The feminist campaigner telling the stories of murdered women

Feminist campaigner Shonagh Dillon has become a voice for women who have been silenced by male violence.

An illustration shows Shonagh Dillon
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Shonagh Dillon is a woman on a very personal mission. A feminist campaigner against all forms of male violence towards women and girls, she has set up a ground-breaking organisation that puts the victims of violence first and facilitates their journey to survival.

We chat over Zoom one weekday morning, as weak sunlight streams through the large windows of her office in Portsmouth, England. Her clothes, including Dr Marten shoes in a leopard print design, mark her apart from what she calls “corporate feminists” – those women on a very high salary who, in Dillon’s words, practise “9 to 5 feminism”.

Tall and slim with long brown hair, Dillon’s facial expressions reveal how she is feeling – anger, distress, frustration, all apparent as we talk. Her speech is often quick and urgent, her manner so animated that she almost claps when she agrees with a point I make about domestic violence or rape.

Dillon grew up in a middle-class, naval family in Portsmouth. Her mother worked hard to send her daughters to a fee-paying school. “My mum used my dad’s widow’s pension as well as taking in lodgers to pay for it,” says Dillon.

Her childhood, however, was not all plain sailing. Her father was an alcoholic, who died when she was young – “probably suicide”, she says – and she struggled with an eating disorder. “It started when I was nine years old and went on until I was about 28. In the end, I had intensive therapy to sort it out as it was exhausting to deal with.”

Nevertheless, when she was 19, Dillon won a place at university to study law.

It was during her degree that she began a relationship with a man who later broke her collarbone. She did not feel that it was unusual behaviour at the time, given all the men she knew were “overtly violent” towards women. “All the men in my circle of friends were aggressive to women. I escaped them largely because I went to an all-girls school, but when I look back at it they were all vile,” she says.

But even the broken collarbone did not persuade her to leave him. “He cheated on me so many times, and eventually left me for someone else,” she says. And when he did, he left her in debt. They had been together for two years.

Lacking self-esteem and, perhaps more importantly, the social support or intellectual framework to understand what was happening to her, Dillon fell into another abusive relationship.

“My second abusive partner was worse, I would say. He really got into my head,” she explains, describing him as less physically violent but more coercive. He was, she says, a sadist who performed “shameful” and “degrading” acts on her.

She was with him during her final two years of university. It was only when her mum saw him being abusive to her that Dillon realised “this has to stop”.

‘A space to breathe’

Shortly after, she graduated and moved to London with her sister and one of her best friends. It was 1999. “That was a great time of my life,” she says.

Her experiences of abuse had left her determined to do something to help other women and children victimised by violent men. “I wanted to give back to women and children that I knew just needed a bit of space the same way I had needed it. Just a space to breathe and feel supported. It is invaluable when you have been a victim to access a space to feel safe where the other women get it,” she says.

She started volunteering at the now-defunct Rape Crisis Centre in London. “I spoke to women on the Portsmouth helpline at the time. Supported them emotionally, gave them options on what they could do or where they could go to get more support. Sometimes it was just about listening and believing them, after all that is all women need.”

“It was in a really big house in King’s Cross,” she recalls, the warmth of the memory almost a physical presence. “I used to go late at night … we used to walk out in the middle of King’s Cross at 11, 12 at night and think, ‘Oh s***!’, but it was very safe for women.”

Her best friend, who was a childhood survivor of male violence, volunteered with her. “There was so much camaraderie on the helpline,” she says, describing how the job made her feel like she had found the women she was looking for, without even knowing she was looking.

She had experienced something that has been central to her work in the more than two decades since: the importance of single-sex spaces where women can find solidarity and recover.

‘Do her justice’

When the Rape Crisis Centre closed down, Dillon applied for a voluntary role at the Domestic Violence National Helpline. To her surprise, they offered her a paid position. She recalls attending a meeting early on where an older woman talked about the movement – the feminist campaign to end male violence – and about the women in it, and Dillon thought: “This is the thing I’ve read about! I’m in!”

