Unheard and unseen in Britain

Time and time again I hear from refugee women that they want to work and contribute to British society. A dignified asylum system would be a positive asset; we cannot create an inclusive and cohesive society while we create this subset of excluded, marginalised and desperate individuals, says Natasha Walter

Natasha Walter
10 November 2011

This weekend hundreds of women – and some men – will be gathering in central London for a conference organised by UK Feminista, to explore ideas for, as the organisers say, “building a feminist future”. I’m sure that much of the energy at the conference will be rightly focused on the threat that inequality may be growing in the UK, since the policies of this government are having such a disproportionate impact on women. We will probably also spend time thinking about how to tackle the issue I explore in my latest book Living Dolls, why it is that so many young women in the West believe that their greatest value lies in their sexiness.

Some of our attention at the conference may also be focused overseas. For instance, there will be a presentation from Women for Women International, who work in countries such as Afghanistan, where women are still struggling for basic rights such as the right to education, and the Congo, where mass rape has become a feature of the civil war and women are struggling against the impunity enjoyed by the rapists.

So often in these debates in the UK I feel a grinding shift in gear when we move from the domestic situation to the international picture. We British women can look very closely at issues such as equal pay or sexual objectification in the media with which we have intimate knowledge and day to day experience. We are familiar with the arguments and counter arguments that surround these problems, we recognise their cultural nuances and can discuss details with our own friends and partners. That doesn’t make the struggle for equality here any easier; indeed, sometimes it seems to make it more complicated, more muddied by personal history and personal allegiances. Then we turn around and we look elsewhere, and, say, read a book or hear an interview about women being trafficked into prostitution from eastern Europe or women struggling against genital mutilation in Somalia. Although the struggles women face outside the West seem more challenging, in some ways they can also seem more straightforward. These are struggles for basic human rights, which we often feel we can view at a comfortable distance.

It is often hard to see the link between these two arenas of struggle. Without a sense of connection, it is hard to build solidarity. Without solidarity, we forget the possibilities for working across borders and cultures. Yet in the work I do every day I see women who have gone on extraordinary journeys from one arena to the other, and who are uniquely well placed to show us the often overlooked connections between international feminism and domestic feminism.

I run a charity called Women for Refugee Women. We work with women who have fled persecution to seek asylum in the UK. They may come here having experienced sexual violence at the hands of police and soldiers; or extreme domestic violence in communities where there is no protection available from the state. They may come here to protect their young daughters from having to go through experiences they may have known themselves, such as female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Or they may come running, leaving children behind them, desperate to save their own lives. Their journeys here are often fraught with dangerous chance; maybe, like one woman I met from Pakistan, they set their hearts on coming to the UK because an Englishwoman working for an aid agency told them about how women are protected in the UK. Or maybe, like another woman I met from Cameroon, they paid an agent to get away and didn’t know they would be coming to the UK until they arrived at Heathrow. They arrive in this country traumatised, grasping the chance of refuge, vulnerable, but hopeful. As one young Ethiopian woman I know, who came here after surviving rape and torture in jail for her political writings, said to me: “You hear the talk about how the West protects human rights, and you hope. You hope that this will be the way back into safety.”

Yet time and again I am shocked to the core about what I learn about how they are then treated in the UK. One young woman I met recently arrived here this summer from the Gambia, fleeing extreme violence from her husband, whom she had been forced to marry. She had burns on her arms and was still in shock from a recent miscarriage which she believed had been caused by her husband’s beatings. Her husband is an influential man in her country, and she felt that nobody she knew could offer her or her daughter any protection at home, so she took the risk of crossing borders to start a new life. Since arriving here what has happened? She claimed asylum immediately and she made the decision not to hide the details of the violence she experienced, and so she was able to communicate her need for safety from the outset. Yet she has been called a liar to her face and told to go back home by Home Office staff. At times she has been forced to sleep on the street; at times she has had to beg food and money from charities. She has also been sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre and locked up for weeks. She has been refused asylum, and is currently preparing to appeal that decision.

There is a surprising casualness about the way that many people react to such stories about the abuses that asylum seekers suffer. It is as though because we know they have fled unimaginable persecution, we feel that they should be prepared to suffer anything when they get here. Being locked up in a British detention centre –that can’t be worse than being raped in an Ethiopian jail, can it? Sleeping on the streets of London – that can’t be worse than being forced into a violent marriage, can it?

But the truth is that by subjecting women to such punitive policies we compound their trauma. Many women I have spoken to tell me that the experience of being disbelieved and refused asylum here is what made them despair that they would ever be believed, ever be safe. The experience of being detained in the UK can re-awaken terrible memories. The experience of being made destitute with no right to work can leave women exposed to sexual violence and exploitation all over again. And for too many women, the terror of being deported back to places of danger means that they cannot move on from their trauma.

If we believe we are in favour of equal rights for women, I think we cannot overlook the complicity of our own UK asylum process in the wider reality that is the global denial of women’s rights. If we believe that women should be protected from persecution such as rape, forced prostitution, genital mutilation, forced marriage and domestic violence, we have to look again at the way that our Home Office victimises those women who flee here looking for protection. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the answer to the ills that women face in other countries is for them all to move to another country and claim asylum. It is currently only the tiniest proportion of those women who experience human rights abuse who do cross borders, and a tiny proportion again who come to the UK.

We can offer a transparent and fair process to these women without placing undue burdens on our own society. In fact, a dignified asylum system would be a positive asset; we cannot create an inclusive and cohesive society while we create this subset of excluded, marginalised and desperate individuals. Time and time again I hear from refugee women that they want to work and contribute to British society; a system that denies them the right to work and forces them to live in limbo also denies us the contribution that they could make.

On Saturday at the UK Feminista conference Women for Refugee Women will be introducing women who can speak from their own experiences of seeking asylum. These women can remind us what is happening to those in our country who are too often unseen and unheard. My dearest wish is that those who come to listen will also act; so that we can build a solidarity that crosses borders, and create a society in which all women seeking safety are treated with dignity and justice.

The UK FEMINISTA conference takes place in London on November 12th




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