BME victims are at risk due to refuge closures. Photo: Getty
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“Hierarchy of death”: cuts to refuges are putting black and ethnic minority women in danger

As the only refuge in Britain especially for Latin American women is under threat, it's time councils stopped treating women from ethnic minority backgrounds as a low priority.

When Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA) was told in November that its funding was being cut, a 27-year partnership between the charity and local council all but crumbled over the course of a phone call.

As the only UK refuge solely catering to the needs of Latin American women – a shelter with just six spaces, where an average of ten women and their children are turned away each month due to a lack of available rooms – that the service could be deemed as extraneous seems, frankly, wrong. But they are being forced to compete with what LAWA trustee Gabriela Quevedo calls the “Hollywood attitude” to such services: a disproportionate focus on the big, headline-grabbing figures generated by larger organisations that overshadow the important work done by smaller charities, whose limited resources render them unable to measure up.

This approach denies the many achievements specialised refuges like LAWA offer that general services cannot: providing a non-English speaking domestic abuse victim with an interpreter, for example, simply isn’t the same as placing them in a safe space with others of the same ethno-cultural background, or giving them legal assistance that carefully considers their needs.

Legal aid, too, a lifeline for so many, is becoming increasingly elusive, with just 40 per cent of advisers reporting that specialist support is “adequate”. Without access to the right services, many give up on their hopes of seeking help altogether, and have no choice but to remain in the dangerous environment from which they were trying to escape, often resulting in further abuse, and ultimately, more fatalities.

Statistics from IMKAAN, an organisation addressing violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women and girls, highlights the extent of the problem: of its 16 refuges run by and for women from these communities, one has been forced into closing down, while every other shelter has faced government cuts of between 20 and 100 per cent. Six other refuges have lost local authority funding, while others are either campaigning to retain financial aid, are upheld through private donations entirely, or have been merged with pre-existing general domestic violence services.

They accuse London’s Islington Council of taking “imperfect decisions, not perfect solutions”, and LAWA’s refuge is not high enough on its list of priorities to be saved. While it continues to provide financial support for the charity’s advice centre, the withdrawal of their annual contract means the safe house will be unable to stay afloat.

That savings need to be made is the sad reality of an austerity government, but these sustained financial attacks on domestic violence services are at odds with its continued promises to both support victims and bring perpetrators to justice. The £40m pot ringfenced to tackle the issue has run dry: under-funded charities are now desperately battling to secure money from the emergency £10m promised by the Department for Communities and Local Government in November last year. With the cuts running so deep, though, the fund is at risk of looking like a band aid that may stem, but cannot solve, the problem.

It is telling that the most recent effort to address domestic violence-induced deaths has come not from the political sphere, but one woman with a blog. Karen Ingala Smith – who began Counting Dead Women in 2009 and recently launched her findings as the Femicide census – has spent five years recording these fatal incidents and notes that when it comes to BME victims, finding media coverage of their murders remains a challenge. This “hierarchy of death”, as she terms it, where the narrative follows a “pretty young white girl killed by an ugly man” continues to perpetuate the idea that minority women suffering from intimate partner abuse are less worthy of our attention.

For those fighting for better provisions for women in need, the possible closure of another specialised refuge is disquieting – particularly as the general election approaches. LAWA has begun renting out desk space in its office and applying for additional grants in a bid to stave off the economic turmoil it could find itself in come 31 March, when its contract with the council officially expires. For Quevedo and the rest of the organisation’s staff, shutting down the refuge does not bear thinking about. “We’re determined to keep this refuge open no matter what,” she says. “To lose it would be extremely painful.”

Follow Charlotte Lytton on Twitter @charlottelytton

Update, 25 February:

Islington Council have responded to this article. Councillor Janet Burgess, the executive member for health and wellbeing, said:

We’re committed to helping women escape from domestic violence, and are continuing to provide refuge spaces for women from all groups, including Latin American women, by funding SOLACE Women’s Aid with £205,000 a year. We must make sure our resources are targeted to have the most impact for Islington residents, especially at a time of big Government cuts, when many councils have cut domestic violence services completely.

No Islington residents are currently supported in LAWA’s refuge. It provides national support and should be supported nationally, for example through the London Councils’ Grants programme to which we contribute. The council will offer help and support to any Islington woman currently supported by LAWA. Their contract with the council ended in March 2013 but we agreed to extend funding to them for an extra two years and during that time we helped them write a bid for £100,000 Government funding. LAWA will still receive some Islington Council funding as part of a consortium of similar organisations.”

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue