Rooms of Their Own

Support groups for minority women struggle to stay afloat

Apna Haq is one of 34 BME-specialist anti-domestic-abuse groups in the United Kingdom. courtesy apna haq
01 March, 2016

Five years ago, a woman emigrated from the Indian state of Punjab to London to pursue a business degree. She had only begun adjusting to her new life when her university was abruptly shut down, and she found herself with little to do. Three months later, her family got her married to a British-born man of Indian descent. Four months after the wedding, her husband and his family began to physically, mentally and verbally abuse her. “They treated me like a prisoner,” she said. “I couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t phone my brother or my family.”

After suffering about three years of this abuse, the woman visited her brother in Rotherham, a sleepy town in northern England. When the time came to return to her husband’s house, her in-laws phoned, saying they would not take her back. “Keep her,” they told her brother. Shortly after this, her husband arrived drunk at her brother’s doorstep, and threatened to kill him. The woman contacted the police, who told her about Apna Haq, a local rehabilitation centre for victims of domestic violence.

For over a year now, she has been using the organisation’s services. The woman, now 32 years old, met me in Apna Haq’s office last December. She said that, for a long time, she had hesitated to seek help because she worried about the damage it might inflict on her “reputation and family name.”

The founder and manager of Apna Haq, Zlakha Ahmed, told me that such hesitance often has to do with the concept of izzat, or reputation, entrenched in many South Asian communities. The organisation, whose name is Urdu for “our right,” is one of 34 domestic violence organisations in the country that only serves women from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. (“Black and minority-ethnic,” abbreviated as BME, is commonly used in the United Kingdom to refer to racial minorities.) Many believe that BME specialist groups—which are staffed and managed by BME women—are uniquely positioned to address patterns of violence common in those communities. But, in the past few years, waning government support has caused many such groups, including Apna Haq, to fear for their survival.

A United Nations report on violence against women in the United Kingdom notes that BME and migrant women “experience a disproportionate rate of domestic homicide, and that Asian women are up to three times more likely to commit suicide than other women.” A factor that may fuel these dire circumstances among BME women is a lack of recourse to law enforcement. According to Ahmed, South Asian families often “tell the girls that if you go to the police, you will get raped.” Because such incidents are more likely in the countries where many of these women come from, these “warnings” often succeed in maintaining victims’ silence, leading them to go years—as the Punjabi woman did—without seeking help.

A British-born woman of Pakistani descent, Ahmed used to work for a youth services programme, where she often encountered BME girls whose upbringings deprived them of exposure to anti-violence resources. Frustrated by this, in 1994, Ahmed started Apna Haq in Rotherham. (The town currently has about 21,000 BME people, approximately 8 percent of its population—lower than the national rate, which is 14 percent.) A few years after its inception, Apna Haq secured government funding for its operations, which include services such as counselling, rehabilitation, legal assistance and vocational training.

In a series of spending cuts introduced by the central government since 2010, the UK department of communities and local government, which distributes funds to local councils, has seen its budget slashed by 51 percent. As a result, many women’s refuges have been closed, including 32 in a six-year period between 2009 and 2015, as reported by an anti-domestic-violence campaign run last year by the newspaper The Sun. Among these, several BME women support groups—including ones in London, Nottingham, and Manchester—had to either shut down, merge with generic service providers or significantly scale down operations. In November 2015, Apna Haq lost its government funding when the city council instead awarded it to Rotherham Rise, a generic anti-domestic-abuse group. This loss threatened to shutter Apna Haq, which receives almost all of its budget from the government.

Generic care groups, Ahmed said, “can’t reach out to our communities,” because they do not deal deftly with issues such as language barriers, community pressures, and small but crucial cultural details. She cited instances where the social services department temporarily put up South Asian women and their children in hotel rooms, without food they were comfortable eating. “These children were only used to eating rotis. They had never had sandwiches. But the white workers couldn’t understand that,” Ahmed said. This oversight drove the people back to their homes—the very places they sought to escape.

