(Kiron Mahal, head of housing at Asra (left) and Hydeh Nafarieh, refuge service manager. Pic Tom Parkes)
In north west London a refuge exclusively for Asian women who are victims of domestic violence provides an escape route to a better life. Natalie Valios reports
“It felt like I was in prison,” says Foza* of her 10 years in an arranged marriage. Speaking through an interpreter, Foza recounts the physical and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and his family.
“My mother-in-law was horrible from the beginning, I did all the housework and cooking but she criticised everything and was abusive. My husband called me filthy names. I wasn’t allowed to speak to my family in Pakistan.
“One day when my mother-in-law was in the bath and my three other children were at school, I took my baby and ran to a neighbour and asked her to call the police. They contacted social services and brought me here. I had to leave my other children behind because I couldn’t get them out. My husband is a British citizen but he has hindered me getting indefinite leave to remain. I have no documents and my husband says he doesn’t have them. The biggest problem is getting legal aid to take him to court. I worry my children will start to forget their mother.”
“Here” is a specialist domestic violence refuge for Asian women and children in north west London run by Asra Greater London Housing Association. Set up in 1984, it was the first in England to only accept women from the Indian subcontinent. Asra now has a second refuge in south east London.
It is vital to have specialist refuges because of the unique complexities that domestic violence presents within an Asian context: abuse by the victim’s own family (often linked to a forced marriage) “honour” crimes abuse by husband and in-laws self harm isolation (due to language barriers, financial dependence and restricted mobility) lack of access to public funds and housing for recent immigrants.
There are several reasons why Asian women find it extremely hard to leave an abusive situation, says refuge service manager Hydeh Nafarieh: “If they leave the matrimonial home it means they have dishonoured the family so they have no contact from family and are isolated.
“Some women don’t realise that it’s domestic violence. If they have seen their mother in an abusive relationship they think it’s normal behaviour in a marriage.”
Even if they do leave, the women often end up going back to the abuser because they find it hard to cope. Most have never been on their own because they have lived with their family, then gone into an arranged marriage and lived with their husband’s family. “They are not used to making decisions for themselves and find the future scary,” says Nafarieh. “They often find the change too much and go back. It’s not our job to stop them but we assure them we will be there if they need us again.”
This is why it’s important to have a family-like environment at the refuge, says Kiron Mahal, head of housing at Asra. The refuge in north west London is a rambling Edwardian house set in a wide, leafy, tranquil avenue and the impression it gives is that of the perfect place from which to escape the violence that has scarred these women’s lives. Walking in you are greeted by sounds to be found in any happy family home – laughter, children playing, the babble of the TV (showing Indian cable channels). The one difference is the CCTV.
The refuge houses six women at any one time and is always full. The largest room can accommodate a woman with three children and there are rooms for mothers with one or two children, as well as for single women. In the last six months alone it has had 65 calls. Those it can’t take in are given numbers for the National Domestic Violence helpline and other Asian refuge providers.
Women stay for six months to a year and referrals come from the national helpline, police, social services, solicitors and self-referrals. Local women are referred elsewhere because it wouldn’t be safe to stay in the area.
The women have to leave everything behind, including their job, education, and children’s schools, because these would be the obvious places to look for them. They are not allowed to disclose the refuge’s address to anyone. If they do they are evicted, though this has only happened once.
When a woman decides to leave her situation a refuge worker arranges a meeting point – away from the refuge – and picks her up. Normally they arrive with nothing. They are shown their room and a refuge worker works out their immediate needs such as money to buy food.
Needs and risk assessments are carried out and a support plan put together. Children are registered with schools and mothers with GPs. They are encouraged to become involved in the community, find a job, and go to college if they have language problems. A house meeting is held every week so that residents have a chance to air their problems or make suggestions.
An important addition to the refuge’s work is a floating support service. The target was to support 20 women at any one time, but in its first month it has already seen 10 clients. The service is for Asian women who do not feel ready to go to the refuge or those who are now living independently after leaving the refuge but still need some support.
Suman Sund, the floating support worker, says: “Ninety per cent live in denial or don’t dare leave. One client is 75. She has spent all her life suffering from domestic violence. Her children don’t want her to take any action against their father because they don’t want him to go to prison. So she is being emotionally blackmailed by them. She was referred to us after a local authority elder people’s team got an anonymous call about her.”
Nothing but praise
Mahal has nothing but praise for the local authorities funding Asra’s two refuges through Supporting People. But their work with the children, such as providing counselling, isn’t covered. Currently this is half funded by BBC Children in Need, but this ends next year and Asra will have to find replacement funding.
Of more concern are the changes to the way domestic violence services are funded, says Nafarieh. “Local authorities in some areas are tending to contract a few service providers to run generic services for more people. This is worrying for services like us, as some are being forced to merge with generic services or face closure. This will have a dramatic effect on black, minority ethnic, asylum and refugee women.”
Meanwhile, Foza has been at the refuge for three months. Her eyes well up as she talks about the children she was forced to leave behind: “If I don’t get indefinite leave I will have no other choice but to go back home otherwise I will never see my children again. But after being tortured so much before, and daring to leave”
Her voice trails off, but there is no doubting her unspoken fear: a return home could prove fatal.
* Name has been changed.
Case study: Maha’s* story
‘I was kept in my uncle’s house for three months’
“My stepmother abused me in every way from an early age. I was a slave in the house. Last year when I was 21, her mother was dying in Pakistan and I was told to go with her to the funeral. I was supposed to go for a couple of days but I was kept in my uncle’s house for three months and they took my passport.
“They were trying to force me to marry a man three times my age. I had a mobile phone that no one knew about and called a friend. She contacted the nurse I had over here – I suffered from depression because of the abuse. My nurse went to the British High Commission.
“The commission knocked on my uncle’s door but he said I wasn’t there. My uncle got me by the throat and said he’d get me out if I gave him two days. I don’t know where I’d be now if I’d believed him. I ran to the bathroom and called the commission to say I was still inside. They waited outside and I managed to get to the front door and they got me out on an emergency passport and brought me straight here.”
Maha hopes to move on to live independently soon “and carry on with my life, study and meet someone and start a family – and not let my children go through what I went through”.
Maha desperately misses her father although she realises he must have been complicit in what happened. She has had no contact with her family since she was rescued six months ago and knows there is no going back.
*The name has been changed
- Check out Asra’s website
- The National Domestic Violence helpline: 0808 2000 247
- Read more about domestic violence and forced marriage from Community Care
Appeared in the 27 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline Out of Harm’s Way