Domestic violence is surrounded by myths and stereotypes. The
myth that it’s worse in Islamic cultures, and non-existent in
Jewish households; the stereotype that all women from the Indian
subcontinent are submissive, and all African-Caribbean women are
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that between 20 and 30 per
cent of all women, from all cultures, will be attacked by a partner
at some point in their life. And many of the circumstances and
feelings connected to domestic violence are common to women from
all cultures. They are usually isolated from support networks,
suffering from low self-esteem and struggling with a powerful
combination of shame, fear, humiliation and anger. They know that
going to the police or leaving the family home will throw their
life and that of their children, family and friends into turmoil.
They know that their partner may lose his job, gain a criminal
record, be sent to prison, or retaliate against them.
But if the decision to go to the authorities is difficult for
anyone, women from ethnic minorities face a range of additional
barriers to getting the help they need. These barriers are
especially pronounced for women who have insecure immigration
In minority communities where public authorities are viewed as
following a hostile, white agenda, it can be difficult even to
contemplate seeking help. Women face the threat of being punished
for bringing shame on their family, or being publicly ostracised
for tarnishing the community’s view of itself.
For instance, there can be great resistance within the Jewish
community to the idea that domestic violence even happens. Marilyn
Norman is executive director of Jewish Women’s Aid, which runs the
only refuge for Jewish women in Europe. She says: “Many people
can’t or won’t believe that it exists in the Jewish community.
There’s a very powerful set of standards and beliefs around the
culture, about how great it is to be part of that community and how
important families are. That does silence people.”
Conversely, women who do upset the apple cart can find themselves
isolated from the only support network they had. Being sent to a
refuge a long distance away helps prevent women from being found by
violent partners, but they may end up even more isolated than they
Language can also be a problem. Going to a police station or social
services department to report your partner’s behaviour is a
difficult prospect even if English is your first language. For
women who speak little or no English the idea of trying to make
yourself understood in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile
environment can be terrifying.
In addition, there can be real dangers around translation and
interpretation. Translators can be very hard to come by,
particularly for ethnic groups with very small populations, with
the result that there’s a good chance a woman may know the person
translating for her. Women giving a statement to the police have
been known to find themselves being given a lecture by a translator
who knows their husband.
Women with several children may also find themselves in
difficulties. While most refuges can accommodate up to three
children with their mother, any more means the family takes up two
rooms, which puts refuges in a difficult position because they lose
the rental income from the second room.
Particular beliefs, customs and sensibilities can also play a part.
Many orthodox Jewish women would find sharing a kitchen with
non-Jews intolerable because of the need to keep kosher. Observance
of holy days such as the Sabbath can be impossible in a mixed
refuge. Cooking particular dishes, observing religious duties and
even terms of endearment may cause upset or attract comment or
ridicule from other women.
In fact, racism is far from uncommon in refuges. New research
looking at the experiences of ethnic minority women1
suggests that some are having to make a stark choice between racial
abuse in a refuge or physical abuse in their home. As one Irish
woman puts it: “I’ve only got one abuser at home. Here there’s a
group of eight women treating me like shit.”
According to Khatidja Chantler, independent researcher and
co-manager of the jointly funded European Social Fund and
Manchester Metropolitan University study: “Many of the women we
interviewed said that they’d been to mainstream refuges and found
them very alienating because of the racism they experienced there.
There’s this idea that women-only spaces are safe spaces – for
women from minority communities they often aren’t.”
Many professionals working with women from minority communities
argue that there are great dangers inherent in making assumptions
about people’s needs and background. Davina James-Hanman is
domestic violence co-ordinator for London, and is responsible for
the capital’s domestic violence strategy. She says: “There’s a myth
that women from the Indian subcontinent always have a massive
extended family who are very oppressive. Quite often that’s not the
case – and women whose extended family are supportive often find it
easier to leave than a middle class white woman who has few friends
or family locally. We have to be careful to make sure that there’s
a clear distinction between being ‘culturally sensitive’ and what
is, in effect, institutional racism. For instance, despite the many
and varied populations in London, there are 11 different services
for Asian women suffering domestic violence, and only one for
Others suggest that many refuge workers and professionals in
statutory agencies are suffering from “race anxiety” which prevents
them from acting decisively in domestic violence cases. They
suggest that there is a nervousness about being seen to be
“interfering” in a different culture’s practices and beliefs.
