Marking International Women’s Day

THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES….

Of course, women have much to celebrate on International Women’s Day.  This is the tenth anniversary of the inspirational women’s revolution in Rojava, North Eastern Syria, where women share equally all leadership roles with men in an ethnically inclusive, ecologically sustainable grassroots democracy despite occupation of some parts of its territory by Turkey and the threat of annihilation posed by Turkish dictator, Erdoğan. We have also made gains in terms of the increasing global awareness of violence against women as an institutionalised form of domination, not simply the depredations of individual men; and a recognition that true gender equality will never be possible while these endemic levels of violence, what Eve Ensler described as ‘Disaster patriarchy’, continue.

It was against this background that the government finally passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, widely hailed as a landmark act for introducing a legal definition of domestic violence for the first time, including economic abuse; putting an end to the “rough sex” defence which has been used by men who have killed women; ending the cross-examination of survivors by perpetrators in family courts; introducing Domestic Abuse Protection Orders and placing a duty on local authorities to provide good quality, safe housing for women fleeing abuse.

But, not all women, sadly and predictably as our 43 years in existence have shown us again and again. Despite our fierce campaigning on this issue, there were no provisions for the protection of migrant women in the Act apart from a misconceived, poorly resourced and flawed pilot scheme to assess the level of need, for certain categories of migrant women, women on non-spousal visas, who have no safety net. We saw this as an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass when organisations like ours have provided plenty of evidence to establish need.

The hostile anti-immigrant agenda of the government pollutes policies across the board, even one which claims to protect all women facing violence. Every trick in the book is used to reduce government responsibilities to migrant women. One trick is to create complicated bureaucratic categories which divide women into deserving and undeserving.

After years of campaigning by Southall Black Sisters, we managed to get some basic rights for women who were trapped in violent marriages to British men, access to some benefits and cheap housing while they applied for leave to remain.  These women are given the measly amount of £50 subsistence per week and £10 per child. Compare that to Universal credit, which itself is barely enough to keep body and soul together, of £75 per adult and £54 per child for British citizens.

Both groups of women have to pay the same prices for food, clothing, nappies and travel. Additionally, migrant women have to travel to lawyers and prepare a legal case for the right to remain in this country.

These women face a level of poverty that even Jack Munroe, the anti-poverty campaigner, may not have been touched by. They are often accommodated in hotels without cooking facilities so they cannot even cook the cheap and healthy meals that Jack Munroe so passionately promotes.  They buy the cheapest and unhealthiest food imaginable in order to feed their children better. One woman used to buy a deep fried snack on the streets of Southall for 30p:  it was white bread dipped into a spicy gram flour and deep fried in corn oil.

Why don’t they use foodbanks, you may ask? Do you know that you cannot just walk off the street and get a bag of groceries? They have to be referred by organisations like ours. Migrant women who are new to the country and don’t know the ropes would have no way of knowing that.

But this is the Deserving group of women – women on spousal visas.

There is a whole other group of migrant women – what we might call the Undeserving group in the way that the government has categorised them.  They are women on ‘non-spousal visas’ – overstayers, students, women married to non-British spouses. If they face violence, then god help them because this government hasn’t so far.

What the Undeserving have got is a time limited pilot project which we, and our partner organisations – Ashiana in Sheffield, Shakti in Edinburgh, BAWSO in Wales, Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid and Foyles Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland, are running now. It is due to end in March and we do not know what it will be replaced by.

Everything hinges on this project. If we don’t reach enough women, the Home Office might well say there is no case to answer. But we would argue, it is not about numbers. Even if one woman falls outside the scope of this, it is inhumane. Until recently, it was a very basic project with no wraparound support that a woman escaping violence needs:  no help with legal costs, medical costs, travel, or counselling; subsistence levels of £40; with a time limit on accommodation for 12-16 weeks. Many women, especially in this category of complex cases, do not get residence rights within 12 weeks. Complex cases can take 6-8 months. Many refuges and women’s centres will not deal with women who fall into this category because they simply do not have the resources. We do take on such cases but at tremendous cost to our staff.

We rely on donations from the public and grants to fill in the gaps of state provision. Whilst it is a vital form of support, it is no substitute for a properly funded government scheme.

There is a further difficulty for migrant women faced by women when attempting to report domestic violence to the police. Instead of protecting the woman from the perpetrator, the police have been known to check the immigration status of the woman first. We have had instances where the victim of domestic violence has been arrested and imprisoned. Given the reputation of the police force for being institutionally racist and sexist which deters many women from reporting domestic violence in the first instance, the focus on immigration status seals that reputation.

Along with Liberty, SBS launched the first ever super-complaint against the police (a new system of holding the police accountable was introduced in 2018) demanding the erection of a firewall between the police and the immigration service.

In December 2020, the findings of the super-complaint investigation, led by three independent police watchdogs, were published. They concluded that these arrangements are significantly harming not only victims of crime but also the public

interest, as crimes are not reported and therefore remain unpunished. Among the many recommendations made, the police inspectorate bodies called for immediate action to stop this practice. However, in December 2021, the Home Office published its response and rejected the key demand for a firewall making a spurious and convoluted argument that data sharing enables safeguarding because the police can signpost the woman to the appropriate immigration advice.

SBS agrees with Liberty lawyer, Lara Ten Caten, who says that if the party complained about can simply disagree with the recommendations in this way, then the super-complaint procedure has no teeth and ‘I would not recommend that Liberty (or anyone else) spends the time and effort in submitting a super-complaint again.’

How can we tackle institutional racism and sexism when the government shows such a failure of leadership and resolve? How can we deal with racism and sexism in our society when the state discriminates so blatantly against migrant women? This is how institutional racism trickles down and spreads through the whole of society. This kind of discrimination results in women staying with violent perpetrators.

Our demand is very simple. Migrant women escaping domestic violence should have the same safety net as any woman. It is not much to ask of a state that boasts of its human rights credentials.

What lessons have we learnt from Windrush?

What lessons have we learnt from Black Lives Matter?

In the words of Sojourner Truth, Ain’t I A Woman?