The government’s continuing austerity programme is tearing into the heart of black and minority ethnic (BME) communities across the UK, and BME women in particular will be disproportionately affected by cuts to local services and job losses in the public sector.
Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC) was set up in response to the disproportionate impact of the cuts on BME communities. The co-founder and anti-austerity campaigner, Zita Holbourne, has argued for the effects on BME communities to be part of the broader discourse on austerity. People from BME communities are not only hit hard by austerity measures, but they are also more likely to be poor, live in deprived areas and face already existing discrimination in employment.
One area of the cuts that have disproportionately affected women from BME communities are those to specialist domestic violence services. Panahghar, a specialist domestic violence and abuse service, reports that £300,000 has been slashed from its yearly budget. In Coventry, where approximately one third of the population is BME, the Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre no longer receives funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to carry out outreach work within communities that would otherwise not use their services, including BME women.
However women from BME backgrounds need specialists with expertise in the very different services these women need. For example, women from BME communities are more likely to experience forced marriage, honour-based violence, female genital mutilation, and domestic abuse and violence from multiple perpetrators. Migrant women are more likely to work as domestic workers, in the cleaning industry or in prostitution; and BME women are more likely to have insecure immigration status.
Honour-based violence is often used to control behaviour in families or other social groups. This may be to protect perceived cultural or religious beliefs and/or honour.
Imkaan, a UK-based, black feminist organisation dedicated to addressing violence against women, reports that 45% of women interviewed reported violence and harassment from other members of the family, such as in-laws. In addition, 92% of women with immigration issues reported threats of deportation by the perpetrator, which is a key barrier to leaving an abusive relationship.
Diana Nammi, the executive founder of Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), points out that the advice team often spend many hours, if not days, looking for refuges to take in vulnerable women; there is a severe shortage of space in refuges, as public funding has been slashed due to the government’s austerity programme.
Conventional service providers underestimate the level and nature of the risks involved in honour-based violence and forced marriage, which endangers BME women’s lives. Some have reported that these service providers have used interpreters who have leaked confidential information back into their communities.
Specialist service providers tend to employ BME people who are fluent in other languages, so are not reliant on third-party interpreters. On Friday 1 May, IKWRO opened its first specialist women’s refuge for Middle Eastern and North African women; however, the funding comes from private donors. Whilst it is important that we support the funding of third sector specialist services, we must continue to fight for public funding.
To date, there has been a 30% reduction in funding to domestic violence services, including 32 closures of specialist domestic violence refuges between 2010-2014.
Local authority funding cuts have also hit community centres hard. This is another blow to BME communities that rely on the space for specialist services. Community centres often provide support for for marginalised groups, including black, disabled, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. According to Unison, in 2010 there were 2885 council funded community centres; this has been reduced to 2726, a cut of 159 or 6% in four years.
Immigration rule changes will further marginalise minority groups. Access to free healthcare is gradually being eroded, starting with the refusal to treat people from the most vulnerable BME communities. The plan is for the NHS to function as an extension of border control, so those seeking to access medical assistance will be forced to prove that they have indefinite leave to remain, or an up-to-date visa, which can only be obtained by paying a healthcare surcharge. These changes represent further cuts to publicly funded services. Those affected are the most vulnerable in society, such as irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers. Prior to the changes, GPs had a duty of care to provide free of charge, immediately necessary and emergency treatment to all overseas visitors.
This is a further kick in the teeth for women fleeing abusive partners, family members and employers. Migrants on “tied” domestic work visas are at increased risk of being abused, since their migration status was tied to their employers’ visas in 2012. With uncertain immigration status, Kalayaan, a support service for domestic workers, has found that many women who seek help eventually fall off the radar because they have very few rights of their own. Women make up an overwhelming majority of the domestic migrant workforce.
Public sector cuts are also having a disproportionate effect on people from BME communities. Black African-Caribbean women are significantly more likely to work in the public sector, making up 45.6% overall.
BME women are also disproportionately unemployed or in low paid work. A study in Coventry found that unemployment among BME women increased by 74.4% between 2009 and 2013, compared to unemployment among white British women, which increased by 30.5% over the same period – more than double.
Overall, 65% of public sector employees are women. The public sector provides flexible working for women and better maternity benefits than the private sector. The Fawcett Society reported that the pay gap between women and men is 13.2% in the public sector and 20.4% in the private sector. People from BME communities are more likely to work in the public sector; 40% of employed BME people, compared to 25% of white people.
Changes to benefits will force more women and children in BME communities into poverty. Women from BME communities are more likely to have larger families and be in lower paid jobs, so will be the most affected by housing benefit caps and caps on the benefits working people can receive, such as tax credits.
In Coventry it is estimated that 40% of households effected by the benefits caps are likely to affect someone from an ethnic minority; whereas 270 households and 1300 children in Coventry are affected by the housing cap.
Women from an ethnic minority are more likely to lose ESA, be JSA sanctioned, lose DLA and PIP, and be less likely to appeal decisions, according to Coventry Citizens Advice Bureau.
Women overall contributed £5.8 billion raised by the changes to taxes and benefits since 2010, compared to £2.2 billion paid by men. With cuts to specialist support services and the increasing use of unskilled volunteers in the third sector, people with language barriers, including refugees and migrants, will be less likely to be aware of their rights.
Funding cuts to education in England, including the removal of EMA, is affecting the poorest communities.
In Wales education is devolved, so the most disadvantaged students continue to have access to EMA, although there are still huge cuts to further education. Adult education in Wales has been targeted, which will see a 50% reduction in its budget, even though those from deprived backgrounds are less likely to do well in school. An impact equality assessment of EMA, carried out by Coventry council in 2009, found that it had a positive effect on BME girls and women. In England, bursaries replaced EMA, but according to research carried out by Barnardos, low income families and carers have been omitted from the eligibility criteria.
In addition, changes to the provision of ESOL classes has led to longer waiting times and queues, which will have an adverse effect on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. The Institute for Fiscal studies estimate that total public spending on education will fall by over 13% in real terms between 2010/2011 and 2014/2015.
Campaign groups such as BARAC understand the importance of giving BME communities a voice and linking up the struggles against austerity. Women face the harshest attacks to their living standards and the most vulnerable women in BME communities will be increasingly marginalised by cuts to benefits, education and specialist domestic violence services. Sisters Uncut is another organisation that campaigns against the cuts to women’s services, including specialist domestic violence services and refuges.
Further education is very often a route out of a life of crime and/or poverty for young BME women and men, yet it has been hit the hardest by budget cuts.
Austerity not only disproportionately affects women, it hits BME women the hardest, adding more layers of structural oppression and racism, to the already multiple layers experienced by the poorest communities.
Kat Burdon-Manley is from Cardiff, where she works with refugees in the third and legal sectors. She is a member of RS21, Left Unity, Cardiff Feminist Network and involved in numerous anti-austerity and migrant rights campaigns.