Between rhetoric and practice: domestic violence against women in the uk

Halliki Voolma
October 9, 2014

Atiyah1, aged 27, moved to the United Kingdom from Pakistan in 2008 to join her  husband who was working on a highly skilled migrant visa. Initially,  Atiyah had looked forward to living with her husband and continuing her  studies in the UK. However, after she arrived, her husband did not allow  her to study, or even to leave the house by herself. Atiyah became  pregnant within one month of arriving in the UK. She later recalled:  “throughout my pregnancy he beat me and tortured me in different ways”.

Atiyah’s story highlights the heightened  vulnerability of victims of domestic violence with an insecure  immigration status, and the importance of being able to access  specialist support services.

Government rhetoric and practice

“The ambition of this government is to end violence against women and girls… No woman should have to live in fear of violence”.  Home Secretary Theresa May made this statement in the Coalition  Government’s 2010 ‘Call to end violence against women and girls’ strategy document. The strategic vision has since been followed by annual action plans  detailing the Government’s achievements and tactics for ending this  pervasive manifestation of gender inequality. Despite a clear commitment  to tackling violence against women and girls, gaps remain between  Government rhetoric and practice. While the Home Secretary maintains  that supporting victims is “at the heart of the Government’s approach”,  the UK’s legal and policy frameworks do not enable all victims of  gender-based violence to access support services. In particular, many  women with insecure immigration status2  are restricted from accessing domestic violence shelters because they  are subject to the No Recourse to Public Funding requirement3. This leaves them with a stark choice between continuing violence and destitution.

That being said, over the past decade, substantial  progress has been made in addressing the intersection of immigration and  domestic violence by consecutive UK Governments. As a result of campaigning and lobbying by women’s organisations,  several meaningful legal reforms have been enacted, and some victims  with insecure immigration status (those on spousal visas) are now  formally eligible for state protection and support. Will this  progressive policy trend continue and protection be extended to all  victims of domestic violence, regardless of immigration status? Giving  all victims access to protection and support would be a key step in  closing the gap between Government rhetoric and practice on tackling  violence against women and girls. However, it would be seen to represent  a clear departure from the current Government’s increasingly hostile  approach to immigration, in which expanding migrants’ access to welfare  benefits does not feature. The Government has been steadily tightening the criteria under which EU migrants are eligible to claim benefits,  never mind non-EU citizens with insecure immigration status. In fact,  all the main political parties are anxious to be seen as committed to a  restrictive immigration policy.

Will the commitment to ending violence against women and girls trump the will to appear tough on immigration?

Domestic violence in the UK

Domestic violence is the most pervasive form of gender-based violence in the world. The UK Government defines domestic violence  as “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive,  threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over  who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of  gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:  psychological; physical; sexual; financial; emotional.”

The national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid estimates  that around 1.2 million women in the UK experience domestic violence  per year, and one in four women will suffer it in their lifetime. Up to two women are killed by a current or ex-partner each week. According to the charity Refuge, every day almost 30 women attempt to take their own lives  as a direct result of domestic violence, and three of them die every  week. This is in the context of extensive violence against women across  Europe, with one in three women reporting some form of physical or  sexual abuse since the age of 15 and 8% suffering abuse in the last 12  months, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency’s 2014 survey – the largest survey of its kind in this area.

Violence against women has been recognised as a human rights issue within the United Nations since the early 1990s4. According to the European Fundamental Rights Agency,  “Violence against women can be addressed through a human rights lens.  It is a violation of human dignity and in its most extreme form,  violates the right to life. It is also an extreme expression of  inequality on the ground of sex.”

Victims of domestic violence with insecure immigration status

The complex combination of political, economic and  social factors that immigrant women experience makes them particularly  vulnerable to domestic violence5.  That is not to say that women with insecure immigration status  necessarily experience higher rates of domestic abuse, but they are more  vulnerable in the sense that their options for leaving an abusive  relationship are more limited, and so the power relationship between  perpetrator and victim is more pronounced.

