Illustration: Hannah Blackman-Kurz / @hbkurz

In 1984, a group of women in north Liverpool noted the provisions around the city for helping women gain knowledge of their own health were scant at best. Armed and strengthened with knowledge from a women’s health course plus money from the council, they went on to create Women’s Health Information And Support Centre (WHISC). The service zigzagged between different premises across the city before finally settling at 120 Bold Street in 1994, where WHISC resides to this day.

In the mid 80s when the germ of the WHISC idea began, Thatcherism was on the march. In the here and now it’s easy to reflect that, in some ways, we’ve come full circle. Women’s rights are still under attack or under threat of erosion, equality is not won, and women are the first to suffer when cuts bite.

Nevertheless, over the past 35 years WHISC has adapted with the ever-changing political and social landscape to improve the lot of women living on Merseyside.

“Bold Street is truly at the heart of culture in our city. How many of us have strolled past WHISC and never given it more than a passing glance?” Yvonne Page

“Originally things were about physical health and sexual health, but now, over the years, our primary focus has moved to mental health because there’s been such an increase in demand in Liverpool,” says WHISC funding officer Kelly Teeboon. Many difficulties experienced by Merseyside women in 2019 are the ongoing results of austerity, she believes, pointing out cuts to refuge and sexual violence services as perilous to women’s health.

Kelly cites the examples of the introduction of Universal Credit, and limiting child tax credits as the two main things affecting women disproportionately. “There’s been a change in women’s mental health in response to benefit changes, so we’ve had a huge number of women come in for support,” she says. “Universal Credit is often paid to only one member of the household, which makes it difficult for women who are being abused financially.”

WHISC’s main ethos is the belief that all women and girls should have equal access to education around their physical and mental health. “They should have equal opportunities to access that information. Regardless of race, sexuality, disability, status, we work with all women. Whether they are homeless or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s about supporting all women. Because we know women are backbones of the community and their families.”

The charity boasts over 50 volunteers, supported by seven paid members of staff. Many volunteers are previous service users. They’re giving something back, in a way, I mention to Kelly. “Women are experts in their own life,” she nods. “The support groups we have, like the domestic violence support group, eating disorders, depression anxiety groups, these are all led by women who have personal experience in those issues who then want to share their coping mechanisms, what they’ve done to help themselves, with other women.”

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Merseyside has a disturbingly high rate of domestic violence, so I ask what support there is at WHISC for survivors. As Kelly lived in a refuge when younger, her interest in the issue is strong. “We know [for] a lot of the women who attend our anxiety and depression groups, there is a history of domestic violence there. We didn’t want to tread on the toes of organisations we’ve worked with for years… they do a lot of amazing work, but we wanted to create a support group that goes beyond the initial help, once women are safe. We created a peer-to-peer support group.

“We also wanted it to be open to women who are still with their partner. Because we know a lot of women don’t leave, but we wanted that support there, so they know other women are in the situation. We hope women can teach each other what to look out for. In those groups you can see the penny drops on occasion, someone else who is still with their partner thinks, ‘I thought that was just me’.”

It’s so empowering for women in abusive relationships to not feel alone, and important that women who stay with partners or go back to relationships don’t feel they’re doing something wrong, or are at fault in some way.

“The most important thing, whether it’s domestic or sexual violence or mental health, is that the door stays open,” Kelly stresses. “If they fail to attend meetings, we don’t write them off. If they have an appointment and they don’t come, we just create another one. We keep that door open because we know that access to these services is difficult anyway, the last thing you want to do is feel like you’ve burnt a bridge and have nowhere to go. We know that when you have mental health problems you can be inconsistent, we know that sometimes you’re unreliable, but that’s fine.”

WHISC are hosting a fundraising event in July at Leaf on Bold Street, a mixture of music, spoken word and poetry, plus an auction and raffle to boost funds, but also to celebrate 35 successful years. The fundraiser is supported by local independent businesses and the wider creative community across the city. Yvonne Page, business manager from Dig Vinyl record shop, is stage manager for the event.

“Bold Street is truly at the heart of music and culture in our city. We all walk up and down this street on our way to work or to meet friends or go about our daily lives,” says Yvonne. “How many of us have strolled past WHISC a million times and never given it more than a passing glance? The support that the organisation gives to women all over Merseyside is so important and, with this event, I really hope to engage with the local arts and culture community and bring in a diverse crowd to celebrate and support this great organisation.”

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There’s been an assumption that WHISC is a service for older women when in fact anyone 18 or over can use the service. Recent times, Kelly emphasises, have seen an increase in the number of young people coming through the doors. “We’ve branched out to the universities, we have a lot of students who are on placement, social work students, counselling students,” she says. “We’re open to all women, and my own mental health has benefited from that intergenerational aspect of WHISC – hearing experiences from older and younger women, women from different cultures and communities. It’s that resilience that women have across the board.”

There’s a massive value in women only spaces, I think. They bring with them a sense of safety. “A huge number of women who come here rely on us being a women only service. Especially if you’re a survivor of violence, also with some of the refugee and asylum-seeking women there are issues compounded by their gender and there aren’t many services available to just women. Because of maybe cultural stigma, we have women who come here and take their headscarves off. When they come in they feel like they’re free to do that, because they’re not in the presence of men. They’re with their children. And there are things women will say to other women that they won’t in the presence of men. I think that’s really important, almost [like] consciousness raising in the 60s [laughs]. We have a women’s health course talking about different issues and sometime it’s freeing to be away from men.”

Confidentiality is a big issue for many women and it is reassuring that WHISC benefit from their location in that respect. There’s so much footfall on Bold Street that women could be in the area – or building – for myriad reasons. For things like domestic violence, sexual violence, if women want to disclose that information in a safe space then WHISC is the perfect place. “No one’s going to know why you’re here,” says Kelly. “There’s no flashing neon sign outside saying ‘I’ve got a mental health condition!’ You could be coming in for yoga, a massage or some intervention support, but nobody knows. I think that’s the key value of WHISC.”

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There’s a monthly poetry group, a reading group (“short stories and extracts, we don’t have a specific book, it’s to get out of your head a bit, get into a good story. A lot are usually fables, it gets women talking, having conversations”) plus meditation, a craft group, self-esteem workshops, drumming group, menopause and gynaecological support. As Liverpool has one of the largest dispersals of refugees and asylum-seeking women in the country, WHISC have a Saturday club doing English language classes, to support integration and racial cohesion. “We’ve bits of everything really,” jokes Kelly.

Accessibility is as the root of what WHISC do. As 29 per cent of the women who use WHISC are disabled, there’s a stairlift, and the yoga and pilates they teach is doable in a chair. “Liz, our mental health worker, will sometimes offer a telephone listening ears service for women who can’t leave the house.”

With the fundraiser, all are welcome to attend and WHISC are keen that as wide a demographic as possible is able to enjoy the night, but learn about WHISC’s services as well. People can help with increasing accessibility by buying a ticket and donating it to someone who otherwise cannot afford to attend. “We wanted to do a pass-it-forward scheme for our service users who have little or no income,” says Kelly. “WHISC is about women supporting women and it’s great that people have done this already.”

“To have a sanctuary dedicated to the support and wellbeing of women at the heart of the city on Bold Street is a testament to the forward-thinking bold character of Liverpool’s community,” adds Abi Dot aka Galileo Girl, who is to perform at the event. “To the women that provide safety, compassion and vital information to women in the midst of difficult and sensitive situations, you are so appreciated and loved. I can’t wait to perform for the celebration of such a special place.”

A fundraiser for WHISC’s 35th anniversary takes place on 11th July at Leaf. Details can be found online here.

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