Denise Marshall, who has died of stomach cancer aged 53, was a passionate campaigner against male violence towards women and girls. During her lengthy career within the women’s sector, Marshall was the founder of an internationally acclaimed scheme, the Poppy Project, which housed and supported the victims of sex trafficking into the UK, and a number of other innovative projects that brought about real change for those who had experienced sexual assault and exploitation.
Marshall had been subjected to sexual and physical abuse during childhood. Her father died when she was two years old, and her mother married a man who, following a head injury, became violent. Between the ages of seven and 14, Marshall was regularly raped by her paternal grandfather. The abuse stopped after she stabbed him in the leg with a butter knife.
Born in Highbury, north London, to an Irish mother, Margaret, and Traveller father, Brian, and educated at Ambler primary school and Barnsbury girls’ school, Marshall took casual jobs until she found feminism, in her early 20s, and began to work for social change. In 1986 she became development worker for Stonewall Housing Association, helping to set up housing for vulnerable young gay people who had been thrown out of the family home due to homophobia – in this role, she made sure to prioritise lesbians, because few others did (or do to this day). In 1993 she became manager of Women’s Aid in Camden, and two years later, director of a similar service in Hackney.
In 2000, Marshall landed her dream job – as chief executive of Eaves for Women, a feminist charity founded in 1977 that specialises in support, advocacy and research on all aspects of sexual violence and abuse. Perhaps the scheme that Marshall set up within Eaves that she was most proud of was the Amina Scheme, which provides peer mentoring for women who have been raped, sexually assaulted or abused at any time in their lives. Women using the scheme are supported by specially trained volunteers who have themselves experienced sexual violence.
Marshall came up with the idea of Amina after attending a Home Office conference on rape, at which a rape survivor spoke about her experience. I recall Marshall telling me, in her usual forthright manner, that she was sick of women being wheeled out as “pet victims” for professionals to gawp at and feel sorry for, when such women were actually experts who should be leading the way in combating sexual violence. During each induction period for new Amina volunteers, Marshall made sure she met each and every one, and shared her own experiences with them.
Given that she was fond of naming projects after women, such as Lilith (Research and Development), the Scarlet Centre (drop in and support for sexual abuse survivors) and the Alice Project (a specialist advice and advocacy service for women at risk of homelessness), it was assumed that the Poppy Project was named in a similar vein. But it was an acronym for “Pissing off Pimps and Punters, Yay!”, a fact that Marshall instructed me to make known if she predeceased me.
Police officers would often quake in her presence, and Marshall never held back from offering stern criticism of any poor practice in tackling crimes against women and girls. I recall one conference on trafficking at which Marshall gave a speech. She spoke for 30 minutes, without notes, about the realities of the sex trade, and reduced more than one officer to tears. She ended with a joke about her beloved Arsenal football team that had everyone roaring with laughter.
Marshall was extremely proud of her working-class roots, finding it both hilarious and offensive when she encountered prejudice. She was often assumed to be a secretary, rather than the chief executive of a reputable charity, by her professional peers. Her strong north London accent, fondness for elaborate gold jewellery, and dress sense ensured she stood out against the usual image of senior female managers, in their suits and muted colours.
In 2007 Marshall was made an OBE for “services to disadvantaged women”, but handed it back four years later in protest at government cuts to services for rape and domestic violence victims. In 2014 she was elected to Haringey council for Labour.
One of her common phrases, when thinking about how to deal with adversity, was: “It’s a case of having to, my darling.” Marshall never saw a problem that could not be solved.
She is survived by her partner, Lisa, and their son, Declan.
• Denise Marshall, campaigner, born 12 December 1961; died 21 August 2015
RIP Denise Marshall