Most of the calls she received on the helpline were from women pleading for a place in a refuge. “I would watch as the spaces in refuges slowly disappeared throughout the day,” she says.

Dillon recalls one woman who called back six months after her initial call to tell her that she had left her abusive partner. She says that was amazing, but in most cases, she would never find out what happened to the woman on the other end of the line. “I don’t know about so many others, or how many women were subsequently murdered,” she says, adding that she hardly ever spoke to the same woman twice.

It is the voices of these women that Dillon tries to represent in her work.

Tragically, many of them can no longer speak for themselves. Every three days in England and Wales, a woman is killed by a current or former male partner. Every morning of her working life, Dillon lights a candle and thinks of those women who have been silenced forever by a man’s fatal violence. In these cases, she regards it as her job to be that woman’s voice.

“I want her legacy to live on,” she says, quietly, “and for her to be remembered for who she is.”

One of her roles at Aurora New Dawn, the feminist charity she founded to support victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking, is to conduct homicide reviews.

Dillon can spend up to a year completing a review. Each one will involve speaking to a number of professionals but she always focuses more on the family and friends of the murdered woman.

“I tend to focus a lot on the woman’s story and try to make sure that when someone is reading the review they know who she was by the end of it,” she explains.

“If a woman is murdered then I want to be part of trying to make sure that never happens again,” she says, although she knows that because “things aren’t changing quickly enough for women” it often does happen again.

“But if I can do her justice then I will try,” she says, explaining that the purpose of the review “is to learn lessons from the homicide and recommend changes where they need to be made, both locally and nationally”.

The most recent review Dillon completed involved a woman whose life had been extensively covered in the press. But “the woman who was portrayed in the media was nothing like the woman I learned about through her friends”, says Dillon. “Even if in the report her name is changed, her friends and loved ones know that she has been remembered.” This clearly matters to Dillon, whose drive is personal as well as professional and political.

‘We all just cried’

As I know well from my experiences campaigning against violence towards women, the work is not easy. Like almost everybody in the sector, Dillon has cried and lain awake at night, hoping she has done the victims justice. “I don’t ever want to get to the stage where I can’t name every single one of those women that have been murdered by men, otherwise I will have become part of the bureaucracy of homicide reviews and that is not feminism.” So she remembers them, cries, lies awake, and the next morning, she gets up and goes back to her office.

That office is now the headquarters of Aurora New Dawn, which she established in 2011 with a budget of precisely nothing.

“We had to work out of derelict buildings initially,” Dillon says. “We had five members of staff when we moved into our first office, we then moved a further six times.”

It was tough but Aurora has now found its home in a “spit and sawdust” building in Portsmouth. Once an old brush factory, the Art Deco building is freezing in winter and boiling in summer. But the lovely big windows offer the perfect opportunity to observe people leaving both the busy mosque on the corner and the pub up the road. There are sometimes fights outside in the summer. “It’s never that bad, just lots of blokes waving their arms and their pints about. Gives us a giggle every time,” she says.

When Dillon wryly adds that “it’s a real voluntary sector office”, it sounds as though she is talking about something more than just the space – about her mission, or maybe even her home.

Since 2012, Aurora has supported almost 7,000 victims of male violence against women, relying on models that have been proven elsewhere in women’s services. When she explains that the domestic violence “car service” – where an advocate from Aurora goes out in police cars on night shifts attending domestic abuse incidents and supporting victims – is based on work I did in combination with a north London police station in the late 1990s, I feel particularly flattered.

Domestic violence advocates from Aurora work alongside police to offer independent support to the woman in the crucial hours after the incident. This has been shown to improve outcomes for women. Like many of Aurora’s services, it is simple, effective and built off the work of other organisations. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when other feminists have already done the work,” Dillon tells me.

