Frauen helfen Frauen e.V. Bergisch Gladbach

30 years

This page honours the women who founded our association, have left their mark on it and have supported it in the 30 years since it was founded. Thanks to Astrid Peter (volunteer) for interviewing the six women and writing the following portraits.
March 2016


“We started out with five to seven women and now, looking back, I can see how much you can achieve!”

Conny, founder and in at the start, has worked full-time in the Bergisch Gladbach women's refuge for many years.

Conny was 27 and had just completed her studies. She had tackled the subject of violence against women in a project, run groups for single mothers and written her thesis on the topic. That was what made her realise she wanted to work on women's issues. Her own personal contacts to women were important and a motivation.

Since there was nothing in Bergisch Gladbach aimed specifically at women, the idea was born to set up a communication centre and café where women, including those with small children, could meet.

A meeting place for women seems so obvious today, but 30 years ago it really was something new and special. Then women who were mothers of young children were more likely to spend their time at home or at playgrounds. And here was a public place exclusively for women. The name of the centre spoke volumes: WITCHES' CAULDRON (Hexenkessel)!

Women came here who wanted to share their knowledge with other women, women who challenged and inspired other women on questions such as women's lives, role models, physical awareness and health.

Conny was also one of the first three women to get a full-time and thus paid job in the communication centre. Following the birth of her daughter and parental leave she took a job in the association's first safe flat for women that had been set up in the interim. Today she remains a member of the experienced team at the women's refuge, which was opened in July 1992.

Bringing women together and encouraging them to share experiences has always been important to Conny. This stems from her recognition of the social problems women face; combining theory and practice during her studies in Cologne proved to be positive, stimulating and encouraging.

Looking back she highlights the way the association developed as an organisation. The original communication centre for women became a women's advice centre which then led to help for women in crisis. Advisory services aimed at girls were added later. All these developments stemmed directly from the situations women and girls found themselves in and from their problems and needs.

How has involvement in women's projects affected and enriched Conny's life?

Women have an awareness of problems. They can define them and tackle them – both on a personal and a societal level. Being involved in this plus the multifaceted experience of 30 years of private and professional life have had a big impact and been very enriching.

"What we've achieved has made me stronger."

It's always exhausting to have to explain her work over and over again, especially when there are questions like "Why are you for women and against men?" "And where are the men's refuges? There are women who are violent to men too." Yes, that's true.

Conny expects the next ten years to bring exciting developments and new contacts. The range of women seeking refuge will widen, too. To start with there were lots of German women including German-born women from Turkish backgrounds. Now many of the women living at the refuge come from eastern Europe and Africa.

How would Conny like to be remembered?

As calm, adaptable, open, tolerant and friendly. She ought to manage that!

She often thinks of a postcard from one of her many supervision sessions. It shows an old, suntanned woman holding a cigar. What she emanates is deep satisfaction.

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“The story of this association is a real success story!”

Elisabeth Rückl was 28 when the association was founded and has been on its board for many years.

At the time she worked for the Rheinisch-Bergisch branch of Caritas, looking after mentally ill outpatients. With her colleague Dorothee Überberg she developed a concept aimed at women with depression in Bergisch Gladbach. She was convinced that women suffering from depression needed their own space and structures for tackling their condition and a different kind of professional feedback than was the norm 30 years ago.

The conviction and readiness to take women's circumstances seriously and to train for the special challenges of working with women were there. Elisabeth was probably following in her mother's footsteps – she also founded a women's association.
The new Hexenkessel communication centre was quickly in demand from women with widely varying needs for advice and support.

Women confided in other women and encouraged one another to find answers to their questions. This was partly a result of the 1970s women's movement, which challenged women to go their own ways when it came to gender roles, work and health issues.

"We wanted to bring women together, to get them away from the nuclear family and a preoccupation with housework and child care. We women wanted to use our skills to create meaningful jobs for women."

And so a contact and advice centre emerged which provided full-time paid jobs as well as work by Frauen helfen Frauen volunteers.

Does Elisabeth think they've achieved the goals they had then?

