cuts to violence against women services

I spoke about cuts to services while we were gathering before the UK Uncut action to hold a street party outside Nick Clegg’s house in May 2012.

Over the past two years, I have spent days, weeks and months in utter despair and rage. We are seeing an unprecedented attack on the welfare state and the most inhumane and brutal spending cuts to services that address poverty and inequality.

We know the cuts are affecting the already most vulnerable and marginalised the most. We know women will be disproportionately affected. Funding to services that prevent and protect women from violence was cut by 31% between 2011 and 2012.  As of 6 months ago, 1 in 5 women’s groups had already closed and many more faced an uncertain future with 60% of refuges and 72% of outreach services having no funding in place come April i.e. last month. 95% of women’s groups face funding cuts this year. This is just some of the reasons why the anti cuts movement has to be a feminist one and why the feminist movement must fight the cuts.

Let us also recognise the further layers of inequality. Black women and black women’s services (and I use the term ‘black’ in the political sense of the word) face a double hit. The cuts will have a specifically dangerous impact on marginalised and vulnerable black women who need protection from violence, abuse and persecution within family and community.  Black women are already living in poverty and experience less access to rights. Black women are more likely to be poor and experience multiple forms of inequality and discrimination. 40% of black women live in poverty and 52.8% of black women are unemployed. 44% of black disabled people live in household poverty, compared with 32% of all disabled people and 17% of the population as a whole. I looked but I could not find the figures for black disabled women – I bet the figures are even worse!

Specialist refuges and other services for black women are disappearing fast.  These services are steeped in feminist, anti-racist and secular histories. Like Southall Black Sisters, many have been at the forefront of struggles against race, class and gender discrimination and inequality. We receive calls from all over the country from our sisters telling us that the services where they work are either closing or about to close.

The impact on SBS and the women with whom we work has been devastating. We are getting more women and they are calling and coming to our office in Southall from everywhere to get our help – because the places that they could have gone to before are gone. Not only are there more women coming to us, but they are also more vulnerable, experiencing violence while not having immigration status or access to public funds. At the same time that we are struggling to keep these women safe, we are struggling for survival, doing funding application after funding report so that we can keep on going while struggling to maintain critical services and fight against the introduction of regressive policies, like on legal aid and immigration.

These refuges, shelters, immigration and asylum advice centres have been built on and by the needs, fears, sweat and dreams of many thousands of unsung heroes of our movement.  Our services are literally life saving; we work with some of the most vulnerable women and children who on a daily basis experience domestic and sexual violence, rape, honour based violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and dowry related abuse. SBS has struggled for funding since we began but it’s never been such so bleak. We are one of the very few specialist services that remain open but we are not sure how much longer we will last. When I think about it too much, it makes me want to cry. Where will women facing violence go if there are no organisations or centres nearby? In 2011, Women’s Aid alone turned away 230 women a day because of a lack of space. What happened to those women?

I say all this to bring the realities of those who work with survivors to this protest today and stress the vital importance of us all taking action. There is no political will to ensure the vulnerable are looked after. It’s a travesty that puts women’s lives at risk.  We are at a historic moment right now. Everything that we enjoy today, from the right to vote to the welfare state, was created by struggle, by those who came before us seeking a better way forward. We have achieved so much as a movement that stretches back into history: free healthcare, education, legal aid, housing, violence against women services, decriminalisation of homosexuality, equal pay, the minimum wage, equality legislation, employment rights, unionised labour, human rights law, the list is endless. Much of this is now at risk and we have no choice act to protect the gains we have made. It is so lovely to stand here with so many others who feel the same way – we need to ensure we sustain this momentum. We owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us. It is now our turn to do the same and defend what is right.

Our Tradition: Struggle Not Submission.

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why linked liberation is integral to feminism

We live in a world in which patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world in which, no matter where you are or who you are, life is not the same for women as it for men. What is feminism if not providing space to resist this? Women’s rights ideas and activism are seen everywhere in the world because every single community and country on this planet has profoundly entrenched inequalities between women and men, and hierarchies of power and dominance based on difference – be it gender, ethnicity, economic class, caste or regional difference.

However, despite their strength and purpose of activism, black women are often automatically construed as weak, defenceless and faceless, amalgamated into a mass of vulnerability. In reality, black women have been part of feminist ideology and organising throughout the ages. ‘Patriarchy’ is not a term many in the UK use with ease, but women I know in other countries know what it is, know what militarised and fundamentalist forms of masculinity do and in many ways, have a more nuanced and deeper understanding of gender relations than most long-standing feminist activists in the UK.  We need to get rid of the idea of the ‘liberated’ white women and the oppressed black women. Neither is true. The horrors of forced marriage, female genital mutilation and ‘honour based’ killing are very real, but violence against women is not limited to black communities and countries . Let us not forget only 6 percent of reported rapes end in a successful prosecution and that 2009 showed a dramatic increase in the numbers of women killed by violent partners in the UK. This includes all women. White women are not living in some feminist fantasy utopia of equality and opportunity and black women are not all oppressed. Let us stop the discussion of whether feminism is just for white, middle class women. White women do not own feminism: the feminist story belongs to all women, everywhere.

We need to shift and broaden our gaze to reconfigure the terrain of what consists of feminist and activist, to look up and see the interconnectedness of our world. For feminism to have meaning for all women, it needs to be concerned with more than just oppression on the basis of gender. Women from all backgrounds and communities identify with feminist beliefs but the movement needs to take into account their needs and realities in terms of representation and analysis. Who are the women writing about feminism in the media? What issues and which feminists are getting media coverage? Which women are speaking at feminist events? What are they speaking about? Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to consciously do what I’ve been subconsciously doing for years at events: a count of the numbers of black women, black men, white women, white men and if there is anyone living with a disability or openly gay. The numbers are not good. I have lost count of the number of feminist events that I have attended where the women speaking are all white and there is very little analysis of race, class, sexuality and how they interrelate with gender, Feminism is not just a movement for white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual women but if most of the women who are speaking for feminism fit this, then it becomes very difficult for women who do not, to think of it as a movement for them.

Working towards a linked liberation is integral to my feminism. Black Feminists was set up in 2010 due to the frustrations many of us felt with the male dominated anti-racist and white dominated feminist movements. Although providing the tools and the friends with which to articulate and challenge the expressions of dominant hierarchies of race, gender, class, heteronormativity and ableism (to varying degrees), the lack of a space where our experiences as black women were at the centre of all thinking, discussion and action only became clear to me the first time black feminists met. It was supposed to be a one-off meeting. Almost two years later, I am proud to be a member of a group that has become part of the long tradition of women organising by using the terms ‘black’ and ‘feminist’ politically. We have a listserv with black women feminists all over the UK and there are women meeting in London and Manchester. Please do get in touch if you are interested: www.blackfeminists.org.

We live in a world of interlocking hierarchies and oppressions. It must be part of our feminist mission to dismantle this and take ableism, class privilege, heterenormativity and homophobia, racism, sexism, transmisogyny and all other forms of discrimination and prejudice as seriously as each other.

This piece first appeared in the programme for the INTERSECT conference held in Bristol in May 2012.