Dr Hannah Begum | Winner | Nazir Afzal Essay Competition
COVID-19 presents new challenges to protecting and supporting victims of abuse during lockdown. What specific help-seeking challenges do Black or Asian heritage victims experience, and what measures do you suggest to better support them?
Domestic violence is a widespread phenomenon and a global public health issue (Femi-Ajao, Kendal and Lovell, 2020). The World Health Organization (2021) reports that globally, 1 in 3 women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, the majority of which is intimate partner violence. Given its high rate of prevalence, domestic violence perpetrated against women occupies a significant position in the extant literature, largely underpinned by a feminist narrative which argues that violence against women more broadly is a manifestation of power and control (Namy et al, 2017; Whittier, 2016). Despite this well-established body of research, comparatively, there is a dearth of evidence on the way in which domestic violence in Black and minority ethnic groups is perpetrated, experienced, and responded to. Regardless of ethnicity, empirical research has shown that domestic violence has a profound impact on the physical and psychosocial well-being of victims, who report suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidality, trauma, social isolation and substance abuse (Brown and Seals, 2019; Rahmani et al, 2019). Although the impacts of domestic violence are documented as being similar, assumptions around ‘culture’ have produced barriers to the delivery of domestic violence services for Black and minority ethnic women (Burman, Smailes and Chantler, 2004). In addition, cultural norms and imperatives within and across these communities serve to ascribe blame to victims, hindering them from seeking help from formal support services (Ghafournia and Easteal, 2019). This paper will explore some of the structural and cultural barriers to help-seeking and propose measures that can be implemented to better support victims of domestic violence from Black and minority ethnic communities.
Structural barriers to help-seeking
A downstream consequence of Covid-19 restrictions has been the surge in reports of domestic violence and abuse worldwide (McCrary and Sanga, 2021). Though police recorded incidents of domestic violence show an increase during the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a gradual increase in these types of offences in recent years across England and Wales (ONS, 2020). Victims of domestic violence from Black and minority ethnic groups have faced heightened risks since the onset of the pandemic due to intersecting forms of inequality at the nexus of class, gender, race and religion (Gill, 2020). Structural inequality for Black and minority ethnic groups is pervasive, with many facing socioeconomic disadvantage because of their ethnicity, or what Platt (2007: 70) refers to as an ‘ethnic penalty’. These inequalities have been evidenced in the domains of education, housing, employment and healthcare (Institute of Race Relations, 2020) as well as the criminal justice system (Lammy, 2017). There is a well-documented history of distrust between Black and minority ethnic communities and the police (Bowling and Phillips, 2002) a consequence of which has been the chronic underreporting of crimes such as domestic violence within these communities. Institutional racism has often been cited as the underlying cause of the poor experiences, and treatment of, minority communities going through the criminal justice system, and in particular, their encounters with police (Hargreaves, 2018). For example, Belur’s (2008) research raised significant concerns around the policing of domestic violence incidents in Asian communities, arguing that institutionally racist practices compound the ability of police forces to appropriately respond to Asian victims of domestic violence. Consequently, many women opt to use informal support services or report directly to domestic abuse services (Imkaan, 2008) bypassing the need for police contact.
Much less is known on the experience of Black women subjected to domestic violence in the empirical literature; the research that has been conducted with Black communities is sparse yet offers valuable insights on the specific structural barriers Black people encounter that inhibit disclosure and help-seeking. Research in the US suggests that oppressive images and racist stereotypes of Black women as sexually promiscuous have eclipsed their credibility as rape victims (George and Martinez, 2002) with a concomitant belief that domestic violence towards them is acceptable (Gillum, 2002). Thispresents an additional hurdle for Black women subjected to violence to overcome when accessing support services.
Unhelpful terminology and categorisations used to describe minority groups legitimise and perpetuate their marginalisation further; the term ‘hard to reach’ for example, implies that there is an inherent reluctance on the part of marginalised groups to be reached (Parnez, 2015). This is an added structural barrier that compounds efforts on the part of service providers to reach out to Black and minority ethnic communities.
