At the UK Feminista summer school in 2011
No panel on women’s services, particularly black women’s services, would be complete without talking about money, especially right now. We are experiencing some of the most inhumane and brutal spending cuts to services historically set up through struggle to address poverty and inequality. We are experiencing an unprecedented attack on the welfare state that, amongst many other things, will take away the realisation of our right to live free from violence and access legal aid, protection and justice. We are experiencing a fundamental change in the nature of our country. Specialist refuges and other black services are disappearing. They are blaming us, the people who dare to dream of a more equal, a more just, society. It is the fault of multiculturalism, they say, of socialism, of feminism, of workers, unions, immigrants and young people who were not instilled with respect. We in this room know this is not true.
We know the cuts are affecting the already most vulnerable and marginalised the most. Research published at the beginning of the month found more than 2,000 charities are being forced to close services and make staff redundant. We know that women will be disproportionately affected by the cuts. Black people, communities and services will also be disproportionately affected. Any guesses what this all means for black women? Black women and black women’s services face a double hit. There is not enough time to detail what this means in practice, plus Sandhya is speaking on a panel on the cuts tomorrow and I don’t want too much repetition. I would recommend that you look to TUC, False Economy, Voice for Change, Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts, Fawcett Society and the Women’s Budget Group for more details.
I am going to focus on the threat to black women’s services. Although this threat has intensified in the past year, it is not a party political trend. All of this was foreshadowed during the years of the Labour government. Back in 2007, Ealing Council decided to withdraw funding from SBS in order to follow the government’s equality and cohesion policies. What started as a local funding issue soon came to signify a much larger struggle for equality and for the right to exist as an autonomous, secular, anti-racist and feminist organisation. It was also a precursor of what was to come.
Ealing Council argued that giving money to SBS was against ‘equality,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘cohesion,’ that our name excluded white women and therefore was discriminatory and divisive. So, SBS did what SBS does best and took the Council to court arguing that their interpretation of race equality legislation meant that those historically (and currently) disenfranchised and discriminated against were not protected. The Council’s approach threatened the existence of organisations like ours, set up to counter racism and provide black women with real alternatives to community (religious and cultural based) ways of dealing with family disputes. We’ve just heard from Sandhya some of the dangers inherent in this. More crucially, it constituted a redefinition of equality, divorced from the needs of the most vulnerable and deprived but rather reflecting the needs of the majority community. If we provide the same services to everyone, not only is this likely to be determined in line with the needs of the majority but we also ignore unequal structural relations based on class, gender and race.
Luckily, Judge Moses agreed with us saying: An equal society recognises people’s different needs, situations and goals and removes the barriers that limit what people can do and can be.
This challenge became a key moment for black and minority groups that have organised politically to counter racism and gender, caste, religion and ethnic divisions between and within communities. Although we were successful this time, our experience was a warning bell to secular, progressive, black women’s groups, which rings loudly and clearly across the years and echoes to the present day.
SBS started another legal challenge recently, this time against the Ministry of Justice about the government’s decision to remove the provision of legal aid from non-detention immigration, especially for women subject to domestic or gender related violence. This put the onus on abused migrant women, one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society, to navigate their way around the law and legal processes, in contravention of race, gender and disability discrimination law and the Human Rights Act. This time, we won before we even went to court, thanks to our legal challenge and the wonderful lobbying that we and other organisations, such as Rights of Women, did. The government announced last month that they would table an amendment to cover domestic violence cases. It isn’t enough though – SBS is determined to ensure this covers all vulnerable women, including trafficked women and migrant domestic workers.
I want to stress the vital importance of us all taking action. I hope what you have just heard from Sophia, Salma and Sandhya, and watching Love, Honour and Disobey this morning, has convinced you of the need for specialist services. These services; refuges, shelters, immigration and asylum advice centres are our bricks and mortar. They are the very foundation of the feminist movement; the foundation of any hope for equality between women and men. Let us not forget: we’re starting from a very low base here. Even before the cuts were first suggested, we were fighting for more; for a single rape crisis centre in London; for a proper safety net in place to provide advice and services to asylum seekers in Wales; against the shrinking of feminist, anti-racist, secular spaces. Let’s not be under any illusions here. What we had five years ago wasn’t enough; it was barely enough to scratch the surface of what was really needed; and that is going away.
Even what we have, what we had, has taken decades to build. It has been built on and by the needs, fears, sweat and dreams of many thousands of unsung heroes of our movement. There is nothing in place to replace them. The ‘big society’ will not come to the rescue of women experiencing violent abuse, of women fleeing very real threats of persecution trying to find asylum in this country, of women whose identities of race, class and gender intersect and combine in an interlocking web of discrimination and oppression from which there is little way out.
Do we, as a movement, have the energy and the time to build it all back up again? The landscape of the country has changed radically since the birth of the rape crisis and refuge movements. I’m not sure we can do it all again. And why should we have to? This is something that we (or our mothers, aunts, grandmothers) fought for. It should be something that we are willing to protect. Once our services are gone, that is it. They are not coming back. What about the most vulnerable, the most marginalised, the most at risk in our society? What happens to them? How can we face some of the most vulnerable women and say that the state cannot help? As a movement, do we care enough about them to fight; to fight for our services, to fight to retain the bare minimum required that we do have? As a movement, we have to care about these women.
The backlash against feminist progress has been coming for years; it is now upon us. The wave is right over our heads and is about to break. We are at a historic moment right now. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations. The struggle for feminism is the struggle for our human rights. Everything that we enjoy today, that we take for granted, was created by struggle, by people standing up and seeking a better way forward. It is now our turn to do the same and defend what is right.
Our Tradition: Struggle Not Submission.