Absolutely. It's not just that many goals have been achieved that 30 years ago spurred people on; in the association women have repeatedly changed course and adapted flexibly to altered conditions. For example, the women's breakfast was dropped from the programme when it was no longer in demand. And once other organisations started to offer contact and training opportunities aimed specifically at women, Hexenkessel developed further to become a Frauen helfen Frauen advice centre.

A golden thread running through three decades of the association's development is the desire to call out limiting social structures and structural violence against women and the conviction that campaigning for women's rights is necessary and makes sense. For Elisabeth, International Women's Day on 8 March, especially its political agenda, remains important and worth celebrating.

"What a feisty bunch we were!"

She describes the early days of the association as "political" and says that she found all the women involved to have a strong sense of responsibility. That was particularly important and attractive for "the Christian and left-wing activist". She likes to remember how lots of women got involved in the association's development and growth and contributed their skills. That enabled the work of the voluntary board to become more professional – including through particular challenges and problems. Elisabeth emphasises that the quality management processes in the association's operations and the creation of the job of manager of the advice centre were ground-breaking moments in the work of the board.

Asked what were for her particularly important and significant events, Elisabeth highlights both the "external" – the association's striking successes – and the "internal" – the quality of the interactions between the women. The link between the two aspects could be a strong indicator of why the association has been so successful.

A big step forward was made possible when the association was bequeathed a flat. Its sale provided the funds to buy and extend the women's refuge, providing a safe space for women at risk of physical, emotional or sexualised violence from their partners or husbands. (The association had already been running the refuge for several years but had been renting the property.)

Looking inwards, Elisabeth breaks into smiles when she remembers the celebrations to mark the association's 25th anniversary and the many board meetings that "have given me such joy and energy... and that's still the case".

What would she like to see happen in the coming ten years? She mentions things like "younger board members" and "new organisational structures". That certainly sounds like further developments and departures.

How would Elisabeth like to be remembered?

As reliable, open, able to engage with new developments and prepared to go in new directions. And her pleasure is obvious when she says,

"The freedom to get something to flourish and to see it have an impact, that's really great!"

And then Elisabeth puts a wish into words: to spend another weekend together with the women from the association to plan its next steps – creatively, joyfully and with cheerful composure. Well then!

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“What we did back then was about us!”

Dorothee Ueberberg was 31 when the association was founded. Later she worked full-time in the women's advice centre and has now been on the association's board for many years.

Everything began for Dorothee with a brief item in the newspaper "Handelsblatt". She read an invitation to a women's meeting in the Ratskeller and was determined to go.

At the time she had a business qualification, had studied social work, had completed her probationary year with SKF and had a daughter. The question was "What next?" At SKF she had got to know Elisabeth Rückl and the two had become friends ... and 30 years ago they both took up the invitation to the Ratskeller.

For Dorothee it was exciting to plan and shape her own professional future together with women. When the Hexenkessel communication centre for women opened, she had the opportunity to work there voluntarily and benefit from the centre herself as a mother for meeting and sharing with other women.

But in 1985 women and men in her own circle were put off by the idea of women doing things with other women ... people found it unusual, strange, maybe even threatening and it prompted sceptical questions.

Initially the communication centre offered "open evenings", breakfast meetings and "open surgeries". But then there was a desire to provide more, and so a programme was developed. The favourite proved to be a lecture evening on mother-daughter relationships. The speaker was Elisa Brökling, who was on the staff of the women's advice centre in Cologne.

Daughters came with their mothers. Many daughters took advantage of the discussion period after the lectures and spoke openly about their conflicts with their mothers.

It was unexpected feedback for the women from the centre.

And little by little these individual experiences slotted into a wider social context and led to structural insights.

Asked whether the topic is still pertinent and attractive, Dorothee answers with an emphatic "yes".

Many other themes from the everyday life of women become the topics of many public educational events, issues such as divorce, sexuality, separation/isolation, sexual abuse, women after children are grown up/isolation.

"We got a lot of things moving!"

Later other training providers such as the Familienbildungsstätte and AWO took up these and other topics and included them in their programmes for women.

Dorothee looks back with satisfaction and says, "We achieved the goals we set ourselves at the outset ... and quite a few others, too."

