Cameron Gaw | Winner | Nazir Afzal Essay Competition 2022
No single solution: Assessing effectiveness of support by individual need for Black and Asian female victims of abuse
It is well established that Black and Asian Women and Girls (BAWG) face additional barriers when accessing support for experiences of abuse (Hulley et al., 2022). Insufficient input from those most affected means the risks engaged in challenging the unique pressures of insular community settings are frequently disregarded in policy moves which, when adopted, are presented as having universal application and success (Sabbe et al., 2014). The definition of ‘effective’ support varies markedly by professional, victim, or cultural heritage. For one woman, the desire might be to halt forced marriage through a civil protection order whilst another might wish to delay marriage until she has completed university. A young girl might seek eradication of FGM for herself and her siblings without punishing their family, whilst another seeks to escape an abusive partner without ostracism from the community to which they both belong. This essay explores the idea that existing support is ineffective by reason of the consistent failure to appreciate the subjective needs and desires of those seeking help, culturally and socially bound by individual environments.
Subjectivity of need
Emphasis on diversity is crucial to understanding the situations affecting BAWG, not easily subsumed under standard constructions inferred from mainstream references to domestic abuse (Gill & Brah, 2014). As Mirza (2017) observes, minority abuse pushes models of coercive control beyond women’s entrapment by men within a one-to-one relationship; narrow focus on gender inequality as sole source of abuse implies a universal female experience and confines narratives to singular intimate connections of the nuclear family household. Power within minority settings is typically non-linear and stems from extended kinship and family structures (Shaw, 2001). Individualist human rights standards premised on contrasting self-constituting, free individuals with those succumbing to abuse are often at odds with the collectivism of minority communities within which individuals exercise their rights (Shariff, 2012; Anitha & Gill, 2011). Social capital is commonly afforded to familial authority and community cohesion, respected through gendered and cultural rules and surveillance within close-knit upbringings that may lead to passive acceptance of abusive situations – out of respect for the family unit, to avoid stigmatisation or community backlash, or preserve personal identity therein (Chantler et al., 2009; Anitha & Gill, 2009).
Despite the heightened risks of disclosing abuse, it is inappropriate to assume that rights are inherently unstable by reason of cultural surroundings. Evidence has demonstrated the myriad of ways in which minority individuals actively and strategically navigate their situations (Shariff, 2012). The preoccupation with ‘free will’ is ‘predicated on the normative experiences of a white man’, ignoring the broader contexts within which women exercise their autonomy (Anitha & Gill, 2009, 171). These complex forces generate unique needs for those experiencing abuse, demanding specific knowledgebases, refined techniques, and multi-dimensional responses. Support is only effective should it address the subjective notions of survival and justice for individual groups.
Lived experience of existing regulations (policies, treaties, and immigration, criminal, and private law) demonstrates how application frequently neglects the voices and circumstances of BAWG. Responses rarely require victim consent, meaning legal processes can be deployed against express wishes (Idriss, 2015). Measures typically involve objective assessment by professionals in determining risk, liability, guilt, and punishment whilst survival needs (material, financial, health) are overlooked (Sabbe et al., 2014; Nielsen, 2014). Criminal intervention, for example, is widely disregarded by minority victims; rather to seek prosecution of community members is unthinkable and sets aside their need for family and self-preservation (Siddiqui, 2014). Whilst civil protection orders offer victim-centred initiatives (e.g., seizing passports to prevent extrication), these remain subordinate to the question of whether abuse has occurred, fought out in adversarial settings (Noack-Lundberg et al., 2021).
The UK’s emphasis on victims’ right of exit fuels the common belief that BAWG can only recover agency by cutting ties with their background (Phillips & Dustin, 2004). The limited concept of victimisation maturing as a result overlooks the ‘sociopsychological costs’ of removing cultural, social, religious, and familial heritage, improperly equating exit with safety (Reitman, 2005; Sowey, 2018). The legal approach to forced marriage, centred on free and full consent, has been criticised for overemphasis on individualism, obscuring the realities of collective decision-making and the desires of many to prevent marriage but retain familial relationships with perpetrators (Gangoli et al, 2011; Shariff, 2012). Women who remain in abusive environments are seen to do so solely by patriarchal constraints, preserving the ideal that those offered the requisite political, financial, legal, and emotional support would always opt to leave (Grauwiler & Mills, 2004). Decision-making is bound by the emotional and material trauma of navigating life in a racist society alone (Enright, 2009; Okin, 2002).
