Francesca Jackson | Shortlisted | Nazir Afzal Essay Competition 2022

How effective is existing support for Black and/or Asian women and girls who are victims of abuse?

A worryingly high number of women in the UK are victims of gender-based abuse. For example, estimates suggest that one in four women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime,  whilst on average, two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales.  However, it is amongst Black and/or Asian women and girls that rates of gender-based violence are at their highest. For example, 86% of women of African and/or Caribbean heritage in the UK have either been a victim of domestic abuse or know a family member who has been assaulted.   Disproportionately higher levels of domestic violence, so-called ‘honour’ killings, and abuse-driven suicide – which Black and Asian women are 3x more likely to commit than other women  - all heighten the precarity of women and girls from these communities. Covid-19 only exacerbated the issue; for example, Karma Nirvana, a national women’s charity supporting Black and/or Asian victims of abuse, reported a 400% increase in calls for help during the pandemic.  Yet, by showing how the inefficacy of mainstream women’s charities, coupled with a lack of specialist support services, is failing Black and/or Asian women and girls who are victims of abuse, this paper argues that existing support fails to recognise the fact that these women and girls are at a disproportionately high risk of abuse.

Mainstream services

There are fewer criminal investigations and fewer charges in cases brought by Black and/or Asian women and girls compared to their white counterparts. The reason why this is perhaps lies in the ‘Domestic Abuse in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Groups’ Report, which states that mainstream support networks, of domestic abuse agencies, health care professionals and social services, all suffer from ‘institutional racism’. Racism can be seen on three levels: among (other) service users, among workers, and at the state level. The presence of institutional racism amongst workers is particularly reinforced by the literature in this area, notably the Lammy Review, which describes how Black and/or Asian women often fear they will face racial stereotypes, have their complaints dismissed and ultimately be failed as victims. There has also been evidence of some public services being directly discriminatory towards BAME victims. This results in many Black and/or Asian women who are victims of abuse underusing mainstream support services.

Although diversity training has been introduced in many mainstream services, diversity on its own does not ensure equality for Black and/or Asian women and girls, since this training often focuses on unconscious bias rather than the cultural, religious and other sensitive needs of these groups. For example, the lack of specific training for police and agencies supporting Black women who are victims of domestic abuse means many officers are unable to spot the unique signs of abuse suffered by black women. Many officers are overly-reliant on the appearance of physical injuries, which can be less obvious on dark skin. A further example of the ineptitude of mainstream services in offering tailored support to Black and/or Asian women and girls who are victims of abuse can be seen in the 2015 HM’s Inspectorate of Constabulary report, which found that only 3 out of 43 police forces were well prepared for the complexity that honour-based violence can pose.’ Increasing the representation of Black and/or Asian women in organisations working with these victims of abuse is needed to increase victims’ confidence in frontline services and better equip these services to deal with the culturally sensitive needs of Black and/or Asian women and girls who are victims of abuse.

Specialist services

Specialist support for Black and/or Asian women and girls who are victims of abuse helps to plug the gaping hole left by mainstream services. The Ministry of Justice Female Offender Strategy 2018 stressed the ‘necessity for tailored approaches’ for Black and/or Asian women. However, a chronic lack of funding over many years has eroded the efficacy of this support. For example, in 2020, there were only 18 refuges run by and for Black and/or Asian women in the whole of the UK. Shockingly, the combined income of 15 of these support services dedicated to Black and/or Asian women and girls is less than the income of one single mainstream support service. This is despite the fact that in recent years there has been a rise in demand for specialist support. For example, Sistah Space has seen a 400% rise in demand for its services, but no corresponding rise in its funding.

The inefficacy of support for Black and/or Asian women and girls who are victims of abuse and lack secure immigration status is particularly devastating. Illustrating how institutional racism also manifests itself at the state level, the Government’s ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) policy bars women whose asylum claim has been rejected from accessing public funds. In addition, many migrant Black/and or Asian women are unable to leave an abusive relationship for fear of becoming destitute or, if their visa is dependent on a violent partner or family member, fear of being deported. For example, one study found that 92% of Black and/or Asian women reported that their perpetrator used their immigration status against them. For those women who leave their abuser, many will end up being subject to the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants, under which they will be denied healthcare and support from refugees. This policy, designed to make life for undocumented migrants in the UK so difficult that they ultimately choose to leave, disproportionately affects Black and/or Asian women and girls. Some support is offered to female Black/and or Asian victims of domestic abuse on spousal visas, who are allowed to remain indefinitely in the UK and claim benefits while they regularise their status. However, this support needs to be expanded to cover those on other visas and undocumented migrant women. There also needs to be an increase in specialist, tailored support for migrant Black and/or Asian women or girls who are victims of abuse and have no recourse to public funds, since less than 5% of refuge spaces are reserved for these women.

A further example of the inefficiency of existing support can be seen in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The Government also described the Act as ‘the most comprehensive package ever’ dedicated to supporting victims of domestic abuse. Yet, it rejected key amendments which would have extended the legislation so as to cover migrant women with insecure immigration status and women with NRPF. As a result, there is still currently no separation of immigration enforcement from police responses to victims of crime, thereby deterring Black and/or Asian migrant women and girls from reporting the abuse they suffer out of fears that they may be reported to the Home Office.

In summary, it is clear that existing mainstream and specialist support for Black and/or Asian women and girls who are victims of abuse, including those without secure immigration status, is severely ineffective. Only through greater investment in both will existing support become as effective as it needs to be.