Save the Sisters

For nearly 30 years, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) has been synonymous with black British feminism an

Since it was founded in 1979, Southall Black Sisters has fought against domestic violence, suicide and self-harm, rape and sexual abuse, immigration difficulties and racism. From protesting against virginity testing of immigrant women at Heathrow, to campaigning for the release of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who killed her husband after ten years of physical and sexual abuse, to creating awareness about forced marriages and honour killings long before these issues became popularly known, SBS has developed a reputation as the leading organisation for Asian and black minority ethnic women in Britain.

But today the group has a crisis of its own, as Ealing Council debates whether to continue funding it. The council gives SBS £100,000 a year, a third of its total budget. With a staff of only five dealing with about 1,500 cases and inquiries a year, SBS is concerned it will not be able to carry on its work. Pragna Patel, chair of SBS, said closure would mean that "abused black and minority women will have nowhere to go".

Forty-one per cent of victims of domestic violence in the borough are of white European descent, while 50 per cent are Asian or African-Caribbean. Ealing Council's view is that it has a duty to balance the interests of different racial groups.

Responds Patel: "We highlight that we provide services for Asian and black women simply so that they know that they have support. But we have never denied our services to any woman who contacts us." She adds: "Equality is not about reflecting majority, but reflecting need. And the need for services for black and minority ethnic women is ridiculously high." Around 17,000 women a year are victims of honour-related violence, suicide rates among Asian women are three times the national average, and forced marriages are on the rise.

In November 2007, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the End Violence Against Women coalition pointed out that black and ethnic minority women face additional barriers to accessing support. It showed that fewer than one in ten local authorities had specialised services specifically aimed at them.

A spokeswoman said the EHRC was aware of SBS's situation and intended to write to the council to clarify the current situation and to request a copy of the relevant assessment.

Ealing has asked organisations that provide services for victims of domestic violence, including SBS, to submit bids for funding and will announce its decision on 1 April. Patel says this is completely unfair. "Some organisations already get a lot of money from elsewhere. Refuge, for example, is supported by the Lottery Fund. We need this grant so much more than them."

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us