Existing initiatives label communities as uncivilised and deserving of scrutiny and control, reshaping the family unit irreversibly when seen as necessary for general societal interest. Consequently, minority victims can become under-privatised where the often-problematic realities of their relationship with the State predicate the need for privacy (Coker, 2002; Nancarrow, 2009). In coming forward, survivors face a magnitude of racism, race anxiety, and cultural stereotyping – pushing experiences further underground (Belur, 2008; Burman, 2003). Minority victims who enter the public arena not only endanger personal relationships but risk exposing their communities as threatening and intolerable (Sabbe et al., 2014; Shariff, 2012).
Collectivist societies may view intervention as overstepping private family matters, threatening authority, and jeopardising reputation (Haj-Yahia & Sadan, 2008). FGM safeguarding policies have adopted a heavy-handed approach, their intrusiveness negating cross-cultural communication, with a lack of support for those reported under legislation (Abdelshahid et al., 2021). Seemingly objective standards of whether a child’s mother has undergone FGM or the family’s tendency to travel to their country of origin in determining future risk are outdated, unwarranted, and ignorant to subjective understandings of FGM within minority households (Ibid.; Karlsen et al., 2020). Police involvement provokes damaging consequences for maintaining privacy and reputation and undue focus on FGM risk assessment has discounted more pressing health concerns for BAWG seeking medical assistance (Ibid.). Confidentiality and community privacy are overstepped by the inherent publicity of involving statutory agencies, taking families to court, or removing victims from their homes. Existing support, characterised by objective assessments and ‘liberating’ victims, presumes those of culture cannot be agents for change.
Meeting individual needs
The core premise of increased individuality in service responses is meaningful opportunity for BAWG to advocate their own needs. Moving beyond notions of ‘culture’ as influenced by singular ethnic or religious background is key for cross-cultural engagement (Gill & Brah, 2014). Whilst mainstream professionals are directed by regulation and exit, minority women’s organisations operate through education, consultation, and advice, creating environments for empowering victims to make informed decisions on their situations (Saheliya, 2012). Dialogic engagement offers the most subjective intervention, denoting efforts channelled directly through the victim, family, or community (Grillo, 2015). Recent developments include calls for increased collaboration with minority communities in FGM policy implementation and more culturally nuanced medical services (Dixon et al., 2018), and the inclusion of forced marriage within restorative justice discourses (Askola, 2018).
Shariff (2012) reframes marital autonomy through a collectivist concept of ‘consensus’, accounting for young minorities’ desires to maximise personal preferences whilst maintaining familial relations. This has gained practical significance through Scandinavian ‘Cross-Cultural Transformative Mediation’, wherein professionals negotiate solutions directly with families to address individual needs (Danna & Cavenaghi, 2011; Vidal, 2019). Should victims wish to exercise exit, families are helped to relinquish contact and move on; should victims seek to return to the family, the purpose shifts to creating a safe environment for reconciliation to transpire (Nielsen, 2014). Sabbe et al. (2014) similarly emphasise agency and well-being, redirecting resources towards health services as the entry point for individual service needs (legal, medical, or psychological). The potential is a coordinated response offering the privacy for safe access to tailored support whilst affording control to BAWG themselves. Increased subjectivity means learning from lived experience, involving those most affected within a holistic, multi-agency framework to ensure all needs are met safely.
The effectiveness of support available to BAWG remains the subject of doubt. Does the answer depend on whether the particular support provided meets the particular outcome desired by that particular individual? Efficiency is bound by numerous subjective factors, socially, culturally, and patriarchally bound by women’s environments. The array of cultural nuances visible across societies as diverse as the UK’s means no single intervention will ever suit all desired outcomes nor will the impacts of certain solutions be universally experienced. Active steps are required on a case-by-case basis to address the underlying assumptions of abuse and the individual needs of those experiencing it. This is only possible through recognising and disarming the racial and cultural stereotyping that plagues current responses and an honest commitment to real involvement of BAWG in their own cases. An attitudinal shift is necessary towards an ingrained notion that uninformed practice benefits neither the professionals tasked with intervening nor minority communities and their integration. The salvation so often promised by existing interventions means little where understandings of empowerment and autonomy are drawn without reference to their varied and actual realities.