Safia Sangster | Shortlisted | 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?

Black and Asian heritage victims are at greater risk of experiencing issues categorised as Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) (1), such as domestic abuse (Anitha and Gill, 2021), sexual violence (Office of National Statistics, 2021), forced marriage (Forced Marriage Unit, 2021) and Female Genital Mutilation (NHS, 2021). To illustrate only a few examples, between March 2018-2019, Black women in London were overrepresented as both sexual offence victims and domestic abuse victims (MOPAC, 2019). Black and Minority Ethnic (2) communities also have increased levels of so-called ‘honour’ killings, domestic homicide and abuse driven suicide (Siddiqui, 2018). Despite suffering from universal crimes that are rooted in gender inequality and patriarchy, Black and Asian heritage victims receive responses, or lack thereof, that centre their experiences as racial and/ or cultural. The reasons that a victim may not disclose or seek help for the violence committed against them is complex and multifaceted. However, there are certain additional obstacles facing Black and Asian heritage victims. This paper will explore the barriers created to accessing support when forms of gender-based violence perpetrated against Black and Asian heritage victims are oversimplified and consigned as a product of differing races and cultures.

(1) While the victims of these crimes are predominantly female, it is important to acknowledge that men, boys and people are victims of these issues too (including but not limited to domestic abuse, sexual violence, so called ‘honour’ abuse and forced marriage.)

(2) The term Black and Minority Ethnic has been used in this paper in line with terminology used in UK policy spaces. As highlighted in the paper the author recognises that people facing racial or ethnic minoritisation face intersectional barriers that extend beyond race and ethnicity.

Some Black and Asian heritage victims are unable to seek help from statutory services, such as the police, because they fear not being taken seriously, or worse that they will be re-victimised. The over-policing of certain Minority Ethnic communities, particularly Black and Asian communities (Institute of Race Relations, 2020) is one of many contemporary components in the UK’s long and painful dynamic of institutional racism. It has resulted in ongoing tension with, and mistrust of statutory agencies (Phillips and Bowling, 2017). This tension affects victims’ willingness to report violence to the police. Reasons cited in Harrison and Gill’s study of why South Asian survivors did not report sexual assault incidents included a lack of trust and confidence in the police, or that their claims would be dismissed as cultural differences (2019). This challenge for Black and Asian heritage victims to access police support has been compounded during the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has concurrently seen a rise in certain forms of gender-based violence such as domestic abuse, alongside an intensified distrust of the police among Black and Minority Ethnic communities (Anitha and Gill, 2021).

In order for Black and Asian heritage victims to utilise criminal justice opportunities to hold perpetrators to account and access support, policing authorities must take proactive measures to gain these victims’ trust. Currently, specialist ‘by and for’ services that understand and meet the needs of their local community are best placed to provide this support. Where possible, police should work with these organisations to address and reconcile victims’ concerns. Already under resourced to appropriately meet victim’s needs, the funding landscape for specialist ‘by and for’ services urgently require reform so they have adequate support to share their expertise with other agencies (Imkaan and EVAW, 2020). Police practice should also embed an understanding that while different forms of violence exist and intersect with multiple inequalities including but not limited to race, sexuality, disability and age, gender inequality remains the root cause. Victims require an intersectional response that addresses the violence they experience in the context of a patriarchal society, an issue that extends beyond particular minoritised communities in the UK.

The cultural framework imposed on Black and Asian heritage victims that prevents them from seeking help is compounded in cases that are stereotyped as the practices of specific Minority Ethnic groups. Recent decades have seen an increase in the profile of particular cases, with a narrow focus on the elements of extreme physical violence: so called ‘honour-based’ killings, Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriage with increased scrutiny on Black and Asian communities as both perpetrators and victims of this violence. However, singling them out as cultural and racial issues, rather than part of the broad spectrum of violence against women and girls, further homogenises Black and Asian heritage victims and coagulates their experiences of these different forms of violence (Thiara and Gill, 2010). It also dismisses the overwhelming psychological and emotional abuse, such as coercive and controlling behaviour, that are an integral part of many of these cases and therefore creates additional challenges for victims to seek support.

An example of how this plays out in policy and practice is the definition provided by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary; so-called ‘honour’ based violence is conflated with multiple other forms of violence such as Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriage (2015). The agency of victims to seek support is limited if guidance from public bodies does not consist of meaningful research and therefore, show thorough understanding of the complete spectrum of so-called ‘honour’ based violence (Bates, 2020). This homogenisation has implications for practice, exacerbating the tension described above between statutory services and Black and Minority Ethnic communities as agencies fail to address the issues of psychological and emotional control which Black and Asian heritage victims are subject to. Instead, victims experience an ‘othering’ by statutory agencies which normalise these forms of violence and treat them with unwarranted cultural sensitivity because their experiences are deemed separate from mainstream British values and practices (Thiara and Gill, 2010).

Therefore, to be appropriately supported victims need responses that are not only culturally tailored but that are also designed to meet the needs of the specific forms of violence they have experienced. Professionals working in both statutory and non-statutory sectors need comprehensive knowledge of the nuances of different types of violence and abuse, and the issues of misogyny that underpin them, to be empowered to assert professional curiosity in all cases. Establishing clearer, more nuanced definitions of different forms of violence in policy and strategy will help inform practice so that victims are not pigeonholed into a homogenised category that is determined by culture or ethnicity and they can access interventions and support at all levels of risk and harm.

Viewing the violence committed against Black and Asian heritage victims through solely a cultural or racial lens can also have serious impacts for the person experiencing the violence to seek help as it can form a barrier to self-identification as a victim of a gender-based offence. For example, when considering cases of so-called ‘honour-based’ violence, mainstream media coverage focuses on the high-harm, high-risk end of the spectrum, such as when a so-called ‘honour’ killing takes place (Bates, 2020). Many Black and Asian heritage victims are unable to seek out and receive earlier intervention before violence escalates and reaches a crisis point because there is little recognition of the full spectrum of risk and harm that constitutes so-called ‘honour’ based abuse. Widespread communications campaigns, alongside education such as through the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum, should address the scale of harm that is encompassed within so-called ‘honour’ based abuse, situated in a framework of Violence Against Women and Girls.

Overall, significant cultural and social changes are needed to shift how multiple aspects and agents of UK society respond to Black and Asian heritage victims of gender-based violence so that these victims are supported to seek help. It is the responsibility of statutory agencies, voluntary sectors, and the media to take proactive measures to create the conditions where Minoritised victims are empowered to recognise and seek help for all forms violence that they experience through:

• Appropriate funding for specialist ‘by and for’ support organisations and services.

• Nuanced understanding within statutory agencies of the multiple forms of gender-based violence Black and Asian heritage victims experience, and how this intersects with multiple inequalities including but not limited to race, sexuality, disability and age.

• Effective national education and communications campaigns that address the spectrum of violence and abuse, particularly with regards to so-called ‘honour’ based abuse. The appropriate response is not to deny or ignore that racism plays a key role in preventing Black and Asian heritage victims from seeking help, but to acknowledge that it intersects with a pervasive gender-based inequality - an issue that affects society at large.