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Feminist journalists must document structural violence against women – with investigations from below

Any feminist anti-racist reporting project must work to dismantle received ideas of how and whose stories should be told, and who gets to tell them.

London women’s protest against austerity cuts. Photo: Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi.In the long history of women’s battle for civil and human rights – and I include trans woman in this struggle – personal testimony, women talking and being listened to, has been crucial to forcing the public awakening that precipitates activism, protest, legal and policy change.

There are elements of this tradition of listening, documenting injustices, and keeping a record of the casual damage of structural violence, that chime with investigative journalism. This is what the pioneering reporter Ida B. Wells did in nineteenth century America, when she carefully documented the lynching of black men, her truth challenging established narratives.

But the world of investigative journalism today is essentially masculine. Certain stories are seen as worthier of investigation, certain storytellers deemed more credible and authoritative. The voices of women are rarely prioritised. Any feminist anti-racist reporting project must work to dismantle received ideas of how and whose stories should be told, and who gets to tell them.

In my own reporting I deliberately listen to people in a particular way, putting in the extra work to find and hear the voices of those who are often invisible to wider society – in policy, in politics, and in feminism. There are too many under-investigated stories; the violence done is pervasive, hidden in plain sight.

How austerity – state-sanctioned structural violence against women, under the guise of ‘saving money’ – has played out in Britain is just one example.

London women’s protest against austerity cuts. Photo: Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi.Reducing the role of the state, cutting budgets for local authorities, legal aid, and public services including social security (we call them welfare benefits in the UK), freezing public sector salaries – these policies hurt women the most. That’s well-documented.

Women are more likely to use public services, more likely to be employed in low-paid jobs in the public sector, and more likely to do the unpaid care work when the government no longer provides a particular social service. It follows, if you cut the public sector, you hurt women.

“In the UK, these policies choices were deliberate. Austerity was enacted despite knowledge that it would impoverish women.”

In the UK, these policies choices were deliberate. Austerity was enacted despite knowledge that it would impoverish women. Impact assessments were produced showing this. One feminist NGO even took the government to court to challenge the first austerity budget. They lost.  

Some of these policies seemed to be a deliberate attempt to revert to an old-fashioned idea of a nuclear family – forcing women into financially-dependent relationships in order to survive. Even though working class and some middle class women have always had to take paid work (on top of unpaid care work carried out in the home).

Public services that were built up over decades enabled women to live more financially independent lives – they weren’t perfect, but we could build on them. These were rolled back under austerity policies.

I’ve focused on the impact of austerity on the lives of migrant women, working class women, and black and brown women. Referred to in the stats as BAME, we have data showing that they lose more than even the poorest white women under austerity, which only adds to existing structural disadvantages.

When I’ve documented these stories, it’s been from the bottom up. As an independent journalist, mostly working for small organisations, I have had the flexibility to choose how I frame and investigate stories.

Yarl's Wood Protest 2015, Bedford, United Kingdom, Photo: Flickr/iDJ Photography. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some Rights Reserved.This means that my sources tend to be based in communities and living through injustices, rather than people with access to money and power who might blow the whistle on something. Following the money is important, but so too is following the policy. Who is hurt and why?

I’m not the only one who works in this way. Back in 2016, I worked in collaboration with journalists at the Scottish investigative journalism platform the Ferret, to tell the story of refugee women and women with uncertain migration status trying to leave violent relationships.

While working on that story, I was reminded of a comment made by the woman who set up the UK's first formal domestic violence refuge, in an abandoned terrace house in west London. She said: “Nobody seemed to be doing anything constructive to help. They just seemed to be sending these women back to the men who beat them, and some back to be killed.”

She described “a terrible relentless uncaring…” and that was – is – exactly what’s happening to refugee and migrant women across the UK today. People who are supposed to help are turning them away.

“Nobody seemed to be doing anything constructive to help. They just seemed to be sending these women back to the men who beat them, and some back to be killed.”

I wrote about a bright young woman named Nabeelah who had come to the UK from Pakistan and married a British man. He was physically abusive; his family bullied her. One day she said: enough.

She went to the British police and they interrogated her. When she went to a domestic violence refugee, they asked: what’s your immigration status? They couldn’t help because her migration status meant they wouldn’t receive government money to fund her place in their shelter.

This is another effect of austerity and a government that is very hostile to migrants. There’s a gap in British law, which means that some migrant and refugee women in the UK on spousal visas can’t access some public services.

I’ve written about this issue before, and black feminists have fought this for decades. It predates austerity, which has made it worse. Legal aid for most immigration cases and for challenges to benefit decisions is now much more limited, and fewer services are available.

Nabeela managed to leave her abusive husband, but she had nowhere to go. Eventually she was put in touch with a brilliant lawyer, a woman of colour working all hours to keep her practice going because the government cut legal aid for most immigration cases as part of its austerity programme.

Much of the work this lawyer does for these women is unpaid. With her help, Nabeelah secured a place at a special refuge for women of South Asian origin.

Funding for these refuges has been cut dramatically by government under austerity policies. They are reducing contracts for specialist domestic violence grassroots organisations that support LGBTQ services, services for black women, services for muslim women, services for LatinX women and instead they offer generic contracts to large organisations who do many different things.

As part of my research – as well interviewing several women – I tried to get data from government on the number of domestic violence victims refused help because they were in the country on spousal visas.

I sent freedom of information requests to the Home Office. Their response? They don’t keep this data. I sent requests to 34 local authorities across England and Wales, all of whom were part of a network of councils monitoring precarious migrants in their districts. Not a single one kept data on these women.

That’s another challenge in investigating issues affecting mostly black and poor women: there are huge data gaps.

Most of the councils I contacted said that they follow existing protocols for dealing with survivors of domestic violence. But, as with the Home Office’s latest Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy, these provide no specific guidance in cases of women without children who are unable to access public funds because of their migration status.

That’s another challenge in investigating issues affecting mostly black and poor women: there are huge data gaps.

I also worked with a university researcher who was investigating the effect of cuts to south Asian women and other women of colour where she lived. She found statistics on gender, statistics on race, but rarely, when it came to public services, on both together. This frustrated her, and made her feel invisible.

This gap is part of a wider problem where official, accepted narratives ignore and render invisible the lived experiences of non-white people, especially those who identify as women.

It is such gaps and invisibility that Ida B Wells challenged when she investigated and reported on lynchings in America, more than a hundred years ago. This is what feminist, anti-racist media must do today.

* This article is adapted from a talk given by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi at the 2018 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where 50.50 organised a panel on why we need feminist investigative journalism.

About the author

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a reporter, editor & writer. Co-edits Shine a Light. Writer in residence for Lacuna magazine. Twice shortlisted for Orwell Prize. Winner of Scottish Refuge Council media award and Write to End Violence Against Women award. Tweets @Rebecca_Omonira

 

 


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