Atiyah was not familiar with the laws and  regulations in the UK, and as she was kept isolated in the house, she  had to rely on what her husband was telling her. He said that because  she was on a student visa, but not studying, she was an ‘illegal  immigrant’ and the authorities would track her down if she left the  house. She was totally isolated, and too afraid to tell anyone about  what she was going through. Atiyah talked about the psychological  effects of the abuse: “I used to be a very happy person – my husband  made me a depression patient. He broke all my confidence… My world was a  big hell for me”.

It takes bravery and support for a woman to decide to leave an abusive partner6 and what will happen to her when she leaves is key to her decision7.  Victims need to secure safe accommodation as well as practical,  material, and emotional support to leave abusive relationships. They  need somewhere safe to go to, and the means to survive.

Victims of domestic violence who have insecure  immigration status and are thus subject to the No Recourse to Public  Funding (NRPF) rule have no entitlement to most welfare benefits, tax  credits or housing assistance measures that are paid for by the state.  This means that they cannot access domestic violence shelters (which are  financed through public funds) or financial support: crucial conditions  for leaving a domestic violence relationship. The NRPF rule applies to  many migrants including those on spousal or partner visas, people on  student visas and their dependants, people on work visa and their  dependants, refused asylum seekers and over-stayers. National surveys  have indicated that on average there are around 600 women per year who  have No Recourse to Public Funds and are affected by domestic violence.

The guidance  on domestic violence explains the reasoning behind the NRPF policy:  “The policy is based on the principle that people without a permanent  right to remain in the UK should not have the same access to benefits as  British citizens. Our immigration policy is clear that migrants coming  to the UK should be able to provide for themselves financially without  relying on benefits from the state.” Fears about benefits acting as a  ‘pull factor’ for immigration are widespread, though whether they are  based in reality is questionable. For instance, a study by the Institute  for the Study of Labor in Bonn entitled ‘Unemployment Benefits and Immigration: Evidence from the EU’, found that immigrants to the European Union are less likely to live on welfare than the native population.

Women who come to the UK on spousal visas to join  their husbands or fiancés face a further predicament. These women are  subject to a five-year probationary period of residency and if the  marriage breaks down during this period, they no longer have the right  to remain in the UK, and face deportation. The probationary period is  meant to make it harder for sham marriages  to last, and to be a period in which the applicant can assimilate into  society. It was increased from two years to five in 2012. For victims of  domestic abuse, this means three more years of insecure immigration  status and fearing deportation, which is a key migrant-specific barrier  to leaving a domestic violence relationship.

Legal reform

Southall Black Sisters  (SBS), a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1979 to meet the needs  of black (Asian and African-Caribbean) and minority ethnic women, have  led a 20-year national campaign calling for reforms to the immigration  rules and the NRPF requirement so that survivors of domestic violence do  not have to make the stark choice between violence and destitution.

Southall Black Sisters demonstrate for the abolition of the NRPF rule. Credit: Southall Black Sisters

Following campaigning by Southall Black Sisters and others, the impact of domestic violence on recent marriage migrants was recognised in 1997 by Mike O’Brien, then a junior Home Office Minister for New Labour.  This led in 2002 to the introduction of the Domestic Violence Rule  which enables women to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain during the  spousal visa probationary period if they can prove that domestic  violence was the cause of the relationship’s dissolution. While this  rule was a step forward in terms of the immigration side of the problem,  it did not address the problem of destitution that survivors face if  they do not have access to welfare benefits while applying and waiting  for an Indefinite Leave to Remain decision to be made.

The first person Atiyah told about the abuse was a  friend she called upon returning to the UK from spending time in  Pakistan. She was too scared to go home to her husband because he was so  aggressive over the phone. Atiyah’s friend told her that she had rights  in the UK. Atiyah then approached a domestic violence shelter  specialising in supporting migrant women, but they said because she did  not have recourse to public funds they had no way of funding her stay in  the refuge. She approached the social services, but was again turned  away because of the NRPF rule. She also went to the police, but was not  given the support she needed. Atiyah thus had no option, but to go back  to her husband. He continued to abuse her: “My husband started to beat  me again, he even strangled me, I nearly choked.”

