This speech on the state of BME domestic violence services in Bradford was
presented by our Director, Ratna Lachman at the Royal College of Arts in
London as part of the One Billion Rising event on Tuesday 12th February.
Thank you for inviting me to the Royal College of Arts’, One Billion Rising event
to discuss the issue of domestic violence in relation to my work in Bradford.
The topic is particularly relevant because victims of domestic violence are
at unprecedented risk in the current political environment as many of the
cherished institutions that provided a critical life-line to victims – the voluntary
sector, the NHS, the welfare system and our public services – are being
disemboweled by this government.
The Tories’ toxic ideology of neo-liberalism and the free market, which has
resulted in downgrading of the protections afforded under the Equalities Act,
legal and employment rights and the welfare safety net, means that women are
paying a disproportionately heavy price with their lives. So as businesses are
freed from the constraints of ‘red tape’ and as bankers become increasingly
bloated on the £7 billion in bonuses they have just awarded themselves, 1 in 3
children is growing up in poverty and families are increasingly relying on food
banks to survive.
This changing ideological context has had a profound impact on JUST’s work,
as we have spent the last 18 months challenging Bradford Council’s decision to
withdraw funding for specialist BME domestic violence services.
Almost 1 in 3 people in the district are from an ethnic minority community and
the majority live in neighbourhoods, which are among the poorest in the country.
Specialist domestic violence services offer a critical life line for BME women
because many who access these provision do not have English as their first
language and require culturally-appropriate services to meet their needs.
I would like to argue that the failure of the State to safeguard women and
the decision by local councils to withdraw specialist services makes them
institutional perpetrators of domestic violence, as their decision is causing
needless injury and even possible deaths of innocent victims.
It is no coincidence that the One Billion Rising Campaign is universally supported
as we know that a woman’s body has always been a site of political struggle in
which the oppositional dynamics of power – men versus women, the perpetrator
versus victim, the powerful versus the powerless and the individual against the
State – have played themselves out through the ages. However in this age of so-
called austerity, the power struggle has become ever more violent, and when this
dialectic intersects with ethnicity, the struggle becomes even more brutal.
Language in this context is used by the predominantly male political patriarchy
as a subterfuge to hide their culpability in putting women’s lives at risk. Last year
on International Women’s Day, the Prime Minister claimed that he was setting
aside £40 million for domestic violence victims, including funding for vital rape
support centres. In reality deep cuts to local authorities, the pressures on the
NHS, the lack of access to legal aid and cuts to policing have deprived women of
the very services that are critical to their safety.
As a woman I resent the fact that an alpha chest-beating male Prime Minister
presiding over an almost exclusively all-male White Cabinet – feels it
appropriate to define a woman’s right to life as being conditional on his personal
munificence. The flip-side of that self-same coin is that what the State giveth, the
State can also take away. We must never forget that the right to life is a human
right – austerity or no austerity – it is non-negotiable.
In Bradford too we have witnessed the same chasm between rhetoric and reality.
Bradford Council promised to protect domestic violence services but in reality
only BME domestic violence services have stopped receiving funding, despite the
fact that demand from BME women far outstripped those of White women. The
Council held several dodgy Equality Impact Assessments to justify their decision
leading to our call for an ‘independent’ investigation – the outcome for which we
are still waiting.
In the context of Bradford it could be argued that my thesis on patriarchy is
tenuous because the decision to withdraw domestic violence services was
made by senior managers who were women. The decision was also supported
by Asian councillors (male and female) who should have been in the vanguard
of protecting those services primarily because they have based their electoral
strategies on appealing to mainly Asian voters for support. Ultimately I believe
that the failure of the mainstream Violence against Women sector to fight for the
retention of BME services made the Council’s job of closing specialist provision
So why did women from the public, voluntary and political sectors fail to support
the retention of specialist services, despite overwhelming evidence of need?
I would like to argue that the State, which is patriarchal in its construct, is a
powerful actor and its rhetoric and practice assert a strong influence over
how our organizational culture is framed. In the post 9/11 and 7/7 world, the
British State has created the conditions which have encouraged the ‘othering’
of minority communities and the majority of male and female actors within the
patriarchal state have responded accordingly.
You may well ask where is the evidence? In one of his earliest statements at
the Munich security conference, the PM blamed multi-culturalism for creating
ethnic ghettos, which undermined the British values of democracy, free speech
and tolerance. Anyone following the struggle for democracy in the Middle East
will recognise his articulation as racist. In the same speech Cameron went on to
blame multi-culturalism for creating a conflicted sense of identity and argued
that this led to Muslim radicalisation, extremism and terrorism.
This vision is assimilationist as it demands that minority communities
surrender their ‘ethnic’ heritage and subscribe to a parochial and tribal notion
of Britishness. The mainstreaming of services extends this logic by expecting
minority service users to access services on the same terms as the majority
White community. In the face of such expectations, it would take a brave BME
politician to stand up at the risk of being perceived as ‘ethnically partisan’ –
which would, admittedly, mount to their political suicide. This is why many BME
politicians opt for personal cowardice; because the political reality dictates so.
So in a period when Councils are looking to make budget cuts this prevailing
paradigm of ‘us’ and ‘them’ offers a convenient ruse for politicians to withdraw
services from those who do not have the voice or influence to assert their
rights. So who are these women and what is the reality of their lives? In the
context of Bradford, they are mostly young women from Pakistan married to
British Pakistani men who are mostly isolated as they do not have the language
or the social and family networks to fall back on. The majority of these victims
have suffered years of abuse before making that first call or visit to a specialist
project because of cultural notions of ‘izzat’ (honour) and ‘beshti’ (shame)
which are part of South Asian culture. By denying them critical information,
advice, guidance and refuge services, Bradford Council is effectively sending
these vulnerable women and girls back into abusive relationships with all the
attendant consequences for their health and safety.
My fear is that the budgetary challenges we face, and the stripping away of
specialist services, are a prelude to Bradford Council preparing the ground
for tendering out domestic violence services to either a private contractor
or a mainstream service provider in the name of best value. It is a matter of
deep shame that neither Labour nor the Greens have shown any leadership in
considering options which would stop the closure of specialist domestic violence
Bradford’s experience is not unique – councils across the length and breadth
of the country are closing specialist services. The failure to protect services for
the most vulnerable women merely highlights that Institutional Racism and
Islamaphobia are endemic within our political and organsiational culture. If it
wasn’t, a BME woman’s body would not be a site in which public institutions
perpetrated indirect violence by deliberately targeting services which ethnic
minority women relied on to keep themselves safe. If all women’s lives were
truly equal then domestic violence services in the country would be configured
on the basis of need and not political ideology.