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“I wanted my input to be put forward to help others.”

 

This quote, taken from PRT’s Women’s Voices report, reflects the views of many—including me—as to why we chose to get involved in the Transforming Lives programme. 

For me, the purpose of women’s involvement in a project like this is very simple. Women need to be involved! It’s to educate all agencies about what might lie behind women’s offending and improve how women are treated in the criminal justice system. It’s also to make sure everyone is treated fairly, reduce unnecessary imprisonment and help women look after themselves.

The NatCen report, published today, explains how the Transforming Lives programme uses advocacy, research, collaboration, and advice and support to influence policy makers and practitioners. The programme works in areas where a lot of women get imprisoned and promotes the use of early intervention and community solutions, which should be more widely available.

I became involved through User Voice, whom PRT commissioned to organise and facilitate Women’s Councils in London and Birmingham from 2016 to 2018. I was a member of the Birmingham Women’s Council, which—like its equivalent in London—met ten times over two years for thematic discussions and workshops.  I was also on the steering group for the Transforming Lives Women’s Summit in April 2019—a celebration of women’s involvement in the programme, where I gave one of the keynote speeches.

Taking part in the Women’s Council gave us all a chance to talk about some of the most difficult experiences we’ve had in our lives. This was in a safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment, in the knowledge that our insights would be used for a positive purpose—to inform PRT’s work to create change.

By contributing our experiences and reflections to PRT’s research and publications, and taking part in meetings and events with ministers and policy makers, we have helped PRT increase awareness of the links between domestic abuse and women’s offending. We’ve improved understanding of the challenges faced by foreign national women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic women in the criminal justice system. We’ve also highlighted the need for non-custodial options for mothers.

My involvement with PRT has given me a stronger voice and I have also strengthened theirs. For Muslim women like me, it can be hard to talk about our experience of the criminal justice system. Many don’t feel they can talk about it at all. But it is so important for people from different cultures to speak up.

If women are sitting behind closed doors, how will things change? By taking part in PRT’s research and advocacy, I felt supported and empowered to speak about negative experiences for a positive purpose, to create change for others. This may not be for everyone, but I feel passionately about speaking up so that I can show other women that it can be done.

I know that for PRT, women’s insights are a crucial source of evidence and learning. Women like me can be the most powerful advocates for reform, but it isn’t easy to speak out. With careful planning, funding for women’s support organisations and a relationship based on mutual respect, more women can be empowered to become agents for change.

I was disappointed when the Birmingham Women’s Council came to an end, due to the downsizing of the Transforming Lives programme in its final year. It’s frustrating that projects supporting women’s involvement are reliant on funding that is often short term. This creates uncertainty and means that projects often come to an end before goals have been achieved, and can leave women in the lurch. However, I know PRT has a long term commitment to working closely with individuals with lived experience, including through its Prisoner Policy Network.

I'm glad to bring my experience to my role at Staffordshire and West Midlands CRC. Through the Transforming Lives programme I have also become involved in local multi-agency work led by the Office of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner to develop a whole system approach to women and girls in contact with the criminal justice system. I am working with colleagues to explore how we can make sure women and girls with lived experience inform that work. I hope that many more like me will have the chance to get involved both here and across the country, to keep driving change for the better.

Yasmin Akhtar