In 2006, Southall Black Sisters established the  Campaign to Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds, a UK-wide coalition of  nearly 30 leading women’s and human rights organisations. After rigorous  campaigning, on 1st April 2012, the Home Office introduced the  Destitution Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession. The Concession enabled  migrant women in the UK on a spousal visa subject to the probationary  period with No Recourse to Public Funds the right to access benefits and  social housing for three months while they apply to stay in the UK as a  survivor of domestic violence. The Destitution Domestic Violence  Concession followed the Sojourner Project which was a pilot project that  ran from 2009-2012 and made limited payments for housing and  subsistence to over one thousand survivors while they regularised their  status. The introduction of the DDV Concession represented a major  victory for Southall Black Sisters and the Campaign to Abolish No  Recourse to Public Funds.

It was as a result of the Destitution Domestic  Violence Concession that Atiyah was finally able to access support, five  years after first suffering domestic violence in the UK. Atiyah escaped  from home one last time with her young daughter in June 2013. She had  nowhere to go so had to move from one place to another every night.  After several attempts to access a domestic violence shelter, a support  worker was finally able to find her a place at a specialist shelter in  Yorkshire. As a spousal visa holder Atiyah was eligible for the new DDV  Concession so the shelter was able to take her in. I interviewed Atiyah  at this shelter in October 2013. Her support workers had helped her  apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain under the Domestic Violence Rule  and she was granted permanent residency in the UK just three days before  I met her. Atiyah was hopeful about her and her daughter’s future, and  was looking forward to continuing her studies in the UK.

Those not protected

There are many other vulnerable victims who remain  without a safety net, as the DDV Concession only applies to survivors on  spousal visas. Those without protection include women in the UK on  other visas, overstayers, and overseas domestic workers, who experience  gender-based violence or abuse and exploitation by their employers.  Women who have been trafficked into the country are also not adequately  protected. These women are still forced to make a stark choice between  staying within an abusive relationship, and leaving, facing destitution  and deportation. A survey conducted by the Campaign to Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds showed that for the period between 1st November 2012 and 31st  January 2013, 64% in a sample of 242 victims of domestic violence with  insecure immigration status (with 176 children) did not qualify for the  DDV concession.

In 2013, Southall Black Sisters lobbied the United Nations Committee8 on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It recommended that the UK should: “Extend  the concession to the ‘no recourse to the public funds’ policy to all  women who are subjected to gender based violence and exploitation.” The  last time SBS gave evidence to the CEDAW Committee was in 2008. Shortly  after the Committee urged the UK Government to review its no recourse to public funds policy to ensure the protection and provision of support to victims of violence, the Sojourner Project was introduced.

Ending violence against women versus appearing tough on immigration

Since 2002 we have seen consecutive UK Governments introduce  considerable reforms to protect and support victims of domestic violence  with an insecure immigration status. When Theresa May announced her  intention to introduce the DDV Concession in 2010, she said: “Even in  these financially constrained times there are some things that are too  important not to do.” It may seem that extending the DDV Concession to  migrant victims of domestic violence who are not on spousal visas would  not be such a huge leap, after a decade of slow, yet substantial reform  in this area. However, there are several indications that further reform  is unlikely in the foreseeable future, including: cuts to domestic  violence shelters, increasingly restrictive immigration law and a lack  of commitment to European frameworks on violence against women.

Leading charities such as Women’s Aid have revealed that domestic  violence refuges are being closed across the country in a crisis that is  putting support provision to the most vulnerable women and children  back 40 years. Women’s Aid recently issued an emergency appeal as the  number of specialist refuges has declined from 187 to 155 since 2010. On  one day alone in 2013, 155 women, with 103 children, were turned away  from the first refuge they approached. The closures come as a result of  ongoing cuts to local funding and poor commissioning practices, and  despitethree parliamentary inquiries (in 1975, 1992 and 2008) concluding  that the provision of national refuges must be the priority for any  Government tackling domestic violence. Specialist refuges have been  particularly affected. In Sheffield, for instance, the Ashiana refuge  for black and minority ethnic women victims has shut after 30 years.

