Lisa Ward ’10 studied BSc Psychology and English, and then MA Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. After graduating she joined Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre (OSARCC) as Volunteer Co-ordinator before becoming CEO in 2014. As OSARCC celebrates its 40th anniversary, Lisa spoke to Observe about the vital role it plays in the lives of many women, the growth of its services and impact, and her pride in helping women overcome sexual violence.
In 1979 a group of women volunteers set up a helpline for survivors of rape using a phone line in a living room. Forty years later, while the helpline number – 01865 726295 – remains the same, OSARCC has grown from its humble beginnings.
The organisation’s core purposes – providing support to survivors of sexual abuse and rape, and working to raise awareness to prevent sexual abuse – remain as vital to women now as they did in the seventies. And the last ten years have seen a rapid transformation in OSARCC’s size and scale of activity – growing from 2 part time staff to 12. Many hundreds of women now access a range of services.
OSARCC’s group of dedicated volunteers far outnumber paid staff, and the organisation’s growth is maximising their impact. In the last year alone helpline support calls have increased by 28%, more than twice as many counselling sessions have been provided and a new text support service has been launched.
“We have a group of more than 80 volunteers,” explains Lisa, “women who want to support other women. And we’ve always had a large group, but now we have a more formal structure for them to give that support.”
They have also increased their work with universities and schools – including Oxford Brookes and Oxford University – to improve support for students who are survivors of sexual violence.
“There’s a lot of work to ensure they’re following best practice, giving student-survivors the support they need to continue studying if that’s what they want to do, or the support to take time-out or withdraw. And to make sure the universities recognise the need to respond appropriately to those who experienced childhood abuse and want to access support.”
The importance of being women-led
OSARCC’s volunteers and staff are all women. In part, this policy stems from the organisation’s feminist ethos – sexual violence being a result of the imbalance of power between genders, which can only be overcome by empowering women – but also because support from women is what survivors need.
“Service users tell us that it’s really important that it’s women-led and women-run. The majority of survivors are women. In fact around one in five women will experience sexual violence.”
Lisa was what she calls “an accidental feminist” – someone who believed in the values of feminism without actually thinking of herself as a feminist. These values led her to start working for OSARCC in 2011.
“The empowerment of women was really important to me. I couldn’t understand why we lived in a world where there were things like the gender pay gap, why more women experienced sexual violence and why it was expected that women rather than men would stay home and raise the children.
“I joined OSARCC as Volunteer Co-ordinator which really played into that empowerment aspect. It involved taking groups of women and skills-building, using my Psychology background to think about how we best worked with individuals to get messages across to women that convey a sense of self-belief and warmth to help them with their journey in terms of recovery and healing.”
This cycle of empowerment benefits volunteers and survivors. And it has also benefited Lisa herself. Her rise to the position of CEO and then overseeing much of OSARCC ‘s recent expansion has come about through developing new skills and the self-confidence to take on new responsibilities.
“The organisation has empowered me to grow and step up to take that leadership role. The role has changed over the last 12 to 18 months from being fundraising and people management heavy to becoming more strategic. Now I spend a lot of my time with local commissioners and local statutory authorities to exact positive change.
“As a leader, I have had to become a spokeswoman for the organisation very quickly and think about how to get messages out through media and campaigning work. And that’s something that came from my degree in terms of having to present ideas and information in classes and lectures.”
Lisa is no longer an “accidental feminist”. She is proud to be a feminist leading a feminist organisation. And it is a very practical form of feminism – empowered women using their skills and expertise to empower other women to survive and overcome the gross injustice of sexual violence.
“I am proudest of the individual stories. When we get feedback from a woman we have helped that says, ‘you turned my life around’ or ‘you saved my life’ or ‘you gave me a new sense of my worth’ or simply ‘you heard me and you believed me’, it’s those moments that touch me the most.”
Lisa is optimistic for the future. Using the springboard of OSARCC’s 40th anniversary, she is planning for the organisation to continue increasing the number of survivors of sexual violence it supports – including men and other gender identities, for whom there is currently a gap in the services available.
Words by Sirius Gibson