Racism, surveillance, and managing gender violence in the UK

New policies brought in to address violence against women in the UK are being implemented by large generic institutions at the expense of smaller specialist preventative and support organisations. For black and ethnic minority women, paternalistic 'management' appears to be inseparable from disempowerment, says Amrit Wilson

Amrit Wilson
22 July 2013

Over several years an average of two women have been killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former male partner. The government claims this number is decreasing and is proof of the success of its new policies under the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 Act. But feminists have challenged both the evidence of a  decrease in numbers killed, and the government's interpretation of data from the Office of National Statistics which includes the deaths of 'friends and acquaintances' (which have indeed decreased) as domestic violence casualties

How has the Act and its accompanying policies, and the constant invocation of 'race' in the context of violence against women impacted upon the prevention of  'grooming' or the sexual exploitation of young women and children? And how do the changes which the domestic violence legislation has brought in affect Black and Minority (BME) women and girls facing violence? These were the some of the issues explored at a recent open meeting titled Culture, the Cuts and Violence Against Women and Girls, organised by the Freedom Without Fear Platform.

Speakers included Carlene Firmin,  Principal Policy Advisor, at the Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) who is centrally involved in the OCC's ongoing two-phase study titled Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups. The media, she said, had  focussed mainly on cases involving Asian perpetrators,  particularly those in Rochdale in 2012 and in Oxford this year, discussing them as belonging to a similar (and universally applicable) model based on ethnicity. In fact the typologies of sexual exploitation are very different. In Oxford, an organised criminal gang made a significant profit out of the sexual exploitation of children in hotels and in parties in private homes as far away as London. In Rochdale, in contrast, the activities were  business- based and local -  linked to take-away shops with free food given in exchange for sexual activity, and girls then passed on to other mainly local men and with comparatively small financial gains.  In fact this 'business based' pattern of exploitation is a recurring one which has nothing to do with ethnicity. 'On  the  South coast' , Carlene said 'there are businesses owned by white men - in one case in a very white area there were 110 victims and there were prosecutions. They were all white men and it didn’t hit the press'.

The OCC has identified 2409 cases over fourteen months, pulling together data from the police, local authorities, central government and primary care trusts. There was significant evidence of profiling which phase two of the OCC study is now examining.  'In  one site' , Carlene said,  'they showed us how they identify cases,  and how they profile in their intelligence system. Their search term was Asian. Unsurprisingly all the perpetrators they found were Asian. We said we are worried about targeting. Then they said "we have also found Polish groups and are adding the term Polish to our search"'. It was also a myth, she said, that perpetrators from BME backgrounds do not target BME children. 'The overriding assumption is ...that if they had abused girls in their so called community then the community would have turned on them, there would have been outrage, so they only went outside... We have strong concerns for the victims in these cases particularly  boys and young men growing up in households where there are perpetrators...There is very little information on those boys, and then we find they are perpetrating and being  treated as perpetrators only -  and there is no mention of  protection for them'.  Underlying the failures of the system was clearly the lack of preventative services which had meant that statutory agencies had not identified and intervened in cases of sexual exploitation. This was part and parcel of the new domestic violence policies.

Only 28%  of the OCC cases involved BME survivors, reflecting not only the BME communities' growing distrust in the police, but also, as Zlakha Ahmed Director of Apna Haq -  a long established BME women's service in Rotherham - pointed out, the sheer lack of interest on the part of statutory agencies and the police, in taking up such cases, or in dealing with violence against BME women and children, except where it can be ascribed to 'cultural' causes.  In a powerful presentation Zlakha spoke of the scale of violence and sexual abuse of children within the family and the lack of safe places where women can go and speak about what is happening to them, or what they have been through. In fact, the few such spaces which had existed, set up over the last three decades  by Black and South Asian feminists  to cater for BME women's cultural needs and to provide an atmosphere free of racism where traumatised women and children could recover, have been systematically dismantled or subsumed into large generic organisations  which are now being given the impossible task of meeting the very different needs of a large number of diverse groups, without skilled staff, and often with little sensitivity to racism.

Preventative and support organisations have been replaced by the infrastructure put in place by the Domestic Violence legislation: Special Domestic Violence Courts, Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVA) who are often not independent at all since they are appointed by local government, and most significantly MARACs  police-led  Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences, in which key agencies of probation, education, health, housing and the voluntary sector, work together on cases deemed to be high-risk. These institutions, particularly MARACs, move the question of  violence against women almost entirely into the Criminal Justice System, at a time, ironically,  when legal aid for women facing domestic violence is being all but abolished.  

One recent seminar hosted by the BMA and attended by Ministers concluded that MARACs  provide  'a more cohesive approach to identifying and managing high risk victims', but as many workers in the violence against women sector say, 'management' here appears to be inseparable from disempowerment.

Camille Kumar, from Imkaan, a black feminist organisation dedicated to addressing violence against women and girls explains, 'MARACs, for many survivors replicate the power and control dynamics that they are seeking to escape. In many ways it is like 'sectioning' under the Mental Health Act: where a paternalistic decision is made that the professionals 'know better' than the survivor and are going to make decisions about her life to 'keep her and her children safe'. She then has to abide by the decisions otherwise there may be consequences.... The rhetoric around MARAC is that it is a victim-centred approach but the victim is not invited to the conference and there is not even a strict requirement for their representative, the IDVA  to be present!'. As for measuring risk, as Sandra Horley, Director of Refuge, says, 'risk  is fluid, it can escalate very quickly. What might seem low risk today tomorrow is very high. I had a case of a man brandishing a knife in his wife's face which was considered low risk. In my view that is attempted murder'.

MARACs also, and inevitably perhaps, lock into the structures for surveillance. In fact they operate closely with the Troubled Families initiative among whose aims is identifying extremists. As Kaveri Sharma, legal services manager from Newham Asian Women's Project says, 'In a MARAC every bit of information about the woman and her family, their entire history in this country is laid on the table' -  all their dealings with the social services, schools, health visitors, and the police - from driving offences to vandalism and neighbours reports. MARAC procedure can be slow with several weeks passing before any action is taken, in which time the woman may have suffered further violence. However  MARACs can lead to immediately action, in cases which are thought to be linked to insecure immigration status. She recalls the case of an Afghan woman which was referred to a MARAC one afternoon. Early the next morning a large number of police and immigration officers raided her home. 'Family law and Immigration law' she says, 'are now completely intertwined' . 

Not surprisingly,  BME women are increasingly reluctant to have their cases referred to MARACs. In 2010, only 37% of women were willing to report violence to the Police  and that was with the support of a BME worker. The number will decrease with diminishing trust in the police and closure of BME women's services and  organisations and will also affect women, girls and boys facing sexual exploitation.

Support for survivors, like prevention, is now no longer seen as the duty of the state, it is being handed over to corporates. One company  thought to have the expertise and sensitivity to support traumatised women and girls is G4S -  known for its history of human rights violations in occupied Palestine, and in the UK most recently for causing the death of Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga. G4S is now to run two rape crisis and sexual attack centres in the Midlands and a specialist service for children who have been sexually abused in Devon.

With the closure of public services and privatisation, the next step in the neoliberal equation might be expected to be the globalisation of these methods of 'management', and sure enough the possibility of exporting MARACs to countries of the global South was discussed  by Baroness Scotland, former Attorney General and now Patron of the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence  at a meeting presenting data from the World Health Organisation and other organisations on global estimates of the prevalence of violence against women.

 The Freedom Without Fear Platform is to launch a concerted campaign later this year against MARACs and the new punitive neoliberal model of dealing with violence against women and its relationship with racism and surveillance. 





Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData