group dynamic of Solace’s workshops is key to eroding the painful sense of social isolation and distrust felt by many survivors. One successful craft project saw women team up to sew individual patchwork pieces for a collaborative wall hanging, while Toffell is preparing to launch a feminist art history course in January. “Domestic abuse is such a private, shameful, personal thing,” she says. “We want to show these women that, actually, the dynamics of abuse come directly from a misogynist and patriarchal wider society and it’s not a problem with them as individuals.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, strongly supports the efforts of initiatives like Little Paper Slipper and Blue Skies. “Domestic abuse destroys a survivor’s identity and self-esteem,” she says. “Art and creative projects can help women and children reclaim a sense of identity, as well as providing a healthy expression for the trauma of domestic abuse. For some women and children, art therapy can make a huge contribution to their recovery.”

Sadly, many dedicated charities running fantastic creative workshops for survivors have been forced to shut down due to long-term funding issues. These include U-Turn Women’s Centre in London's Bethnal Green, which encouraged the development of new skills and friendships through music, drama and photography sessions; Wise Dolls in Haringey, which ran art therapy sessions in a local community centre; and The Butterfly Foundation in Bournemouth, which worked with recovering individuals to grow their self-esteem and confidence in public through performing arts.

But feedback given by the women to both Jones and Toffell after their workshops reflects the vital role that creativity can play in getting survivors’ lives back on track. “People who have experienced violence often alternate between seeing themselves either as victims or survivors,” said one Blue Skies participant. “In this group we could begin to see ourselves as both of these, but also as creators.”
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