Women, Diversity and the Fight Against Racism

In June 2019, Portsmouth formally launched as a City of Sanctuary, declaring itself a place of welcome and safety for anyone fleeing violence and persecution from around the world. With support from Portsmouth City Council, and around 80 local organisations this movement intends to make a tangible difference to the city, connecting networks of existing projects and services.  Women in Portsmouth have long been at the forefront of such projects and services, motivated by their own experiences and backgrounds, and leading the way, often with little or no support.

Senior and younger activists talk about the variety of cross-cutting actions and groups they have set up since the 1960s

MARIE COSTA was born in Eastern Nigeria, a member of the Ebo people.  She moved to England in 1956 to study nursing and qualified as a midwife.  She studied at Portsmouth Polytechnic before running her own business.

Marie was the Chair of Portsmouth’s first Multicultural Group and in 1996 set up the African Women’s Forum.

The African Women’s Forum brings art, culture and pressing issues of the day to the Portsmouth community:

FATOUMATA KOMA was born in 1984 in what is now the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, West Africa.

Fatoumata first moved to the Netherlands, and then Portsmouth, arriving in 2004.  Coming from French-speaking Guinea, her first task was to learn English.

Fatoumata studied accountancy at Highbury College and now works in manufacturing in Portsmouth. In 2016 she set up the Minority Women’s Group, mostly for women from West African backgrounds. 

One of their campaigns is to educate Portsmouth-based ethnic minority women about the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  Their goal is to reach women before their daughters are old enough to be subjected to the custom, rather than have to prosecute.

ROWSHONARA REZA was born in the Sylhet District of Bangladesh and moved to Portsmouth at the age of eight.

Rowshonara and her husband have fostered children from a variety of faith backgrounds and she actively supports several community groups in Portsmouth – combining her faith with community cohesion as well as challenging stereotypes of ‘asian women’.

Although her family were invited to the UK, this important legacy has started to fade from history.

Rowshana worked as a bilingual assistant in schools and as a Domestic Abuse Advocacy worker among BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities and now works as a Community Development Officer for Portsmouth City Council.

SHIPA AHMED KHAN was born in Bangladesh and moved at a very young age to Portsmouth where she is now a Community Development Worker.

Shipa Ahmed Khan

She was involved in the Don’t Hate, Donate campaign, which began as a spontaneous outreach from Portsmouth to the people living in the Calais Jungle and then enlarged to encompass people in crisis globally. To date the charity has sent over 200 tonnes of supplies to people around the world, including Syria. Shipa runs a women’s support group, challenging traditional opinions on women.

SHAMILA DHANA was born in Harare, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and comes from a close-knit family. 

Her biggest influences were her grandmother and mother.  Her Mum was a single parent and Shamila was always encouraged to express her feelings and views.  She remembers having to do the chores at home after school with her sister while her brothers did not.

She moved to the UK during a period of upheaval in her home country, and worked as first a chamber-maid on the ferries from Portsmouth to Cherbourg and then in the Bureau de Change. 

She faced a period of homelessness while coping with her brother’s illness but still managed to volunteer to work with young ex-offenders – and then with the Portsmouth ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), specialising in supporting asylum seekers and new migrants to the city.  She runs support groups for asylum-seeking women affected by gender-based domestic violence and also those who arrive in the city having undergone, or with the threat of undergoing, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

MARY HELM originally came from Yorkshire, and moved to Portsmouth in 1978 as a young married woman.

Mary Helm

She had already volunteered with Women’s Aid in Hull and while raising her two young children in Portsmouth she got involved in the emerging Parent and Toddler movement – setting up a group with a friend to make toys more accessible to children. 

In the 1980s Mary joined a local Campaign against Nuclear Disarmament (CND) group with her friend Nicky Skinner and travelled to Greenham Common to link arms around the RAF base.

She helped set up the rape crisis line in Portsmouth, staying overnight at the makeshift offices to answer phones after attending meetings.  She remembers reading Spare Rib – an active part of the emerging Women’s Liberation Movement – which was published from 1972 until 1993 and challenged the stereotyping and exploitation of women whilst supporting collective, realistic solutions to the obstacles to equality that women faced. 

She taught English as a Second Language and also trained as an asylum seeker case worker for the Red Cross

Her study for a Masters degree involved researching the way that children from Asian communities settled into Portsmouth life and she examined their background experiences and the cultural influence on their language development. She also played a leading role in including parents from the Benghali community in their child’s education.