We caught up with Purna Sen, Respect’s new Chair of Trustees, about her journey to the role and her hopes for the organisation.

First of all, congratulations on your appointment as Chair of Respect’s Board of Trustees. You’ve had an amazing career, working towards equality and against gender-based violence. What was your motivation to enter the VAWG sector?

I’ve been passionate about ending discrimination and misogyny for as long as I can remember. At school I was excluded for protesting sexism and alerting the media to what was going on. Luckily, I had the good fortune of having parents who were very wise on these matters: they were passionately opposed to apartheid and active against the Vietnam war, both had lived through colonial occupation in India, and my mother was involved in Women’s Liberation Movement meetings. They opened my eyes to, and supported me when I acted against, injustice.

Before gender equality became my focus at a professional level, I worked on race quality in education for ten years. When I began work against VAWG, it was about joining all that together, not seeing them as distinct issues. For me, it’s always been about how these different inequalities relate to each other, and their effects on people who sit across them.

In terms of violence against women and girls more specifically, I became acutely aware of the issue during my teaching career. While I had experienced the kind of harassment every woman experiences in public spaces, I hadn’t experienced abuse beyond that. A couple of students told me about their experiences; that was a real eye opener for me, and utterly enraging. From then on, it was on my mind, and I moved into the sector around five or six years later.

By that time, I had a much better understanding of violence and abuse, and I’d started studying it as part of my Masters. That’s where I started to see where the gaps were in our understanding of it. I went on to complete a PhD on domestic violence, and VAWG has been my focus ever since, for the last 30 years.

We know that you have been aware of Respect’s work with perpetrators for a long time. Can you tell us why you were attracted to the Chair role?

There are a few reasons. After five years living and working in the United States I got seriously ill just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I came home and had treatment but the meningitis impacted my life deeply, and it took me a while to start to recover. 

Nevertheless, I was keen to re-enter the UK VAWG sector and was establishing a number of ways of doing this. One was to join a Board of Trustees. Jo and I had spoken about Respect a few times, what work was going on and how much it had developed since I last was around. When the Chair position opened up I put my name forward. The Respect Board seems like the right place for me to make a contribution, and I hope that my experience will be of value here.

In terms of “Why Respect?”, as I've said - I hope that bringing my own varied experiences to the table will be helpful, but I feel the benefits will be reciprocal. I haven’t got deep experience in perpetrator work, so I hope to learn something from this relationship: it will challenge me so I hope to grow from it as well as bringing something to Respect. Secondly, I love the new strategy: I’m hugely excited by the Centre for Excellence and its potential, so that combination was very attractive to me.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges you’ll face as Chair in the coming months and years?

I know fundraising will be a key challenge. We need a razor-sharp fundraising strategy to counteract the tightening and shifting climate in which we find ourselves. Diversifying our funding streams is key, so we give ourselves more breathing space to deliver the work.

Another challenge we face is ensuring that ending domestic abuse is high up on the agenda for decision makers. Over the last 30 to 40 years, things have changed so much. People increasingly recognise that VAWG is everywhere, and that it’s not OK, but there’s still a journey to take the public on, to move from saying “we don’t like domestic abuse” to saying “we need to end domestic abuse”. Changing that public discourse has always been and remains a challenge.

Also, I think that as a sector, we have been so used to having our ambitions curtailed to reducing the harm. Of course this matters, but it's vital that we work with our sector allies and others to reach beyond that. There is so much work to be done on prevention, with young people in schools for example, and a huge distance to travel to hold perpetrators, and the state, to account. We need to be coming at this issue from every angle if we’re going to make the difference we want to see.

What are your ambitions for Respect moving forward?

I feel that, as an organisation, we’re at a real inflection point, where we can move from being an important part of ending violence and abuse, to being essential. After all, how will we ever end domestic violence if those who perpetrate don’t stop?  That’s the main shift I’d like to see.

In terms of what I’d like Respect to be, I’d like us to be pioneering, brave and innovative. Clearly these characteristics have always been part of the organisation and the new strategy, with the Centre for Excellence, is an opportunity to grow those features. I want us to be absolutely led and informed by survivor voices and experiences. I am disappointed that knowledge is often tightly defined as being held or generated only by experts, academics and so on, but we need to look to the front line, to those with lived experience, as core sources of knowledge. They know what would make a difference. For me, the Centre of Excellence, defined in Respect’s strategy, provides some of that opportunity.

I also think it’s important for Respect to be loud and proud of its work. It’s important as a growing charity that the organisational foundations are solid and I know this is the case. They can provide a solid base for what we need to be doing externally, which is to say “We’re here, we know what is going to make a difference. You can’t do this without us, you need us”.

A 2017 report from the Charity Commission found that 92% of trustees are white: why do you think it’s so important that people from Black, Brown and minoritised communities are represented at Board level?

The arguments for a representative board are the same as those for a diverse workforce. How can you deliver or lead effectively if you don’t reflect and learn from the experiences, knowledge, understandings and aspirations of the people you serve? A homogenous group of people that draws only on experiences of (even relative) power cannot but recreate dynamics of marginalisation or exclusion. You can only achieve so much through observation and listening - both matter. But experience itself has a whole different value and that includes but extends beyond race - people with disabilities still struggle for respect and to be heard, for example.

The key thing is that Board membership can’t be tokenistic. Of course, numbers matter, but we also need to be thinking about what membership looks and feels like for trustees. How are Black and minoritised people experiencing Board membership? Are they listened to? Do they feel comfortable sharing their experiences and input? We need to be thinking about how inequality and power are working in our organisations. 

Respect is a registered charity in England and Wales, number 1141636, in Scotland, number SC051284 and a company, number 7582438. Registered address: VAI Second Floor, 200a Pentonville Road, London N1 9JP
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