James-Hanman argues that there is a need for both culturally
specific services for victims of domestic violence, and for
mainstream services which are sensitive to the needs of women for
ethnic minorities. And one of the key things that came out of the
study was women’s need for emotional support. Refuge staff were
felt to be excellent, hard-working and supportive, doing many
practical things for the women in their care. But what many women
craved was a shoulder to cry on and someone to listen, and to
provide emotional support.
Asylum seekers and women who entered the country through marriage
to British citizens have many of the same problems around domestic
violence as other women, but the problems they face are often
compounded by their status in immigration law.
According to Davina James-Hanman: “Abusers will use anything to
establish control over someone – for instance, immigration status.
He’ll say, even if it’s totally untrue, that if she makes a fuss
she’ll be deported. He will usually be keeping her passport and
intercepting her mail. And some women come from countries where
domestic violence doesn’t exist as a concept. So the idea that
there might be protection for them here doesn’t occur to them. “I’m
not a fan of David Blunkett but the detail of the citizenship
classes he’s proposing could be good because it would inform women
about their legal rights and about marriage and divorce
Accommodation is unnecessarily problematic. Under the one-year
rule, women who entered the country “for the purposes of marriage”
must stay married for one year, during which time they have no
recourse to public funds. Refuges, which rely on housing benefit to
pay rent on each woman’s room, have until now managed to fudge the
finances enough to raise the rent needed for these women. But the
introduction of Supporting People means that fudging must now come
to an end, potentially leaving refuges unable to provide services
to women not entitled to housing benefit and income support.
According to Khatidja Chantler: “It’s very frightening how some
women can be completely excluded from services by virtue of state
practices such as immigration. Such practices intersect with
domestic violence so that women become trapped in abusive
relationships. The welfare state is there to provide a safety net
for everyone but these women are excluded from it. And the Home
Office wants to extend that period to two years, which will leave
them in that situation for even longer.”
Diana Mills is co-ordinator of the Refugee Women’s Resource
Project. She says: There’s a concession to the one-year rule for
women who are subject to domestic violence, which means they can
get out as long as they can show they’ve taken a legal remedy
against that person – so they’ve taken out an injunction or they’re
pursuing a case against their partner, or have reported it to the
police. But few of these women can meet that threshold.”
Mills argues that the pressure on asylum seekers can make domestic
violence worse. “I can’t imagine anything more stressful than going
through the asylum process. They may be being detained, with whole
families living for months in one room. It’s not surprising
relationships break down. It comes out of desperation.”
Domestic Violence and
Minoritisation – Supporting Women to Independence, Women’s Studies
Research Centre, Manchester Metropolitan University, 0161 247
– Womens Aid domestic violence helpline: 08457 023468. Jewish
Women’s Aid free helpline: 0800 591203.
It’s time to change the law
Recommendations from the Women’s Studies Research Centre
to improve options available to women suffering from domestic
- Change the law to give women with no access to public funds
better protection from domestic violence, and information about how
to use legal frameworks to protect themselves.
- Develop a national and local immigration welfare fund to
support women without access to public funds.
- Identify children whose mothers have no recourse to public
funds as “children in need” and to make mandatory the use of
section 17 monies to support them.
- Broaden the responsibility for provision of domestic violence
services, and nominate workers from relevant agencies to work with
specific refuges, after care and outreach services.
- Create a staff development strategy to help staff work
competently and confidently with women from ethnic minorities.
- Develop a counselling and complementary therapy service for
women from ethnic minorities and a similar service for their
- Develop women’s survivor groups to combat isolation,
share experiences and build on strengths.
- Develop or extend specialist refuge provision for women with
mental health problems, for those with older male children who are
currently excluded from many refuges, and for women from minority
- Invest in improving the physical environment of refuges.
- Consider the creation of second stage supported housing for
women and children who face additional barriers.
- Improve ways that women can access the labour market by
facilitating training opportunities without affecting