The calling of a ‘snap’ general election is clearly an example of opportunistic political manoeuvring whilst the country continues to face uncertain times. But SBS believes it also creates an opportunity for campaigners – we must use this as a time for extracting commitments from MPs of all persuasions.
We demand that the election debates and the new government prioritise the protection of women and girls from gender-based violence, and commit to ensuring their access to justice and promoting gender equality for all women, whoever they are and wherever the abuse against them takes place.
The next government must embed a rights-based approach to all women and girls in law and policies across a range of issues. This will require:
A Brexit deal which does not undermine fundamental human rights and protection of social and economic freedoms
Our exit from the European Union must not be used as an excuse to remove women from the framework of protection and rights which have been secured by EU law. Brexit should not be used as a smokescreen for quietly dismantling, or distancing the United Kingdom from, international mechanisms and protections for women’s socio-economic, political, cultural and basic human rights, including the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.
An end to austerity
At SBS, we see on a daily basis the suffering that punitive austerity measures have caused to the women who arrive at our door. Vulnerable women who are trying to recover from domestic violence must also now cope with the prospect of rising poverty and destitution. Benefit cuts (including the imposition of the “bedroom tax” and the forthcoming benefits cap) have financially affected many women who are plunged into poverty after fleeing abuse and rely on housing and other welfare support. Other proposed changes, such as the “rape clause” in relation to child tax credits, actively victimise women who experience domestic violence.
Other sectors of the state which may reasonably be expected to assist (such as children’s services within local authorities, exercising their duty under s17 of the Children Act 1989) are more often than not seeking to avoid their duty to protect vulnerable children and their families. Severe cuts to children’s services budgets have led to a huge reduction in resources (including experienced social work staff) available to safeguard children and to provide meaningful support for families in order to avoid child protection measures/care proceedings.
The current government made a pledge to do more to tackle violence against women and girls but this rhetoric has not been supported by sufficient funds or resources. Refugees and women’s organisations have closed due to problematic commissioning structures, the withdrawal of funding and the failure to renew funding contracts. Specialist BME services have been particularly hit by these funding structures. Indeed, last year, the government refused to ring-fence funding for BME women’s services despite demands from SBS and others to save the BME women’s sector.
Savage cuts to legal aid (occasioned by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) have resulted in access to justice being severely undermined for many women and children who are fleeing abusive situations. They face stringent eligibility criteria, including financial criteria, as well as rising court fees. There are also fewer quality legal aid solicitors and many law centres have been forced to close for lack of funding. All of this means that women often find themselves having to represent themselves, or worse still, remain ‘trapped’ in violent or abusive relationships.
The irony is that these cuts have not only fundamentally impacted access to services and access to justice; they have also displaced significant costs elsewhere, for example to the voluntary sector and the court system.
An end to the appeasement of religious fundamentalist forces
Meanwhile, the vacuum created by the demise of the welfare state is being filled by regressive forces. We have seen the worrying rise of religious fundamentalism in all religions and demands by certain ‘community leaders’ to run their own faith-based services and to have their personal laws recognised by the state, especially in relation to family law. The state has seemed only too willing to accommodate and appease such demands for faith-based services and parallel ‘justice’ systems. Our research and experience on Sharia Councils, for example, show that women and children are rendered highly vulnerable and often placed at risk by these unofficial and unaccountable bodies, who apply their own varying and arbitrary versions of religious law to pressurise women into giving up their rights to maintenance, property and children, deliberately ignoring the rule of law, human rights and equality laws.
Our demands are clear: The damaging and poorly thought out austerity measures must be reversed. There must be one law for all, which must operate for all and be accessible to all.
Recognition of violence against women in transnational spaces
Increasingly, we see that BME women are being removed from the safety and protection of UK law to other countries and abandoned, abused or even murdered with impunity. One example is the emerging and increasing phenomenon of foreign national wives who are abused and then abandoned by their British national husbands in their countries of origin. They are left destitute, stigmatised and robbed of the right to legal redress.
We have also witnessed the recent honour killings of Samia Shahid and Seeta Kaur, both British women who were tricked into going to India and Pakistan and murdered. In Seeta’s case, her grieving family have been left to seek justice without any state support either from the Indian or the British authorities. The British government’s response betrays its commitment to addressing honour-based violence and even smacks of racial bias in its treatment of the bereaved families of non-white British nationals killed or harmed abroad.
We welcome the grant of the Royal Assent to the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence Bill 2016-17 – which provides for the ratification of the “gold standard” Istanbul Convention as a step forward in protecting women’s rights. Article 44 of the Convention requires state parties to establish jurisdiction where an offence of gender-based violence is committed by a person who is a national of, or habitually resident in, that state – even if the offence takes place outside that state. But the questions remain about implementation. We have some of the best laws on violence against women in Europe but proper implementation remains an elusive goal.
An end to highly unjust and discriminatory treatment of migrant women
Despite hard-won concessions for migrant women who are victims of domestic violence, they continue to be a highly vulnerable and marginalised group. Asylum seeking women are dependent on support and accommodation from the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) which is often inadequate and results in vulnerable women being dispersed across the country, away from any support networks they have built. The Destitution and Domestic Violence concession allow some migrant women who are applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain under the Domestic Violence Rule limited access to benefits whilst their application is processed. Other vulnerable migrant women with insecure status and subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ requirements are forced to depend on charity handouts, food banks, or (if they have children) limited support under s17 of the Children Act 1989. This state of affairs renders them even more vulnerable to destitution, harm and exploitation.
On top of this, the Immigration Act 2016 is likely to be highly discriminatory in impact as it will severely impinge on migrants’ right to access services such as health and housing. We are very concerned about the impact that this is already having on our users, with some unable to access private housing and others being exploited by landlords due to their insecure immigration status. Other women are too frightened to access healthcare. Alarmingly, the anti-immigration racist culture and environment resulting from the enactment of the latest Immigration Act and draconian enforcement measures have contributed to the subversion of those statutory services that are expected to protect the most vulnerable in our society. The police, health professionals and social workers – are all expected to act as border guards and to prioritise this over and above their duties to protect and assist vulnerable women and children.
An end to treating BME women as unequal citizens
The next government must commit to ensuring that all migrant women are protected, have access to public funds and the opportunity to regularise their status as victims of gender-based violence. Above all, we demand that all black and minority women be treated as individual citizens with full citizenship rights and not as dependants of illiberal and unaccountable cultural or faith-based leaderships.