The violence of disbelief

Protection gap


#GMABlog #GenderBasedViolence #InternationalWomen’sDay #IWD #refugeewomen

Today (Sunday 8 March) is International Women’s Day, and for all those who question whether there should be a day specifically for women in a modern age of equality, consider this: worldwide, women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than they are from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.

And, within that shocking statistic, there is a group which is even more at risk: refugee women. A 2012 Refugee Council study found that nearly 60% of all the women they worked with had experienced gender-based violence in their own countries.

So what does that mean? It means that women coming to the UK to claim asylum have faced many, many challenges and heartbreaking situations before they even arrived here. They have often faced gender based violence in many difference forms – rape (by strangers, by family members, by husbands, by people who want to ‘correct’ their homosexuality), female genital mutilation, forced marriage, trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

As these women are unable to avail themselves of the legal protections their country should provide to victims of crime (women are often disbelieved when reporting such crimes, or crimes – such as marital rape – are not believed to be crimes), they come to the UK to ask our government to protect them instead. However, this is not happening.

Just last month, the Joint Committee on Human Rights condemned the UK Government for failing to protect women seeking asylum from violence. After making lots of promises to tackle violence against women and girls in conflict zones, this has not been translated into policy to protect women in the UK.

Women claiming asylum may have to tell their stories of violence to the Home Office in front of their children, to a male interviewer or interpreter when they may have been traumatized by men previously, to someone who doesn’t understand that trauma can affect memory recall, without access to counselling and without being given information about their rights as a woman in the asylum system. If they experience domestic violence in the UK they may not have the same rights and entitlements as British women, meaning they may struggle to access services to help them escape the violence due their immigration status. For more information on the ‘Protection Gap’, click here >>

And whilst this tricky legal situation is going on, women have to try and get by in the UK on about 50% of the financial support they would receive if they were British, living in accommodation which has often been declared unfit for the British population to live in.

A lone parent on asylum support receives about £44 a week. Her child receives around £53 with an extra £3-£5 for healthy food. That’s roughly £100 a week (or £7 a day each) to pay for all travel, nappies, food, clothes, phone credit, and toiletries. This low support rate was legally challenged by Refugee Action earlier in the year but the Home Office said it was fine because asylum seekers need just:

  • £1.08 a week for toiletries
  • 55p a week for healthcare
  • 92p a week for household cleaning items
  • £2.51 a week for all essential clothing and footwear, even in winter
  • £3 a week to cover all travel costs (even though one return bus journey usually costs more than £3), and
  • No money whatsoever for maintaining a social life

This low level of support leaves women in the position where they may need to choose between shampoo or sanitary towels one week, or whether to meet a friend or see their lawyer another week, or whether to buy underwear when they know they’ll shortly need a winter coat another week.

So, after going over the sexual violence they survived in minute detail, often in front of their children and often without any emotional support, whilst being forced to live in near destitution (asylum seekers aren’t legally allowed to work or claim child benefit), they can be faced with yet another trauma: not being believed. Not being believed that they were violated, not being believed that they are gay, not being believed that their own family would do something so horrible to them, not being believed that they would face death if they return to their own country.

They are refused asylum because their timeline of abuse may have changed slightly from their first telling of their story to the second (with no accounting for how trauma affects memory), or because they used the word ‘culture’ rather than ‘religion’, or because the Home Office thinks they may only have a girlfriend to try and stay in the UK, or because the Home Office thinks their ethnic group is not at risk of FGM (even though they were mutilated by their own grandmother when they were young).

There are many big battles that need to be fought to combat the injustices women face the world over (click here for a ten point plan for gender equality), whether that’s fighting to stop the gender-based violence which kills or incapacitates women everyday or challenging the indignities of the unforgiving asylum system. But there’s one small battle which we can help all women who have survived violence to overcome, with very little effort – we can believe them.

We can believe women when they say they’ve been raped, they’ve been abused, they’ve been mutilated. We can believe them when they say they were trafficked, and they were forced to have sex with men in our country after fleeing the violent country they were raised in. We can believe them when they say their children were killed in front of them because they dared to challenge their husband’s family. It may be a small thing, saying ‘I believe you’ – but it can make all the difference to someone who has been told they are lying by our government.

So this International Women’s Day, take the small step to enable a little victory – make sure women are believed when they disclose gender-based violence. Because sometimes the small things can make a big difference; saying ‘I believe you’ may be a small step for you, but for a woman facing a life-or-death situation, it can be the biggest leap of all.

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