Today marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the beginning of 16 days of activism aimed at raising awareness of gender-based violence as a human rights issue. The fact that we need such a day and campaign in order to put women’s rights issues on political agendas is extremely disheartening.
Refugee women are often the forgotten victims of violence, despite the fact that they are more likely to face violence than any other group of women in the world, according to UN statistics.
Many have fled horrific violence at the hands of government and non-state forces, as well as violence within the home that in many countries is not just tolerated but accepted.
What is particularly shocking is that their suffering does not stop once they get to the UK. A fifth of the women who attended our therapeutic services in 2011 had faced violence since coming here.
Our asylum system simply isn’t fit for purpose when it comes to recognising women’s needs.
The recent Home Affairs Select Committee’s report on Asylum noted that: “at a time when the criminal justice system is finally waking up to the needs of domestic and sexual violence, the asylum system should do the same”.
When women arrive in the UK, they are met by a complex, hostile asylum system. Many who say they’ve been victims of violence simply aren’t believed.
We’ve heard of cases of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) not being believed when they say that they were raped – despite the fact the DRC is widely recognised as the rape capital of the world. Very few women from the DRC make it to the UK to claim asylum (114 last year). Home Office stats show that of the 88 women from the DRC who received a decision last year, 44 were refused.
Women seeking asylum are expected to immediately tell a stranger, a Home Office official, about the sexual violence they have experienced. If she doesn’t, she risks having her credibility questioned at a later stage and her asylum claim refused.
Even if a woman can bring herself to instantly recount the abuse she’s faced, there is no guarantee they will be able to access female interviewers or interpreters. This means they will potentially have to give details of any sexual violence that forms the basis of the asylum claim to a male interviewer via a male interpreter.
Nor is it guaranteed that women will have access to childcare during their asylum interview. Childcare provision during the asylum interview across the country is patchy, with no childcare provided at all for women in London during this crucial moment.
If there is no childcare provided, women have to choose between giving full details of the violence they have experienced, perhaps at the hands of the child’s father or other family members, in front of her child/children. Failing to disclose all such details could result in having her asylum claim refused.
The Home Office have taken steps to improve decision making on women’s claims and this is reflected in the fact that the discrepancy in the overturn rate at appeal on men and women’s claims has closed. But they’re still getting it very wrong, very often, with 30% of women’s appeals claims being allowed in 2012.
The Home Office must get their decisions right first time. The consequences of refusal for women are devastating.
When a single woman is refused asylum, she is asked to leave her Home Office accommodation within three weeks. Not allowed to work, not entitled to public funding, she has few options.
Destitution is a horrible fate for both men and women. It simply should not be part of the asylum process. But women face additional risks when they are made destitute.
A report by Oxfam exploring how destitute asylum seekers survive found that women were more likely than men to resort to commercial sex work, putting them at risk of sexually transmitted diseases as well as sexual violence. The report found that both men and women exchanged sex or entered into transactional relationships for a place to stay but that women were at a much greater risk of coercion, entrapment and violence. It noted that many of those women were physically abused, sexually exploited or manipulated, or forced to stay against their will.
While the Government is taking important steps both here and abroad to address violence against women, its harsh asylum policies are still leaving thousands of women a year exposed to unacceptable levels of violence here in the UK. This is a well documented problem which has existed for far too long.
Women say to us they have no choice but to go home to the persecution they fear in their country, or stay in the UK in abusive relationships or become street destitute.
The Government must make the asylum process sensitive to the needs of women once and for all. Most of all, it must ensure that destitution plays no part in the asylum system for women seeking safety here.
No woman, no matter what her immigration status, should be forced to exchange sex for a roof over her head. Women should no longer have to choose between returning to violence in their own country or staying in a violent situation in this one.