Women’s lives ‘at risk’ as refuges for black and minority ethnic domestic-violence survivors face closure

A group of refuges for black and minority ethnic (BME) survivors of domestic abuse face closure after their funding was axed in the latest of a wave of closures of specialist services, that experts warn puts lives at risk.

London Black Women’s Project (LBWP), which has five domestic-violence refuges in Newham in east London which house survivors from across the UK, is set to close all of its refuges after having its funding cut. 

Data reveals 22 BME refuges across the country have had their funding cut or have been taken over by larger organisations in the past 12 years – prompting fears from campaigners that BME women are losing a vital specialist services. 

BME and migrant women experience higher rates of domestic homicide – with figures showing women with mixed ethnicities were 10 per cent more likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last year than any other ethnic group.

Anjum Mouj, chair of the LBWP, said: “It is a solid and reliable service that has saved the lives of many women and children who would have nowhere to go if we did not exist.

“Big organisations serving their profit margins and not the local communities must not be allowed to bid for local money. This is not like for like. This results in biased and discriminatory procurement processes that aim to marginalise and silence communities.”

The LBWP has offered specialist services for those who have endured domestic violence, sexual abuse, forced marriage, sexual bullying and “grooming” for 32 years, with three-quarters of the women and girls who sought help finding out about the refuges through word of mouth.

Baljit Banga, who was the director for over a decade but stepped down in May, said: “We were really shocked by the decision. It puts women’s lives at risk. BME women will be too scared to access generic services. From the research and frontline work we do we know that BME women do not access generic services. 

“They use BME services because of language barriers and culturally specific support available there, and also because they want a service that understands them and their voices. We are historically rooted in the communities we serve. We have always worked closely with women to ensure their lived experiences and their voice were the things that shaped the way these services should be delivered. 

“This decision constitutes a total erasure of women’s voices. There is a terrible sense of injustice being committed. Survivors we work with are very upset because they do not know where they are going to go to access support. This funding decision forces women to relive the trauma they have already experienced.” 

Ms Banga said LBWP was initially set up because there was such a dearth in specialist service provision for BME women – adding that the charity which had now been awarded the funding had no specialism in helping BME women.

Councils are simply opting for the lowest bids rather than looking at the quality of provision offered, she said. The campaigner argued it was impossible for smaller specialist organisations to compete with larger organisations because they are able to submit lower bids due to having more resources – explaining LBWP had entered a bid that was 12 per cent lower this year but had still missed out on funding. 

Ms Banga, who said LBWP had challenged the decision, argued generic organisations could put women’s lives in danger due to not having the necessary expertise.

One woman, who lives at one of LBWP’s refuges but wanted to remain anonymous, said she endured emotional abuse, coercive control and physical abuse from her ex-husband – adding that he had done so while she was pregnant. 

“He threatened to kill me and my unborn child and always asked me or forced me to take abortion tablets,” the 40-year-old said. “I was very upset and depressed all the time and was on antidepressants for three years.”

The survivor said she escaped her abuser last summer with the help of her midwife and the domestic violence helpline but was housed in another refuge before moving to LBWP’s refuge in November due to needing somewhere which could house her baby who is now five months old.

“They have supported me with my health and wellbeing and helped me secure my immigration status, apply for welfare benefits, as well as supporting me with social services meetings and referring me to pregnancy support services,” she added. “It would be a shame if this very useful service closed. It will be not be accepted. This special refuge provides us with a very friendly environment which feels like a family for women who are isolated.”

Campaigners say the situation in Newham is representative of what is happening to domestic abuse services across the country. 

As refuges across the board have seen their funding decimated in recent years, those in need of a refuge to escape their abuser are finding it harder than ever to find a free bed – with the most recent figures showing 60 per cent of them are unable to be housed, most commonly due to lack of space. Local authority spending on refuges has been cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017. 

But specialist services for BME survivors have been hardest hit by the cuts – with funding moving towards generic service providers instead.

Janet McDermott, of leading domestic-violence charity Women’s Aid, said: “Our network of refuges have been going from funding crisis to funding crisis in recent years, being forced to provide more for less and surviving on short-term shoestring budgets. Refuge services led ‘by and for’ black and minoritised women have often been hardest hit. 

“It is essential that specialist BME services like London Black Women’s Project in Newham remain funded so that they can continue to deliver their lifesaving work which cannot be replicated by non-specialist services.”  

A report by Imkaan, an organisation which addresses violence against BME women, found the combined income of 15 London-based BME organisations dedicated to tackling violence against women and girls is less than that of the main single provider in the capital. In London, some 40 per cent of the population is BME, and it has the highest concentration of such services.

A 2015 report by the organisation found 733 BME women sought refuge spaces in London, yet only 154 were successful.

The move towards generic charities has also been mirrored in the scandal around the Tampon Tax Fund which has seen the government perform a U-turn on its original promise by failing to give money raised from the fund to specialist organisations dedicated to supporting women.

After activists led a campaign against the 5 per cent VAT on tampons and sanitary towels in 2015, George Osborne, the former chancellor, pledged to use the money raised “to fund women’s health and support charities”. But out of the 10 charities chosen to benefit from the £15m fund last year, only two were specialist women’s organisations, and only one chosen this year.

A government spokesperson said: “National and specialist services are invaluable in supporting victims and their children and we are committed to protecting these services. Councils will also be required to develop local strategies to cover their entire area and diverse groups of victims such as BAME, LGBT, and Roma communities.”

Written by: Maya Oppenheim

First published 06.07.19: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/women-refuge-domestic-violence-refuge-bame-london-black-women-s-project-newham-cuts-a8990391.html

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