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Stylist’s Women of the Year 2017: The campaigner defending the right to harassment-free abortions

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
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Anna Veglio-White, 25, formed Sister Supporter in 2015. The group campaigned to introduce a ‘buffer zone’ around the Marie Stopes West London clinic to protect women seeking abortions from harassment by religious sects outside. In October, they won. Ealing Council’s decision was the first of its kind in the world.

“We set up Sister Supporter two years ago. I’d moved back from university and was out for a run, when I passed the Marie Stopes clinic and saw that anti-choice vigils were still going on there. If you live in Ealing, you’re kind of numb to it, because the vigils have been there for 23 years. Because I’d moved away and come back, I was so shocked.

The anti-choice group have ‘pavement counsellors’. It’s their job to stop women going in. Then there’s the prayer vigil directly opposite the gate. The ‘pavement counsellors’ have leaflets and rosaries. They use really emotive language, like calling the women ‘mum’, and if a man isn’t with them they’ll ask if the dad knows they’re killing their baby today. They’ll ask them to pick a rosary, pink or blue for their baby. Some call them murderers and tell them it’s not the clinic, so they don’t go in. Sometimes that works.

One woman we saw, they called her ‘mum’ and she ran off in tears. Her partner begged them to move. She had wanted her child but there was a foetal abnormality. She didn’t end up going in that day. We don’t know if she went back. That’s how upset it makes people. At worst, it causes severe emotional trauma. A woman wrote to us saying she had PTSD from it.”

Anna Veglio-White, photographed for Stylist

“I organised the first demo and encouraged friends to come. I put an ad in the local paper. Loads of people turned up, and ITV News came. We have always asked the clinic if there was anything we could do. They asked us to escort people. We have people in pro-choice vests to walk you in.

The police are trying to use protest laws to solve the issue when it’s not a protest, it’s harassment. We sought legal advice, and that’s when a barrister said, ‘Just look at existing legislation. I propose this law.’ And that was the public spaces protection order.

We had our petition for a buffer zone in and signed by the end of June this year. It was signed by more than 3,000 local people – one of the largest the council ever had. One about wheelie bins had around 3,000 and that was our target – we just had to do better than wheelie bins.

By March, the exclusion zone should be in effect, so protests outside will be banned. The great thing is, Portsmouth and Southwark councils have now voted to bring in similar orders, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd has ordered a review of national buffer zones.

It hasn’t sunk in that we won. We’re proud of what happened. Overjoyed. It was something we actually could do. You can feel powerless, but to form this group and stand up and say this is wrong, and fight it successfully – I hope it has a domino effect.”

To celebrate the best in people, Stylist photographed and interviewed 10 heroic women – just a few of the many who served to inspire us all in 2017. To see the rest of our Women of the Year 2017, click here.

Photography: Mark Harrison.