But no intervention, no matter how effective, works 100 percent of the time. Dillon recalls an incident where Aurora was called out to support a victim of domestic violence but, while en route, the police called to say that the woman was already dead. “That was horrendous,” she says. “We got together in the office with the staff the next day, and we all just cried. I don’t have any shame in saying that we were in tears. It’s going to make me cry now.”

Aurora does not just support domestic violence victims. It also runs a service that supports about 120 victims of stalking each year. In 2017, it was mentioned as a best practice model by the national police inspectorate: an independent service that reviews all aspects of policing and makes recommendations for improvement.

“It is because we operate in a multiagency framework, always putting the victim’s voice at the centre of our work, reminding our partners in probation, police, etc what the victim is experiencing and what she needs,” says Dillon. “We also work with all victims of stalking not just the DV [domestic violence] cases, some of the cases of stranger or acquaintance stalking are utterly terrifying, and sometimes the victim doesn’t even know they are in danger.”

Dillon’s own family ties to the navy motivated her to develop a unique global service for armed forces personnel and their dependents. Aurora has supported more than 200 victims directly through this service, and trained more than 500 personnel, from the navy, army and the air force in domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking awareness.

Meanwhile, her legal background has led her to develop services to support women who have become caught up in the criminal justice system. These are women who are either on probation, in prison or involved with criminality in their communities. “I’m always so humbled by those women,” Dillon tells me. “They have often experienced male violence from such a young age and the vast majority should never be in the justice system at all.”

‘That’s feminism to me’

In 2016, Dillon combined her passion for education, her background in law, and her commitment to feminism by applying for a PhD. Although she was already making a difference in the lives of women abused by men, she wanted to make sure that conversations about male violence against women were being had in universities and that books on the topic were available in academic libraries.

Her PhD covered the current male backlash against the provision of same-sex services to women. She realised that women’s services were, to a degree, a victim of their own success. Having moved to a funding model where most of the money comes from “structures that we are … trying to fight against”, women’s services had lost their voice, with many departing from a feminist model, and some now admitting men to what had previously been single-sex facilities. “There’s a woolly kind of feminism in some women’s organisations,” she says. “But when you dig deeper, how many of them actually mean it?”

Setting up Aurora has come with its own challenges, the most obvious presented by angry men. “It just used to be over men’s rights activism, and now it has morphed into this,” Dillon says, a mixture of anger and frustration in her voice. Whether it is angry men or angry transwomen, she says the message is: “Women cannot and are not allowed, according to a large proportion of the male population, to have our own spaces and our own voices.”

But although she often cries and sometimes cannot sleep, Dillon remains unphased by accusations that she is a “nasty feminist”, or that by excluding men she is excluding transwomen.

“The actual hard work, the actual activism that we do, is on the ground, working with a woman who has been beaten, tortured, raped, abused, belittled and degraded, and that’s feminism to me,” Dillon says. “It is when we give her a space to be able to move away from the experiences that she has been subjected to, because of a man. That’s activism for me.”

Dillon recognises the new wave of male violence and incursion into women’s single-sex spaces for what it is: the same violence and abuse it always was. “You’ve got to ride that out or you’re not doing the activism, you’re not doing the real work as far as I’m concerned.”

I conclude by asking her what is next? “Being a CEO of a feminist charity tackling male violence has a shelf life,” says Dillion. “It is a constant battle to bring in the funds and maybe Aurora needs new blood soon. I’d love to write a book, I’d love to write several books, of course, they would need to centre victim’s voices. That would be a dream.”

From the Afghan woman who fought patriarchy and the Soviets to the mother who taught her daughter what it means to survive and the art of care, we are telling the stories of women – contemporary, historical, in the public eye and overlooked – who are shaping other women’s lives. In 2022, starting from Women’s History Month in March, these are the stories of women who are making a difference to other women.

Source: Al Jazeera