Laura McKirdy | Shortlisted | Nazir Afzal Essay Competition 2022

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

It has been established that the barriers facing minority ethnic women when attempting to leave abusive environments are significantly exacerbated. A recent meta-synthesis that considers the global research identified several barriers this demographic encounters, which result in victims feeling powerless, fearful and isolated, despite the apparent existing support available to these victims (Hulley et al., 2022).

As a minority ethnic woman, attempting to seek support can cultivate an environment in which certain contextual factors arise that will ultimately affect the support the victim receives, especially in circumstances where the initial source of support may be interconnected with the victim’s upbringing. Spirituality, religion, and racial stereotypes are influential regarding how receptive individuals will be to the disclosure of abuse. This can be further complicated by the cultural values held by the victims, which can frequently delay their response to abuse (Ghafournia, 2017).

Patriarchal norms encourage harmful ideals that are deep-rooted in communities and accepted by many in the community, including the victims (Hulley et al., 2022). Additionally, narratives of honour and shame within this patriarchal context create a stigma surrounding divorce and separation, in which women will carry the blame and burden for the breakdown of relationships. This has psychological and tangible ramifications, as victims will risk further isolation from their community, as well as threats of violence and sometimes, death (Tonsing & Barn, 2017). Consequently, victims of abuse may prolong their suffering to prevent further harm from being enacted towards themselves by other individuals in their community.

Once victims have decided to seek support for the abuse, the first point of contact for minority ethnic women may be those within their community who can reinforce harmful stereotypes, both religious or racial, which further exacerbate feelings of powerlessness. For example, both Christian and Muslim women describe patriarchal experiences, where the actions of women were likely to be blamed for the abuse, and victims would be encouraged to remain in their abusive relationships (Potter, 2007; Vidales, 2010). Furthermore, the church and community were likely to be prioritised above the safety of women, with religion being used as a tool to pressurise women to honour marriage vows and enforce sexual relations (Sabri et al., 2018).

Black women can also experience difficulties when seeking help from those within their community. There are stereotypes ingrained in communities which create barriers, as Black women are often characterised as tough and dominant women, which others use to rationalise the use of physical control by men (Taylor, 2005). Black women who identify with and attempt to uphold the strong Black women stereotype are less likely to seek help for abuse and will deny their own needs (Kelly et al., 2020).

However, the literature also highlights how influential informal support networks can be in the facilitation of victims leaving their abusers. Those closest to the victim can play significant roles, for instance, children will often act as a catalyst to women leaving, with research showing that the instinctual desire to protect the children acts as the most common incentive for women to leave (Jordan & Bhandari, 2016). Furthermore, mothers, sisters (Monterrosa, 2019) and female friends (Kyriakakis, 2014) will provide emotional and practical support, ensuring women can leave their abusive relationships and have access to shelter and childcare, as well as assisting in linking the victim to formal services. The findings ultimately indicate a lack of men who are willing to help women who are in abusive environments. (Hulley et al., 2022).

These types of barriers are important to identify when exploring the effectiveness of existing support for minority ethnic women, as they can offer common contextual factors which may provide insight into why minority ethnic victims could behave in a certain way when seeking help. These contextual factors should also inform professionals when addressing abuse in these communities, and hopefully reduce the neglect and misunderstanding from institutions.

Once minority ethnic women have decided to seek more formal avenues for help, they encounter further significant barriers, evidenced by statistics from Brittain et al. (2005) who found that minority ethnic women will have to make 17 contacts on average with formal services, compared to 11 contacts for those who are of non-minority ethnic backgrounds. And also, results from Few (2005) show that three-fifths of white women were informed about local shelters by police, compared to only a fifth of black women. This contrast highlights a lack of effectiveness in the support offered to these women, as it is apparent that these formal services may not be accessible enough, do not do enough outreach in these communities and do not exhibit the cultural and ethnic sympathetic understanding needed to help support these women (Hulley et al., 2022).

These findings are discouraging and further complicate these nuanced situations, where distrust in the police may have already been present. This was found by Monterrosa (2019) to be particularly true for Black women, who would often endure greater periods of abuse due to the historically strained relationships between the police and the Black community, which deterred them from seeking support. Interestingly, Black women were also apprehensive about reporting their partners as they did not want to further contribute to the racial stereotype of black men being violent (Monterrosa, 2019).

There is also distrust of police within the South Asian community, often aggravated by recurrent stop and search incidents. Subsequently, South Asian women are considerably less likely to report their victimisation to the police, and if they do, police are often culturally ignorant of the type of abuse they suffer (Aplin, 2018; 2019).

Whilst the criminal justice system and welfare agencies promote their services as accessible to victims of abuse, there is still an inherent lack of understanding of the experiences of abuse suffered by minority ethnic women, emphasising a clear need for these services to be more culturally competent. There have been too many instances in the UK where the police have had ample opportunity to address the abuse of minority ethnic women but have not utilised the resources necessary to keep these women safe.

Investigations into the failed protection of minority ethnic women revealed several missed opportunities by the police, general practitioners and local councils to identify the abuse and apprehend those culpable (Azad, 2021). Monckton-Smith et al (2014) identified a hierarchy of victims based on domestic abuse and the ethnicity of victims, finding that the South Asian community were considerably low on the scale, as police officers were unsympathetic to their abuse (Gill, 2012).

In cases where the negligence of police has unfortunately resulted in further abuse and death, there have been few repercussions, highlighting the disappointing priorities of the police, as there was little interest in educating those police officers on cultural awareness (Maddocks, 2017).

The failure of a General practitioner (GP) had also been highlighted during these domestic homicide reviews. In this instance, the GP did not report a rape by a partner, which was disclosed by the victim, to the police or any formal service, as they considered this a cultural issue (Ross, 2014). Again, there was no evidence to suggest the GP was reprimanded or disciplined in relation to their attribution to the victim’s death.

Lastly, the local council did not support the victim due to her immigration status. Maddocks (2017) reported that the perpetrator was able to maintain the abuse against the victim, as the council refused to provide accommodation or support with living funds. The neglect from the council and reluctance to refer the victim to other organisations for assistance contributed to the continuation and escalation of abuse.

In conclusion, from the research presented it is apparent that the collective failure of these formal services highlights an institutional attitude towards minority ethnic victims, and emphasises how established policies and personal biases against these communities perpetuate a culture where the responsibility for addressing this abuse is not accepted by those who work in these services.

In the future, when a victim seeks support for their suffering, a multi-agency approach needs to be implemented. The concerns of these victims are too often dismissed and the accountability for tackling the issue is pushed on to a different agency, resulting in further harm to the victim. Further outreach into these communities is necessary to make victims aware of the avenues they can take when they are being victimised, as informal support networks do play a significant role so those in the community should be familiar with the assistance that can be accessed by victims.