The new Immigration Act came into force in May 2014  and although the aim of the Act is to ‘crack down’ on ‘illegal’  immigrants, there are certain terms which will have an adverse impact on  domestic violence victims9.  These impacts include more limited rights to appeal immigration  decisions, more state powers for deportation, less access to free  healthcare, and less access to safe accommodation. A victim of domestic  violence on a spousal visa would potentially be denied access to NHS  counselling, accommodation, and she would not be entitled to a bank  account. This could happen even if she had British citizen children.

The Government is also not showing willingness to  engage with regional frameworks aimed at ending violence against women.  On August 1st, the Istanbul Convention entered into force,  with 14 ratifications and another 22 signatures. The Convention is a  landmark treaty of the Council of Europe dedicated to preventing and  combating violence against women and domestic violence introduced in  2011. The UK has not ratified this Convention, despite countries such as  Austria, France and Spain having done so.

For the commitment to end violence against women and  girls to trump the will to appear tough on immigration, protection and  support must be extended to all victims of domestic violence, regardless  of immigration status. Specialist women’s organisations as well as the  CEDAW Committee have urged the UK Government to extend the Destitution  Domestic Violence Concession to all victims of gender-based violence. In  the interim, as proposed by the Campaign to Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds, a  pilot scheme similar to the Sojourner Project should be introduced for  victims not on spousal visas, to assess the impact of wider reform.

Citizenship scholar Linda Bosniak theorises that  borders can be conceptual as well as geographical in that ‘the border’ –  conceived as a regulatory sphere – follows the immigrant into the  national space and shapes their experiences there10. In the Coalition Government’s 2010 strategic vision for ending violence against women and girls, the Home Secretary emphasised  that the Government’s work would “not stop at the borders of the United  Kingdom. For the first time our strategy will include the innovative  work we are doing internationally to tackle this global problem.” While  this commitment to tackling violence against women and girls beyond the  borders of the UK is necessary and important, the UK Government must  also address the internal borders created by current immigration policy, in particular their impact on victims of domestic violence.

It wasn’t a forced marriage, but initially when I  was ready to take a step to leave my husband, no one allows me to leave that person”
— (Atiyah)


1 Atiyah’s Name Has Been Changed To Ensure Her Anonymity. Atiyah Was Interviewed As Part Of Halliki Voolma’s Phd Research.

2  The Term ‘insecure Immigration Status’ Refers To People Who Do Not Have  Indefinite Leave To Remain (Ilr) In The Uk. Ilr Is Permission To Remain  In The Uk Without Any Time Restriction On The Length Of Stay.

3  The No Recourse To Public Funding Rule, Defined Under Section 115(9) Of  The Immigration And Asylum Act 1999, Denies People With Insecure  Immigration Status Access To Any ‘public Funds’ Including Income  Support, Housing Benefit And Child Benefit.

4 Thiara, R. K., Condon, S. & Schröttle, M. (2011) ‘introduction’ In Violence Against Women And Ethnicity: Commonalities And Differences Across Europe. Germany: Barbara Budrich Publishers.

5  Basile K. C. & Black M. C. (2011). ‘intimate Partner Violence  Against Women’. In C. M. Renzetti, J. L. Edlseon & R. K. Bergen  (Eds.), Sourcebook On Violence Against Women (2nd Ed.) (Pp. 95- 110).  London: Sage Publications, Inc.

6 Last Month The Hashtag #Whyistayed Was Trending As Women Shared On Twitter And Through Blog Posts How Difficult It Was For Them To Leave An Abusive Relationship, In Response To The Janay Rice Case.

7  Basile K. C. & Black M. C. (2011). ‘intimate Partner Violence  Against Women’. In C. M. Renzetti, J. L. Edlseon & R. K. Bergen  (Eds.), Sourcebook On Violence Against Women (2nd Ed.) (Pp. 95- 110).  London: Sage Publications, Inc.

8 The  Committee’s Mandate Is To Watch Over The Progress For Women Made In  Those Countries That Are The States Parties To The 1979 Convention On  The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women.

9 Eaves Ddv Concession/Nrpf Newsletter, Issue 1, July 2014, By Eaves In Conjunction With Rights Of Women

10 Bosniak, L. (2007). ‘being Here’. Theoretical Inquiries In Law, 8 (2), 389-410. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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Halliki Voolma