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13 March 2008

Equal justice for domestic violence

An estimated 600 women can be turned away from refuges, and denied access to specialist support simp

By Helena Kennedy

The reality of living with a partner who effortlessly intertwines gestures of affection with acts of physical or sexual abuse is a horror that impacts upon thousands of women (and men) living here in the UK. Still cloaked in shame and secrecy domestic violence remains a very live issue of concern in the UK.

Most of us would confidently assume however, that for those women who do take that difficult decision to leave the family home, find the courage to seek help and turn to the state to enforce her rights, that she would find the help she needs. After all, refuges for victims of domestic violence do exist, and a specialist support service among police and social services is available.

But the truth of the matter is that for many women living perfectly legally in the UK, this is not so. According to Southall Black Sisters, an estimated 600 women can be turned away from refuges, and denied access to specialist support simply because of their immigration status and a piece of government legislation known as the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule.

With the perpetrators knowing that their victims have no legitimate access to state help, frequently this only intensifies the abuse towards the women and the impunity for perpetrators.

I was shocked to hear about the dreadful story of one young woman, let’s call her Fatima. Fatima was just 19 when she married her sweetheart, Faisal. Her parents weren’t keen on the marriage because Faisal was of a different caste. But she was determined to married Faisal. She loved him and that was all that mattered.

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Sadly it wasn’t long before the honeymoon period ended. Just two or three weeks into their marriage, Faisal began to physically abuse Fatima. Fatima became pregnant early on in the marriage. Faisal didn’t want her to have the baby, and tried to force Fatima to have an abortion. But Fatima resisted and had a lovely baby girl called Aisha. Before long Faisal moved to the UK to study and shortly afterwards Fatima joined him. Like most women who are victims of domestic violence, Fatima wanted to believe her husband’s apologies and promises that he would never beat her again.

Fatima came into the UK on a spousal visa. Spousal visas are issued for two-year “probation periods” and are based on the UK based spouse (and his family) being financially responsible for all the incoming spouse’s needs so that during that two-year period she will not make demands on the public purse. This is known as the “ no recourse to public funds rule”.

Unfortunately for Fatima, Faisal did not keep his promises and instead the abuse intensified when they were in the UK.

As the report by Amnesty International and Southall Black Sisters shows, the aggressor becomes more abusive toward their victim when they know that their victim has nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. And that is exactly what happened with Faisal and Fatima. Knowing that she was not in the same country as her parents anymore, and knowing that she had no recourse to public funds, Fatima was frequently told by Faisal that she was ‘his property and he could do anything to her’.

Because of the UK Government system, Faisal wasn’t too far from the truth.

Eventually Fatima called the police who were able to charge Faisal with common assault. He was ordered to stay away from Fatima. But still Fatima had nowhere to go. Because Fatima was on a spousal visa and subject to the “ no recourse to public funds rule”, she could not go to a refuge.

Refuge works on the basis that those who come to live in a refuge either have enough private financial means to cover their own costs or their costs are covered by housing benefit and income support – but of course these are the sorts of public funds Fatima cannot have. So refuges turned her away, as did Social Services. Although Faisal was staying away, he had lots of close friends and family who threatened Fatima.

To bring shame onto the family name is one of the worst things a person can do in Faisal custom. And as far as his family were concerned, that is what Fatima had done. They believed that they were perfectly within their rights to kill Fatima to restore honour to the family.

Knowing this Fatima fled Faisal’s home. She and Aisha were homeless for a few weeks before eventually a refuge took them. However, this is stretching the refuge because they are not receiving government support for Fatima and so may have to turn her out once the limited funds of the refuge dry up.

Fatima’s story is tragic. But sadly it is not unique. Amnesty International and Southall Black Sisters document several cases in their report which expose how women are subjected to some of the worst forms of violence by their abusers. One woman was doused in petrol and threatened to be burnt alive.

Yet these women effectively have no real means of accessing any form of state protection.

The ones who are able to tell their tales are in some way the more fortunate ones.

The British Government is failing in its duty to respect, protect and fulfil women’s human rights. The UK Government agreed to adhere to international human rights treaties which specifically set out that the state government has a duty to fulfil its responsibility to protect all women “in the jurisdiction” from all forms of violence. Yet this piece of legislation is an example of how the UK Government is failing to do this for this particular group of women.

Too many women are left with the stark choice of staying in the abuse or becoming destitute.

The UK Government may think it’s upholding British justice and indeed has implemented many good policies and initiatives to support victims of domestic violence. However, the failure to take an integrated strategic approach and to look at how immigration rules conflict with victims’ rights in cases such as trafficking and Fatima’s result in the good work being undone and leaves women falling through the gaps.

The women affected are usually the most vulnerable and their suffering is the most severe. This is why the Government absolutely must make an exception to the rule to protect these women.

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