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Voices from the Frontline

Five things we’ve learned from our partners supporting domestic violence survivors in the UK


Before Covid-19, we knew that BME and migrant women experience higher rates of domestic homicide and are three times more likely to commit suicide than other women in the UK. We knew that half of BME women victims of violence experience abuse from multiple perpetrators. We knew that, of BME women who experience violence, only 37% make a formal report to the police, and on average only 9% make an application for a non-molestation order despite 56% suffering from post-separation harassment. We also knew that 40% of BME women in the UK live in poverty, and one in four have insecure immigration status which limits their ability to access welfare and housing benefits. But as the Covid-19 crisis has swept across the world, it has profoundly deepened existing patterns of harm in society. This is particularly acute when it comes to violence against BME women. We’re seeing the disproportionate impacts of structural inequalities become exacerbated, increasing risks for BME women, and undermining the ability of BME-led organisations to support them. GMSP has funded a number of BME-led and BME-focused organisations in the UK, among them many working to end violence against BME women. Recently, we spoke to the leaders of some of these small, effective and vital organisations to understand more about how they’re responding. In their own words, they told us what work looks like under lockdown, what they need from funders and why specialist services matter now more than ever. Here’s what we learned:

1) Small frontline organisations are working incredibly hard to adapt their services to deal with pandemic and lockdown conditions, but this crisis has made difficult work that much harder.

“The first week was just a shock for everyone. The organisation was learning to adjust and work remotely. But after that, we have already seen a three-fold increase in the generic advice we are giving, and of incidences of domestic violence.” “The reality is we’ve been adapting to higher demand and adjusting to working from home without strong IT infrastructure, equipment or training. We still have to visit our two refuges at least once a week. We had planned to open a third (it is 90% complete), but when you open a refuge, you need management there every single day. We just aren’t able to do that during the pandemic.” “We normally get referrals from individual women, professionals and third-party reports by friends and family. But for so many who can’t reach out on their own, the healthcare system used to be a route to safety. GP surgeries were the only private place a lot of these women had to talk to somebody. Now that they’re not able to see their doctors regularly, there’s no escape.” “Because of the emergency measures around coronavirus, there’s little accountability or scrutiny in the system. In normal circumstances, perhaps we could challenge it, but at the moment, local authorities are getting away with some really problematic things. In some cases, they’re even telling women facing violence to stay at home.” “We’ve had so many referrals in these recent weeks that we’re having to turn people away. The issue is that the council is not rehousing anyone from the refuges into longer-term accommodation as they would normally, so there’s no place for new clients to come. Many women are left with no choice but to stay with the perpetrator who is abusing them.”

2) As demand for social services has gone up during the coronavirus crisis, a difficult tension has emerged between the needs of survivors and those of other marginalised groups.

“The council is prioritising rough sleepers, which is of course incredibly important, but where does it leave the women facing violence?” “Even in the midst of coronavirus, we do not want prisons to release perpetrators of domestic violence, because the first place they will go is back to their victim.” “There is already a lack of housing, so finding women longer term accommodation can be hard. In some cases, we have to turn down housing offers because it’s in mixed accommodation with men recovering from substance abuse, and that’s completely inappropriate.” “When women enter refuges, they usually ask for housing benefit which then goes to pay the refuge. But as many of the women we work with have foreign passports, Brexit has made it very difficult for them to access their rights. Regardless of citizenship, they should have access to some of these benefits but often these don’t get paid out, and we have to continue to put resources into challenging it.”

3) Small, frontline organisations need more funding, and they need that funding to be unrestricted.

“Since austerity, the entire sector working to end violence against women has been underfunded - but particularly the BME organisations. We’re seeing the cumulative effects of what started in austerity, made worse by the pandemic. We had already seen a 50% reduction in bed spaces in refuges. Now, all refuges are full, and there’s a high demand for BME beds specifically.” “Our sector is asking the government to ring-fence funding for BME organisations. But after that, we’ll need sustainability funding too. In the wake of coronavirus, we’re expecting an increase in demand for services for at least the next 24 months.” “Please don’t restrict your funding. For a small organisation like us, where many of our team work part-time, everyone has multiple responsibilities. Our finance person does IT and logistics and only works three days a week. During a pandemic, there’s even more crossover than normal. Restricting funding to particular departments just doesn’t make sense for an organisation like ours.”

4) Our partners need funders to be more creative. Beyond financial resources, they’re asking for access to our networks and more flexible and meaningful reporting requirements.

“It’s not all about the money. Funders can make links with the private sector, statutory groups and others where we don’t have existing relationships. We’ve been trying to work on an agreement with a major UK grocer to get essentials to women in need, but it’s been really difficult with a lot of hoops to jump through. Things would get done a lot quicker if funders helped with access to their networks.” “Demand from funders has increased too. For the past three weeks, I’ve spent the majority of my time on reports. We’re trying to satisfy rigid funder requirements and it’s taking away from the women who are coming through our [virtual] front door.” “I remember the days when outcomes meant more, but now it’s all about output. ‘How much is this going to cost?’ is the key question. It’s all about numbers rather than quality of outcome; there’s so much pressure to say we’ll work with 100 people, even if they all relapse. If we say we can save five lives in one year, that should mean something.” “We’re constantly being pushed to take on more and more women. But the way people are trying to measure this sector is just not appropriate. You can’t put a price on the value of a human life. Of course we have limited funds, but we have to learn to approach the problem in a different way.”

5) Specialist services matter, and they are very vulnerable right now.

“There have been more than 18 deaths from domestic homicide in the past six weeks. A higher proportion have been BME women. People must not ignore that.” “The challenges that the BME women in our care face are so complex. There are immigration issues and language barriers. They come from larger families with issues around shame in reporting mental, domestic and sexual abuse. Many are unemployed or on zero-hours contracts. And of course most don’t have recourse to public funds.” “We’ve been saying for years that the sector has been underfunded. Suddenly people are beginning to accept that there are these racial inequalities and other intersectional inequalities that must be addressed.” “As it is, the VAW sector hardly ever gets heard, but when it does, the voices of specialist services get drowned out.” “Those of us who are BME refuge providers already face quite a hostile environment, even being excluded from local council meetings because authorities don’t want to hear about the issues we want to be addressed.”

We are grateful to our partners for their candour, expertise and insight.

At GMSP, we’ve already written about the responsibility funders have to meet this moment of crisis with the same spirit of bravery and creativity that our partners bring to their work every day.

To call this merely an ‘opportunity’ to change - to listen more deeply to our partners, to reassess our priorities and expectations - does not fully reflect the urgency or weight of responsibility we now face.

This isn’t an opportunity; it’s an obligation. The organisations we support – and the women whose lives they are saving – depend on it.



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