Cultural barriers to help-seeking
There is a distinct, yet parallel body of literature that has emerged over the last two decades which has sharpened the focus on Black and minority women’s experiences of violence (see Thiara and Gill, 2010; Gill, 2004). Domestic violence among Asian women is often associated with patriarchal, cultural norms of ‘izzat’ (honour) and ‘sharam’ (shame) (Bhandari and Sabri, 2020). Women who do not adhere to these prescribed norms can be subjected to multiple forms of violence, a discourse which is commonly referred to as ‘honour-based violence’ (Khan et al, 2018). This can lead to self-blame amongst Asian women for the abuse they endure (Sabri et al., 2013). Gill’s (2004) study of domestic violence in Asian communities found that family, culture and religion formed an integral part of Asian women’s identity, and that disclosure of domestic violence or help-seeking would dishonour the community.
Beliefs around respectability and izzat both normalise and implicate Asian women in the violence they face (Varman et al, 2018) and can have a detrimental impact on help-seeking behaviours. Gilbert et al’s (2004) exploration of the impact of izzat and sharam on Asian women found that culturally sanctioned ideas around shame and honour negatively impinged on help-seeking in the context of mental health, and that many Asian women feared their confidentiality would be breached if they sought help from external agencies. Closely intertwined with the concepts of shame and honour is the influence of the community as a barrier to help-seeking, with a fear of ostracisation from the community, being blamed for the abuse, and religion and culture cited as specific factors that impeded help-seeking for Asian victims domestic violence (Anitha, 2011; Gill, 2004; Burman, Smailes and Chantler, 2004).
Empirical research with Nigerian women living in the UK found that they were more likely to approach members of community and faith-based organisations for help when experiencing domestic violence (Femi-Ajao, 2018). Trust, confidentiality and familism were attributed as some of the reasons why Nigerian women sought community-based help over formal domestic violence provision.
Several steps are required to increase the visibility of Black and minority ethnic women in domestic violence research, policymaking and service provision and improve outcomes for victims from these communities.
Feminist scholarship, which is fundamentally rooted in the experiences of white women, needs to recognise the salience of Black and minority women’s voices. The groundwork for this includes, but is not limited to, the dismantling of cultural, ethnic and racial stereotypes which have historically relegated the position of Black and minority ethnic women. It is imperative that essentialist representations of Black and minority ethnic women are challenged and that researchers adopt an intersectional lens to examine the multi-layered, modes of oppression and inequality Black and minority ethnic women experience in addition to violence. In addition, the gap in research with Black Caribbean and African women needs to be addressed so that appropriate interventions and services can be developed in line with their needs.
Domestic violence support services have experienced dramatic cuts to funding in recent years, with sixty out of 269 refuge services surviving on emergency government funding, charitable grants, and other fundraising activities, with specialist ‘by and for’ services for Black and minoritised women “disproportionately impacted by cuts and competitive tendering processes” (Women’s Aid, 2020). There is an urgent need to pour resources and funding into these vital services, many of which offer a lifeline to victims of domestic violence.
In terms of policy, the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will introduce a statutory definition of domestic abuse, create new offences, and place a duty on local authorities in England to provide accommodation-based support to victims of domestic abuse and their children (Home Office, 2021). Though this does not offset cuts in funding, it offers some relief on a policy level that domestic violence has been given much needed precedence.
Finally, professionals working in the criminal justice system and domestic abuse service provision can be instrumental in driving forward structural change that will challenge entrenched forms of racism. Equality and diversity training needs to be research-informed and actively contest and resist implicit and explicit forms of bias and racism.
Solid strides have been made to illuminate the experiences of Black and minority ethnic women subjected to physical and sexual violence in the fields of criminology, psychology, and healthcare. These insights provide useful information for counsellors, support and social workers, and professionals in the criminal justice system to support Black and minority ethnic women subjected to violence. The challenge for researchers, practitioners and policymakers lies at the intersection of structural, internal and cultural barriers for Black and minority ethnic women; a delicate balance must be struck between understanding the nuances and unique barriers experienced by women across these communities and recognising that these experiences are not homogenous.