Sisters Uncut protest the closure of domestic violence services. Credit: Natasha Quarmby/Demotix.
One fist in the air, the other balled round the top of a banner, I’m marching across London’s Westminster Bridge into a line of cops.
It’s my first action with Sisters Uncut. Over a hundred members of Sisters Uncut have broken away from the larger June 20 anti-austerity march to shut down Westminster Bridge. We were at the march to draw attention to the lethal impact of cuts to domestic violence services. Looking to my left and my right I see my sisters, women and non-binary people in Sisters Uncut: the direct action group fighting cuts to domestic violence services. Their fists are raised too, their eyes focused on the police.
We’re shouting: “Back up, back up. We want freedom, freedom. All these sexist, racist men, we don’t need them, need them!" And the police are retreating. “Excuse me ladies” says one officer, trying to catch anyone’s eye, his arms raised, he’s walking backwards. Ignoring the cop, we keep walking.
My heart’s pounding, my lungs burn and I feel powerful.
I don’t feel powerful most of the time. As a woman, I’m not meant to. When a second friend in a single week tells me she’s a survivor of sexual violence, I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel strong when I think about what might have happened to the more than 6000 women and children turned away from domestic violence services last year, or when I read that of the 733 Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women in London who sought refuge spaces in London last year, only 154 were successful. Who knows what happened to the other 579?
In the UK, two women die each week at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. In spite of this, since 2010 the government's austerity policies have landed more women in dangerous situations and made it harder for women facing domestic violence to access the support they need to live safely.
Since 2010, 32 refuges have had to close. It’s harder to access legal aid. Benefit cuts are pushing women into poverty and making them even more vulnerable. A third of women who seek refuge are turned away.
Women are dying and the government is turning its back on them.
A friend with over five years’ experience in the domestic violence sector as an independent sexual violence advocate providing survivors with emotional and practical support told me her ultimate dream for Sisters Uncut would be to one day call the National Centre for Domestic Violence helpline and immediately be granted a refuge space for a survivor. In five years, she has only once found a survivor a refuge space the same day she called. The refuge space was an hour’s train away and the woman was too scared to go alone and she couldn’t afford a cab. She didn’t go. My friend does not know what happened to her.
I don’t feel strong but I do feel angry. I feel angry when I think of the potential closure of BME-led domestic violence service Apna Haq and the waste of the twenty years of experience working with BME survivors of domestic violence they have accrued in Rotherham. Like many specialist services, they are threatened with closure. If they close, their funding will be reallocated to a general domestic violence service with no links to the local community and limited experience of the unique challenges faced by BME women. If a woman does not have confidence in her local support service, she simply will not go.
Housing benefit pays for most refuge spaces. The Conservatives’ cuts, the announcement that 18-21 year olds will no longer be eligible for housing benefit as well as the defunding of domestic violence refuges, will make it even harder for a woman to secure the refuge space that might save her life. The planned cut of £30 per week to Employment Support Allowance, a benefit available to people unable to work due to disability or sickness, will reduce disabled sisters’ ability to afford to get away from their abusers. Already twice as likely to face domestic violence as someone without a disability, this funding is vital. When they cut, we bleed.
As terrifying as it is that two women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner, this stat does not consider those who take their own lives, not reached by any service. It does not count those sisters who live their whole lives brutalised and in fear and die of natural causes at the end of a life marred by violence.
Feeling strong can be difficult in a society that seeks to crush you. The uproar in the liberal press about feminists and people of colour asking for safe spaces reflects an outrage that oppressed bodies should dare to express that we are still not safe in public spaces in the way that white, straight, cis men are safe. We are socialized to fear: I don’t think I’ve ever walked through a public park after dark without thinking about rape, even though 9 out of 10 rapes and sexual assaults are perpetrated by friends, partners or acquaintances.
But a body that is policed, that is encouraged to stay at home, to wear respectable clothes so as not to invite abuse, can be more powerful than a white, cis, male body when these obligations are thrown off. The sight of hundreds of sisters shouting, fists raised, traffic stopped, burning newspapers in the middle of High Street Kensington, while the police looked on baffled, trying to find the men in charge, drew a huge crowd for a reason. A sister’s body, defiant, still shocks a public that associates protests with bearded white men in sit-ins and skinny anarchists decked in black to cover the reality that their bodies are of a strikingly similar colour and sex.
I know that the government, corporate powers, and the press do not care that male violence is killing our sisters. I believe they are invested in, and benefit from, this policing of our bodies, and control over our ability to imagine a better world.
The Sisters Uncut email and Facebook inboxes receive multiple disclosures of physical and sexual abuse every week, many from sisters not wanting to involve the police. They contact us because they trust us. We place our bodies, as troublemakers, as disruptors in public to acknowledge these sisters. In doing so, we remind all those that benefit from our suffering, our coercion, and the ways in which our potential for brilliance is curtailed, that their victory is short-lived.
Anger and pain do not make me feel strong. They remind me of my vulnerability, of the ways in which my body can be attacked. But from this pain comes a determination to fight, borne from the knowledge that our lives will be no less painful if we do not struggle. "Our silence will not protect us", Audre Lorde reminds us. So we struggle and we shout.
When I march towards the police as one of many sisters, I feel a strength with the knowledge that though we’re never truly safe, through these moments of struggle, people like us might be one day.