Every Wednesday for the past month, from 10:30am to 3:00pm, five women have been meeting in a training room behind St Leonard's Shoreditch Church, London, to discuss feminist history, sociology and cultural theory. They differ in race, sexual orientation and upbringing, but they have one cause in common: they're all recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.
These are the participants of Feminism for Change, a new female-only program designed to provide women with a safe space to explore the ways gender structures and expectations have influenced themselves and their relationships.
Sitting in a training room at the offices of Foundation for Change, the local drug charity running the course, two participants told VICE Impact how learning about feminism has already dramatically reshaped their perspectives in four short sessions. They had just come out of their weekly meeting, where they discussed sex, love, and friendship with their three facilitators.
"For a long time in early recovery, it was like I didn't know who I was anymore," said Heather, who's currently in recovery from substance abuse. "This course is giving me validation. Those feelings of insecurity, that's where they come from: it's not you, it's society."
"To actually have [feminism] entwined with recovery is great," she said. "While you're questioning all your morals and values, to have these tools to carry on with is really important."
"I'm learning so much about my own situation from what I'm hearing from the other ladies. I experience things all the time and assume it's just me," added Jane*, who asked that her real name be concealed. "But with other women being able to talk about their experience, I'm finding I have a lot in common with them."
"It makes me feel validated," she reflected. "It's really quite liberating."
A key to the program's success is the fact that it's for women only. Feminism for Change provides participants with a safe space to explore their emotions in a way they wouldn't be able to with men around, said Liz Naylor, the program's director and co-founder of Foundation for Change. (Bob Bharij, the charity's other co-founder, isn't involved in the project in any way.)
"When we put [women] in a group with men, they tend to take care of men's emotions," Naylor said. "Because that's what women have been taught to do. It's very frustrating as a facilitator to see men just talk over women."
Participants agree. "I've been in a [mixed] group situation, and the dynamic is completely different," said Heather. "You're worried you'll come off too feminist, too 'feminazi' — here, you don't have to be worried about that."
"As a woman, there are certain things that happen to you in life that will never happen to a man," said Jane. "Something even like having your first period. A man would just think it's probably just something that happens. They don't realize the emotions and loss of innocence and actual changes that go with it."
"I think one of the messages of the world is that women are competitive and they're bitches and they're not to be trusted," Naylor remarked. "I think women are actually quite supportive together."
The idea for Feminism for Change came about when Naylor and Bharij noticed a trend of female participants thriving in their other courses and then returning to toxic relationships.
"You see people blossom so far, and then the course would finish, and you would either find out — by talking to them or word of mouth — that they'd be sliding backwards," Naylor noted. "One of the connections that's very rarely made is that people are fucked up because of general inequality. It's a political point, and drug services are not political places," she said. "They don't understand that it's a very rational response to the inequality that's going on here."
Although Feminism for Change stresses the tenet of gender inequality, participants insist the course isn't anti-men. In fact, it's given them more confidence with men.
"We don't come out angry and men-hating and all that — just wiser about the structure of things," said Heather."And more able to interact with other people out there," Jane chimed in. "Even men."
Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of Nia, a female-only charity that fights against violence perpetrated by men, also outlined the misconception that women's programs disregard men.
"People might say to us, 'what about men's needs?', or accuse us of not caring about what happens to men. It's not that," Ingala Smith said. "We believe that we support women better by focusing on the specificities of women's needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution."
Despite the growing advocacy for women-only social services, Naylor said she hasn't seen a drug recovery program like Feminism for Change.
"I'm not that arrogant to say, 'we're the only people doing this,'" she clarified. "But as far as I know, there's nothing that similar in existence that's explicitly feminist."
Thirty percent of adults — or almost 88,000 people — in treatment for substance abuses in England — are women, according to the latest statistics from the UK's National Drug Treatment Monitoring System. Naylor believes the program's model can be easily replicated by drug workers around the world: "The more the merrier, in my opinion."
"And I wouldn't be afraid of cultural barriers," she added. "I think women are quite able to articulate what they experience."
Feminism for Change's two pilot programs were sponsored by the Big Lottery Fund, a public body that donates money from the UK National Lottery to various charities, but that's not enough for future courses. You can donate directly to the charity on its Virgin Money Giving page.
If you're interested in further resources, check out BeyondMe, a program funded by City of London businesses that pairs up with charities like the Foundation for Change to offer training and work experience; or The Spitalfields Crypt Trust, a local charity that supports people in recovery from addiction and homelessness.
Also be sure to check out Tonic, VICE's vertical that covers wellness, science and big-picture health issues.
*Name has been changed upon the source's request.