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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.