Mariam has always been outspoken, an agitator, a nuisance, she says. Even now she speaks vigorously in sudden bursts of words, like somebody worried they won’t be given the chance to finish their point. In Eritrea, where she comes from, this is a lot more unusual in a woman, “We are raised to feel inferior to men” she says, “From the day we are born. If a son is born we celebrate with seven ululations, but if it’s a girl it’s only three. We have been taught, every day, not to speak up.”
But Mariam is speaking up, has been doing it her whole life, and as a woman in one of the world’s most brutally repressive states, this eventually led her into danger. “I had to flee because I dared to raise my voice against the unconstitutional actions of my government.” A pro-democracy activist, Mariam came to the attention of the authorities in Eritrea and was forced to flee for her life. Now, she is concerned for other Eritrean women in England, and the problems that they face in accessing their rights in a country where they are supposed to have them.
“When you come from a lawless country like mine, what you get is people who do not know the law. They do not know it can protect them; it has only been used to repress them in the past. To us, the government has always been just a bully, how can we know that things are different here? The women from my community have real difficulty trusting authority figures.
“When women come here from Eritrea, we do not know we have rights. We think it is normal to be disciplined by our husbands. I work in my community and I have seen how common this is. These women have been prevented from educating themselves. It should be compulsory to give women seeking asylum when they arrive here some information explaining to them that they have rights and they can be protected, what services there are for them.”
What Mariam has picked up on is the protection gap that faces the small numbers of women coming to this country from sexist and repressive cultures, seeking protection from human rights abuses and the chance to build safe lives. Such women, Mariam argues, are caught in a vicious cycle on arrival – unaware of laws against domestic violence and rape, but unable to trust figures of authority, stand up for themselves, and ask because of their trauma.
It is ironic that while around the world, the British government is attempting to push for better protections for women in these regards, women like Mariam are not provided with them here in the UK. The Foreign Office’s much lauded current programme on violence against women seeks to introduce minimum standards for women reporting sexual violence in conflict zones. But these same standards are not offered at home, to the survivors who make it here to ask for help. Just last week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights reiterated this discrepancy in its report on violence against women and girls.
Still from new Asylum Aid campaign
Women and girls in our asylum system are not given clear information about the asylum system and their rights as women within it. They are not referred to counselling if they report rape or gender-based violence as part of their claim, leaving their mental health to suffer. Without psychological support, as Mariam has noted, it is difficult for these women to open up about their ordeals. They may hold back details that are particularly difficult to discuss because of this, and this could mean the difference between being allowed to stay and being refused and perhaps detained and sent back into danger.
Another barrier for women like Mariam, unbelievably, is motherhood. It is a matter of chance whether mothers who are seeking asylum will be sent to the part of the UK where childcare is provided during interviews. If they are not, then they could be forced to bring their young children along when they explain their ordeal, and obviously they won’t feel able to discuss how they have been abused in front of them.
For Mariam, who had managed to bring her son, then just two years old, with her, how he suffered when they arrived still haunts her. “I love my son, he is my world, but sometimes I still feel guilty about that time. I know I wasn’t able to provide for his emotional needs. The system is so demanding and I lost my energy. Sometimes I think that I emotionally neglected him because I was so overwhelmed, so unable to cope with the asylum process. He was just a little child, he hasn’t done anything to deserve this.”
Women seeking asylum are expected to give a full account of everything that has happened to them when they first arrive, or risk that any inconsistency or new information provided at a later date could damage their perceived credibility and their chances of being allowed to stay. Without the appropriate support to recover from traumatic experiences, is it any wonder that so many cannot share every detail right from the start? Without good quality information about their rights, how are these women supposed to know that the fact, for example, that their husband beats them, is something they should tell their Home Office caseworker? Furthermore how are they supposed to tell their caseworker about such things if their young children are in the room?
“I was drained,” says Mariam, the simplicity of what she says she needed a stark contrast to the complexity of the system she had to navigate, “I needed support. Mothers need to be supported to be able to support their children. We need counselling, we need information about how to deal with these things. We need someone to say, I know you are stressed, I know it is hard.”
Given the barriers facing women in the asylum system, the lack of basic humanity shown to them that would allow them to trust and to open up, is it then any surprise that the Home Office gets over a quarter of its initial decisions in women’s cases wrong? Asylum Aid’s research has shown that the rate of bad decisions is actually higher in women’s cases than in men’s, although the rate of poor decisions remains very high overall.
One explanation for this is that while both men, and women like Mariam, are persecuted for their political activities, and seek asylum on those grounds, it is overwhelmingly women who are at risk of persecution in the private sphere. Survivors of rape and domestic violence are often unable to prove their experiences – there’s no video of them at a demonstration, or membership card for an opposition party, there’s no certificate that’s handed out to women who have been abused. For this reason, women are more likely to rely entirely on their own testimony in their asylum application, and thus are at greater risk of being refused because they are disbelieved.
The very least we can do for women in this situation is to provide them with a fair chance to explain what has happened to them, so that the right decision can be made on their asylum application. In order to allow women to tell their stories, we return to the same basic standards that the Foreign Office is recommending in countries like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – childcare, counselling, the chance to speak to a woman who has been trained on how trauma can affect memory and good, clear information about the system and their rights. It is hypocritical that we are pushing these standards abroad when we do not offer them ourselves.
“I am lucky to be here now and to enjoy the freedoms of this country.” Mariam says, that defiance back in her voice, the speed of her words picking up again, “But I don’t simply want to enjoy them, I want to protect them. There is justice and there is peace in this country, not like mine, and for the most vulnerable women to benefit from those values, we must all raise our voices for them.”
Find out more about Asylum Aid’s campaign to close the protection gap for women seeking asylum.
Names have been changed in this article.