She worked for nine years in the women's advice centre and, together with Birgit Lernbecher and others, developed its content, concepts and organisation.

Her spontaneous, firm answer to the question whether she found anything that she hadn't been looking for: "Yes, firm friends and companions!"

Personally her involvement gave her a professional perspective and the experience that "I'm worth something as a woman". This insight had a personal and a political dimension. It was stimulating, lively, challenging and helped everyone grow.

Especially important milestones in the 30-year history of the association were the funding for the advice centre by the NRW federal state and the establishment of the women's refuge. This laid the financial foundations for creating a good framework for working with women on women's issues.

Dorothee is thoughtful when it comes to another important topic – How do women respond critically to one another and how do they deal with criticism? How can all-women teams treat one another with respect in a way that permits the expression of factual criticism and does not throw up barriers to further development together?

They remain current, exciting questions when it comes to professional and private contact between women.

What would she like to see in the next ten years?

She'd like to see the girls' advice centre get state funding and permanent staff. She hopes the change of manager set to happen in that period will be successful, and she'd like to see young women who are interested in the work of the association get involved and secure its future.

How would Dorothee like to be remembered?

As someone who fought and campaigned on behalf of the association – she'd like recognition for that. And to be remembered as someone who spoke openly about things, really enjoyed working for the association ... and who could have a good time.

Dorothee has two ideas at the end of our conversation that keep going round in her head:

She'd love to spend another weekend with the women from the association to generate new ideas for the further development of the association and to have the time, creativity and leisure to plan – joyfully and enjoyably.

And they could maybe have another mothers and daughters evening, perhaps in the form of a dialogue between the staff of the women's and the girls' advice centres. What an exciting project!

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“For me it was always about respecting the way women shaped their own lives.”

When the association was set up Birgit Lernbacher was in her probationary year at the Youth Welfare Office and had previously studied social education.

She had met Beate Bohr at children's gym classes and through her got to know the association. Birgit was one of the first three full-time staff who were funded by the job centre on 1.1.1986 through a job creation scheme. Today she is the manager of the women's advice centre.

She was keen to get involved in women's advice work. To call it a job-creation scheme was something of a misnomer – the job was already there; it was a question of describing the job specification and providing financial backing.

What needed to be done back then? It was nothing less than improving social structures. Birgit's motivation was to do something to counter the unjust assumption that women were incapable of doing what men could.

And "violence against women" was not a topic she had first encountered at university. When she was a child she had seen and experienced violence against women in her own neighbourhood.

Birgit points out that injustice and violence are still present today. But in the past three decades important elements have been put in place – concrete services for women in the Rheinisch-Bergisch district, women's networks within the Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband, the Protection Against Violence Act to name just a few.

There is awareness in Bergisch Gladbach and beyond of what the women's advice centre provides and why. And funding has been successful, too. Whereas in the past applications for state funding had to be made every year, now there's a budget over four years for the period 2015–2018.

Did Birgit find anything she hadn't been looking for?

She developed skills and interests that she didn't realise she had. And that enabled her to discover new areas of work such as management, public relations, personnel management and project management.

"We were flexible and open to developments."

Open to new things – open to what was necessary – conviction, confidence and strength for things that were obvious but not self-evident, for things whose time had come – for example health-related projects or the online advice service.

This openness to developments led on the one hand to a breadth of themes and a differentiated approach to violence against disabled women, violence against women from immigrant communities, women's health, ASS (anonymous forensics in connection with knockout drops), etc., etc.

On the other hand the ministry was making more and new demands – and continues to do so. And then "round tables" at a local and NRW state level coupled with the NRW action plan on violence against women meant further involvement, time and work. The logical result was the need for additional skilled staff in women's advice centres to be able to offer more services.

What impact has involvement in a women's project had on Birgit's life?

With little pause for thought she reels off a list: impetus for her own life; special, mutually supportive friendships with women on the same wavelength; influence on how she sees and interacts with her own children, and sharing childrearing and housework with a man/husband being a matter of course. There was an openness and permeability between her private and professional life.

What were special or important events for Birgit over the many years?

Among the highlights were the recognition of the advice centre and the resultant state funding. And cases where women worked their way out of difficult phases in their lives still elicit a lot of respect from Birgit and enthusiasm over just how powerful women are.

A particular feature of the work, contributing a lot to the great success of the women's advice centre, has been the steady work in a team with few changes over the years.

A disappointment on the other hand continues to be the violent relationships that are the starting point for the work, including the experience that some men kill their wives.

What would she like to see in the next ten years?

Secure funding for all departments, solid participation and exciting projects. Successors for the voluntary and full-time work. What's needed is "worthy heirs" who keep their wits about them, make women's needs their first priority and engage with developments in society.

At the end of our conversation Birgit comes up with the title for a discussion evening: "Voluntary – socio-political – feminist – today" and issues the challenge to rethink connections and fill them with life.

How would Birgit like to be remembered?She considers briefly and then says:

"Birgit was reliable, constant, ambitious and creative!"

And how many women can say this at the end of their careers? "I'm happy to go ¬– I've been able to make so many things happen."

Hats off to her!

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“Identifying themes and goals without having all the answers at the outset is what defines the quality of our work.”

Magdalene Holthausen has worked for the women's advice centre since 1.6.1995. She is on the full-time staff and not a member of the association.

Magdalene used to work for the ASD (social services) in the Bergisch Gladbach Youth Welfare Office. For years she had worked there on short-term contracts. She had professional contacts to the Hexenkessel women's centre and to the working group "Against Sexualised Violence". She became interested in working with the association early on and, when a (part-time) post focusing on sexualised violence became vacant, she decided the time had come for a change of job.

She was keen to work on the topic, especially with adult women who came "voluntarily" and wanted to do something for themselves. In contrast, she had often found the work at the Youth Welfare Office to be "firefighting" and to be too controlling when it came to child protection.

Magdalene's goal in her work was to "boost women's own resources" and was convinced that there were plenty of them – in every woman.

She was interested in the advisory work and took part in courses, including on the topic of "trauma resulting from sexualised violence against women and girls". As well as the advisory work, she worked with Claudia Bundschuh to develop groups for women. Later she added to her advisory work by offering training on sexualised violence, domestic violence and women's health. And so she was able to supplement her job as an advisor with freelance training, with each area complementing and benefiting from the other.

Twenty years later: Has she achieved the goals she had then?

Yes, she has, and along the way she has carried on developing both professionally and personally. "I had opportunities to develop – to gain confidence, through trial and error, in my own strengths and skills."

What Magdalene discovered, without consciously looking for it, was training as a "professional mainstay". Encouraging students gives her particular pleasure, and she has the happy knack of making the right choices when it comes to selecting students for particular projects.

Perhaps it was this experience that was a main driver for the vision to open an advice centre for girls where she could work with the next generation of women to cultivate a further advisory field.

At any rate, Magdalene's tireless advocacy of the idea of a girls' advice centre and her efforts to secure financial backing met with success when funding was approved for three years by Stiftung Aktion Mensch and other bodies. That made it possible to establish the first girls' advice centre in Bergisch Gladbach with full-time staff.

Magdalene like to think back to particular advisory processes with individual women that she experienced as a great gift, as good, successful and enriching.

What are her hopes for the association in the coming ten years?

That it stays lively, continues to develop and maintain its high quality, and has enough strength to be visionary. One vision is for the girls' advice centre to employ two staff with unlimited contracts. And she can imagine continuing the work of the women's advice centre and seeing the girls' and women's advice centres develop jointly.

How would Magdalene like to be remembered? She immediately mentions three qualities: structured – supportive – innovative.

Two interesting ideas emerge at the end of our conversation. Magdalene points out that her work with women – with clients and colleagues, on overt and hidden topics in women's lives – have taught her to be good to herself, a precondition for personal stability, health and appetite for personal development.

The second is the thread running through the structure of the association as it has developed, starting with the women's communication centre that led to a women's advice centre, then a safe flat for women and later a women's refuge, and most recently an advice centre for girls and young women. Magdalene is interested and keen on discussing the structural development of the whole association with its various divisions. Do people identify with the structure as a whole? How do the individual divisions benefit from one another? And is there a desire to reflect together on the association's professional and political standpoints – on the work with girls and women and the core topic of all three divisions, violence against women and girls?

In my opinion, the "system" comprising the women's refuge, women's advice centre and girls' advice centre is a real model project – you could call it the Bergisch-Gladbach Model.

It has had a lot of successes. Each idea for its further development was a child of its time and had fertile ground to flourish and mature.

It will be exciting to see what the next ten years bring for the association, in terms of content and personnel as well as professional and feminist discourse.

It will also be interesting to see what answers there are to Magdalene's questions.

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“Gender issues continue to be current social issues.”

Hannah Hartung, on the staff of the girls' advice centre and currently on child-rearing leave, was born in 1988 and grew up in the Hunsrück region.

She studied social work and psychosocial welfare for a master's degree.

During her degree she got to know the association and worked there during her project phase.

Although I asked all my interview partners similar questions, I altered the questions I asked Hannah, making me realise that she isn't part of the founding generation but the next generation.

I'm quickly impressed by all the aspects of the woman-mother-daughter role that Hannah embodies.

She's the daughter of a feminist and recently became a mother. In the women's advice centre she approached the work with women as a "symbolic daughter", while in the girls' advice centre she assumed the role of a "symbolic mother", further developing the professional approach to the problems girls and young women face. That demands flexibility and the ability to switch roles, something that seems to come easily to Hannah during our conversation.

What was it about the work and challenges in the girls' advice centre that appealed to Hannah?

For her, gender issues continue to be current social issues. At university she looked at eating disorders and at women's rights within the family. She was very interested in work with women and girls, even though these were not topics central to or particularly practically related to her studies. What she finds particularly challenging is women's and girls' resources – revealing them, creating awareness of them, and strengthening them.

What had she heard about the Frauen helfen Frauen association at the time she applied to work there?

Hannah hadn't heard anything concrete about women's associations or about the Frauen helfen Frauen organisation, but she had briefed herself thoroughly for her application.

Although women's history was a topic at university, it was through her networks that she really learnt what the previous women's movement had achieved in practice and what specific areas of work had opened up as a result.

What kind of girls has Hannah come across in her advisory work? What questions and problems do girls raise with her?

She's worked with girls and young women facing the following issues: eating disorders, violence, sexual abuse; mobbing among girls, between boys and girls and online; various problems within the family and in relationships.

Hannah was able to benefit greatly from the work of her predecessor and pioneeirng staff member, Lena Ueberberg, and to build on her experience to then set her own course.

Has she represented the girls' advice centre on committees, and how has she been received?

Hannah has been part of various working groups: against sexual violence, on girls and young women, and on eating disorders.

As a young colleague she's come up against different reactions, ranging from openness towards her to scepticism, but on the whole she's received good, interested and supportive feedback from professional colleagues and the public.

Sometimes she's been asked questions such as "What about the boys?"or "Is there a boys' advice centre, too?" It's a debate that will befamiliar not only to Conny, who was asked years ago about a refuge for men.

What experiences in the girls' advice centre have been particularly important or significant for Hannah?

She mentions her advisory work and how she's seen it evolve and deepen. She was impressed by many contacts with individual girls and their personal histories.

Hannah beams as she talks about her project at a school in Kürten. An extra afternoon "voluntary working group" attracted girls aged 13–14 to get information about eating disorders. Additionally Hannah worked with the girls on how they could tell and advise other girls about the topic of eating and eating disorders. This kind of peer-to-peer education takes girls' ideas and resources seriously, encourages them and makes them visible.

The project has been documented and a film made that has been shown at the school. It's a super, innovative, successful project.

What would Hannah like to see happen in the next few years?

Spontaneously she mentions the financial security of the girls' advice centre, more colleagues, working groups for young girls and yes, she'd like to see more peer-to-peer projects.

And from my standpoint things come full circle here – or several circles meet. What began 30 years ago with "women helping women" (Frauen helfen Frauen) has developed via "women helping girls" to "girls helping girls". The exciting question is "What next?"

For herself, Hannah is looking to find a good balance between motherhood, carrying on working and being mindful of her own family life. There could be more focus on working with parents – maybe in future for the advice centres?

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