To build cultural sensitivity and domestic-abuse awareness, for the past four years Ahmed has been teaching sessions about these issues in Rotherham classrooms. One morning, I joined her as she taught a diverse and energetic group of 15-year-olds in a secondary school. Ahmed led the class in an hour-long discussion on issues such as honour-based violence and the differences between arranged and forced marriages.

To start the session, Ahmed waited for the students to calm down and asked, “Do you remember what we did last week?” The class recalled discussing the case of a 15-year-old girl of Pakistani origin, from a nearby county, who tried to commit suicide by drinking bleach. She ended up in hospital, and her parents—despite knowing about the bleach—told the doctors she had swallowed mouthwash by accident. Ahmed asked the class, did the girl do this? “Because she hated her life,” a student suggested. Partially accurate, Ahmed responded, but the main reason was that her family was trying to make her marry against her will. Even after the suicide attempt, her parents sent her to Pakistan and forced her to wed a man 20 years her senior.

The need for such teaching was made especially clear after a sordid event in recent Rotherham history. In 2012, a report by The Times uncovered a widespread network of child sexual exploitation operating in the town. A subsequent investigation revealed that, over a period of 16 years, a ring of men had abused 1,400 victims. This February, four of these men—all of Pakistani descent—were convicted of the “systematic” sexual abuse of teenage girls.

When the revelations of these crimes first surfaced, they stirred national controversy. Some alleged that officials had failed to apprehend the abusers for so long because, as the then home secretary claimed, they were afraid “of being seen as racist.” In Rotherham, crime against minorities surged, as did racial harassment—South Asians were often called “Pakis” on the streets. One effect of this racism, Ahmed said, was a reluctance among many South Asian women to venture out of the house, resulting in an even more difficult climate for victims of domestic abuse.

In November 2015, Imkaan, an umbrella body representing all BME-women specialist organisations in the country, released a report that stated that 67 percent of its member bodies felt uncertain about their abilities to continue operating over the following two years. In the wake of these dire statistics, as well as in reaction to Apna Haq’s loss of council funding, Ahmed decided to stage a protest in front of the prime minister’s residence. On 21 November, around 50 women left in a coach for London, and were joined by about 100 supporters. Many carried signs reading “Save Apna Haq.”

On the policy level, there has been little activity since. When I contacted the Rotherham metropolitan borough council, Rachael Ellis, its senior communications and media officer, wrote me an email explaining the choice to fund Rotherham Rise instead of Apna Haq. “We can say that we are confident,” she wrote, “we have chosen the provider that is best placed to provide specialist housing related support to black and minority ethnic (BME) women, and that they have embedded practices in place to enable them to reach out to vulnerable women from across the communities.”

The home office didn’t answer any of my questions about the funding cuts. Instead, Karen Bradley, a minister tasked with preventing abuse and exploitation, outlined for me the remedial measures to be adopted. “Supporting victims from all backgrounds is a key priority for this Government,” she wrote in an email, adding that the government would soon release an updated strategy to address violence against women, and spend £70 million by 2020 to support victims of domestic abuse.

Shortly after the London protests, the Rotherham council gave Apna Haq a contract for a five-month pilot project—a temporary life line. In December, Ahmed received a letter from the home office that mentioned the plans that Bradley wrote to me about. Ahmed has hope for these promises, but she also knows that the current extension only helps her organisation stay open until March.

In a phone conversation in mid February, Ahmed told me that Apna Haq has since managed to secure funding from some private donors, which will allow them to function until August. “The rest will be funded through our reserves,” she said. “So our future continues to be uncertain.”

The Punjabi woman, meanwhile, was oblivious to the political churnings at play in the years of her recovery. She doesn’t live with her husband anymore. With legal assistance from Apna Haq, she has managed to secure a visa for indefinite stay in the United Kingdom. She is taking driving lessons with the organisation, and she plans to soon get a job. For her, the fact that Apna Haq consists of people from her part of the world has made a difference. “I don’t think I’d have felt the same with a white person as much as with our own people,” she said.