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?
The Covid-19 pandemic forced people to stay in their homes in order to protect themselves from an invisible danger. However for many women (and some men), this meant they were caged in their homes with a very tangible adversary. Between March and June 2020, there was an increase of recorded domestic related offences of 9% compared with the same period in the previous year. (1) Whilst domestic abuse affects women of all races and religions, Black and Asian (BAME) heritage victims are disproportionately affected. “Cuts in legal aid, housing, policing, social services and welfare benefits have had a disproportionately negative and discriminatory impact on women. BAME women and girls have faced the brunt.” (2) This disadvantage continues if these victims choose to seek help. Issues surrounding racism and immigration status are just some of the barriers that BAME victims face which will be discussed in this essay. Whilst domestic abuse is an issue for men as well as women, the vast majority of recorded abuse is experienced by women and as such, female victims will be the focus of this essay.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, arguably one of the main factors preventing BAME victims from seeking help is racism. The experience of racism within the BAME communities is well documented and in particular, racial issues surrounding treatment by the police. The MacPherson report in 1999 famously labelled the police as “institutionally racist” and more than 20 years later BAME women are “more likely to be arrested, sent to prison, and to stay there longer than [their] white peers.” (3) As such, BAME victims may be afraid to report abuse to the police due to past negative experiences and “two-thirds of minority ethnic Britons believe the police and criminal justice system are biased against them.” (4) It is therefore not surprising then that “those who experience racism may be reluctant to engage with social services and feel more dependent on their own family and community, lowering the likelihood that they will leave the abusive situation.” (5) Victims are subsequently trapped in a cycle of abuse, feeling unable to reach out to those who should provide support and protection. Historic distrust between the BAME communities and the police has helped fuel beliefs that BAME victims will not be assisted by the police and will in fact, be abused themselves. “Black women fear they too will face racial stereotypes, their complaints may be dismissed and ultimately they will be failed as victims”. (6) Similar issues face Asian victims as it has been found that “many Muslim domestic abuse victims face Islamophobia” (7) and one victim “was misunderstood and failed to receive the necessary support despite her facing threats against her life for seeking help.” (8)
Another challenge for BAME victims reporting abuse is their immigration status. Not having a secure immigration status is likely to impede their ability or desire to report abuse to the police or other services. The so-called “hostile environment", a series of policies intending to cut off undocumented immigrants from access to public services introduced by the Conservative Party since 2012, has served to compound these issues. Those joining a spouse in this country have a two year probationary period before they can become a British citizen. If the marriage breaks down during this time, the immigrant faces deportation. (9) For abuse victims in the country under a spousal or partner visa, they are effectively forced to remain with the abuser to avoid this fate. Unsurprisingly, “perpetrators use this policy as blackmail against their spouse to maintain silence about their experiences otherwise they will terminate the marriage.” (10) Evidently, an uncertain immigration status again keeps victims in a cycle of abuse that is difficult to break out of. Many are unlikely to want to seek help for fear of deportation and they may also depend on the abuser financially, leaving them at risk of destitution. Nonetheless, it is possible for a spouse or partner of a British citizen or someone who has settled status, to apply for indefinite leave to remain under the ‘Domestic Violence Rule’. Applicants must show that the relationship has broken down permanently because of domestic abuse within the probationary period; provide supporting evidence and meet a suitability criteria. (11) Currently, the application fee is £2297 per person, with the same payable per child. (12) For those financially dependent on the abuser, applying under this rule would be near impossible. The Southall Black Sisters (an advocacy and campaign organisation primarily supporting Black and Asian victims) estimate that “at least 60 per cent of the women [they work] with are financially dependent on their partners or spouses for their immigration status”. (13) Perpetrators use this as a weapon against victims who inevitably feel further entrapped by them. More shockingly, Women’s Aid reported that “women are enduring abuse for the five year period to meet the Indefinite Leave to Remain requirements”. (14) We cannot allow vulnerable women to endure such abuse for the sake of fulfilling what many argue is a racist immigration policy.
Nevertheless, measures can be put in place to lessen the barriers that BAME victims face when reporting abuse. A key change advocated by support organisations and charities is the introduction of legislation that closes the gap in data sharing around migrant women. Women fear being reported to the Home Office if they disclose abuse to the police which is justified as “60% of police forces share victims details with the Home Office.” (15) The Domestic Abuse Act was enacted this year which amongst others, created a statutory definition of domestic abuse, prohibits offenders from cross-examining victims in court and established a Domestic Abuse Commissioner. However, it failed to address the data sharing issue despite “various countries around the world [demonstrating] that firewalls can be implemented…to create separation between public services and immigration enforcement.” (16) This is arguably another offshoot of the “hostile environment” looking to make life unbearable for immigrants. For BAME victims, this has made life during the Covid-19 immeasurably harder as “victims have been cooped up at home with their abusive partners but have been too frightened to go to the police.” (17) Cruelly, data sharing is used to punish these women, potentially making their situation worse as there is fear “of being returned to gender related persecution abroad and these grounds are often rejected by the Home Office”. (18) Legislation must be introduced to prevent data sharing which is putting the lives of many BAME victims at risk of domestic homicide and suicide.
Another measure that should be put in place is to make education on domestic abuse compulsory through Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons within the school curriculum, including education on forms of abuse particularly affecting BAME women such as forced marriage. The majority of PSHE education only became compulsory in all schools in September 2020 (19) and this could be crucial to educating children about abuse. Given that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime (20), it is hard to argue it is not a prevalent issue in our society. Moreover, those “aged between 16 and 24 are the most likely to be victims of domestic abuse” (21) so it is critical that young people are taught to recognise the signs and how to protect others. External services such as Women’s Aid and the Zero Tolerance Trust and Tender have already developed programmes which schools can use. Some schools already include teaching on domestic abuse within their PSHE curriculum but this must go further. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to separate boys and girls in lessons particularly if sensitive topics such as honour based violence and female genital mutilation are discussed. Such separation would allow girls to raise concerns (potentially about themselves) freely where they may not do so in a mixed classroom. Schools and teachers could be aided by the input of experts who work within charities and organisations that support victims. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that we can utilise technology to connect many people simultaneously through platforms such as Zoom. Workshops could be carried out like this, reducing pressure on teachers to feel like experts in an area in which they are not trained. These workshops would increase awareness of the different forms of abuse within the BAME community that can be hidden. Educating young girls and boys on domestic violence can only help raise awareness and prevent more girls becoming victims. BAME victims are disadvantaged when seeking help and education is imperative to best equip girls to recognise abuse they or others may be experiencing. Focus must also be given to preventing abuse happening rather than just dealing with the aftermath.
These are just two suggestions that could help support BAME victims of domestic abuse. It is clear they require increased support and further legislation needs to be implemented to protect them when reporting abuse. We cannot allow these victims to continue to suffer, pushing them further into the cycle of abuse that consequently makes it harder to escape. These recommendations will not completely remove the barriers that BAME victims face but would hopefully begin breaking those barriers down.