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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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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