An estimated 1.6 million women suffered domestic abuse last year. It is truly disgraceful that gender-based violence is still a reality for so many women in the UK. Two women a week are reportedly killed by a partner or ex-partner; one in two survivors turned away from a refuge. Refuge funding has been cut by around 25 percent since 2010.



It is widely acknowledged that spending time outdoors in nature brings positive benefits to both body and mind.  But these benefits are not readily available to all, including women who have suffered from domestic violence. Women fleeing domestic violence are often given refuge in an unfamiliar area to provide a safe distance from abusers, so in addition to the experience of trauma women in refuges often don’t feel confident to go out to explore and enjoy nature.


Green care projects are popping up across the country, including in prisons, mental health institutions, care home and drug and alcohol services, but very rarely do you hear of ones in women’s refuges. 

Refuges are by their nature often hidden from view but they should not be forgotten about and we should be using innovative approaches such as green care to support recovery. This is what makes the Soils Sisters project unique.



Soil Sisters is a three-year project working alongside four women’s refuges in East London. The project is in partnership with  Ashiana, Hestia and Refuge. Social and therapeutic sessions take place weekly in two hour sessions across the different sites.


According to Thrive, social and therapeutic horticulture (STH) uses plants and gardens to help support both physical and mental health. STH can help people to mix socially, improve their communication and thinking skills, learn practical skills and give them the confidence to become more independent. STH can also be used for therapy or rehabilitation programs providing cognitive, physical, social, emotional and recreational benefits, thus improving a person’s body, mind and spirit. It is also used to reduce feelings of isolation, endowing wellbeing by the simple act of being outside and in touch with nature. 



An important aspect of Soil Sisters is the way the project is delivered, prioritising co-designing gardens and sessions in collaboration with the women. The project aims to empower women with decision making, confidence building and leadership skills in a holistic safe environment through gardening and therapeutic activities. The weekly sessions are a space for women to interact, heal and share positive experiences. 

Our wonderful, skilled therapeutic gardeners lead each session in residential house with 5-19 bedrooms, shared kitchens and before the project started unused garden spaces, which though our collective efforts are slowly transforming into therapeutic sanctuaries for women as they find refuge after trauma. 


Using social and horticultural therapy the women experience a number of benefits from interaction esteem building, tranquility, peace and spirituality, food cultivation skills, physical exercises to  mediation and active listening skills. Participants are women who have survived domestic violence, escaped from forced marriages and have fled trafficking situations.


Taking part in the projects helps build trusting relationships with the other women in the house who are on arrival simply strangers, and this slowly brings back a sense of safety and security to their lives. Quite often the women are new to the area and are also very isolated, many face intersectional and multiple challenges in their lives as they  battle to navigate with immigration and social services, PTSD, psychological traumas and more widespread food and period poverty. 


The project enables women to learn and share ways to grow their own food, celebrate their family recipes and even make their own herbal cosmetics. Through nature based creative activities, the women are able to take control of their bodies and minds while building a support and knowledge network.



The project embeds Wen’s core values, using feminist and intersectional perspectives – supporting and empowering women; skills sharing with each practitioner learning new recipes, ideas and concepts from the woman in the refuge. 

Something the women requested was to visit new places for inspiration and confidence building. So the groups have been on trips to Kew Gardens, pick-your-own farms, urban gardens and parks, workshops at city farms and even a trip along the Thames. These activities strengthen and develop the women’s ties to the local community, an important step to re-building their lives beyond the refuge.



The houses are full of amazing individuals who have so many valuable skills to share. Our team are continuously inspired by women’s strength and resilience who demonstrate kindness and compassion towards each other and us even in times of hardship.

Growing luscious vegetables such as kodus is not the singular goal. We are more interested in the journey and using person-centered goals to relate to individual needs.

Through designing and building garden spaces, we get to learn new skills from each other. Whether this is planting fruit trees, making our own kombuchas, cooking with seasonal vegetables grown by us or making our own homemade soaps.

We hope to see more projects like Soil Sisters pop up across the country, as they are  needed in these current bleak economic times with austerity hurting all our communities. 


A key part of the project is advocating for these therapeutic spaces to be a part of all women’s refuges across the country.  To do this we are developing toolkits that can be shared with organisations, community groups and women themselves to share resources and inspiration for how to use STH to support women’s growth and recovery. 

Read what Maria, our Soil Sisters Therapeutic Gardener, has been up to in one of the women’s refuges. 

Stand up to violence against women – here’s a campaign you can join with Refuge.



This article was first published in December 2019.  Updated in March 2022.  Find out more about our Nature for Wellbeing work.

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