Hands off our bodies! Hands off our Passports!
Southall Black Sisters AGM
3rd December 2013
Every year after the business and accounts section of the AGM is finished, we organise a talk or a film show which is timely, politically relevant and of interest to the women who use our centre. In 2013, SBS women had been passionate and vocal about two issues: in response to news of the gang-rape and murder of the young physiotherapist in India in December 2012, we campaigned against sexual violence in India and Britain and in response to the heavy-handed and racist schemes of the British government to deport ‘illegal’ immigrants, we campaigned against the Go-Home vans and spot checks; all of these campaigns received extensive media coverage and generated huge amounts of public support.
When news broke of women asylum seekers being sexually harassed by staff at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, we felt that women’s concerns around sexual violence and a racist immigration system converged in one issue. So we invited Rukhsana (not her real name), a woman who was sexually harassed by a male nurse at Yarl’s Wood, and her solicitor, Harriet Wistrich, who is taking action on her behalf against the UKBA, to our AGM which was attended by 40 women approximately.
Rukhsana spoke movingly of how she unwittingly became an overstayer through marriage to an abusive man, an experience that most women at SBS could relate to, and how she ended up in Yarl’s Wood, where her deteriorating health necessitated daily visits to the pharmacy which provided the nurse with the opportunity to touch her inappropriately. In order to avoid contact with him, Rukhsana eventually stopped taking medication and entered a downward spiral of depression and ill-health.
Harriet Wistrich managed to get Rukhsana out of the detention centre. Rukhsana complained about the nurse sexually assaulting her, but the investigation by UKBA found it was “unsubstantiated”. Harriet assisted her by challenging the investigations by UKBA and the police, which were inadequate, and in bringing civil proceedings against UKBA and SERCO (who employed the nurse and run Yarl’s Wood). The claims were settled and at trial the judge found that the latter part of her detention was unlawful. Her application for leave to remain is still pending.
Rukhsana was cheered by the support, solidarity and sympathy she received from the women at SBS. She is a member of WAST (Women Asylum Seekers Together) which is a source of great strength and hope to her.
Image credit: WAST (Women Asylum Seekers Together)