Natalie Bloomer and Samir Jeraj report on the campaign to keep the London Black Women’s Project running its specialist refuge service in east London.
When Isha (not her real name) came to the UK to marry her fiancé, she did so with dreams of starting a happy new life. The reality that awaited her was more of a nightmare.
Her husband controlled every aspect of her life and was also physically abusive. The only place she was allowed to go without him was to work, but if she was even 10 minutes late home, he would become angry. He controlled her money and would regularly check her phone and emails.
“It was such a dark time. He was physically, emotionally and financially abusive,” she says. “It was like slavery, I had nothing. I wasn’t even allowed to go to church and meet my country people. I had nothing and no-one.”
A little under a year after the marriage, Isha escaped. She managed to call the National Domestic Violence Helpline, which referred her to a refuge in Newham, east London, run by the London Black Women’s Project (LBWP). She has been living there for several months.
“The people here understand my background and culture. They have helped with everything from food and clothing to my immigration application. I am very scared about what will happen if they [LBWP] are not allowed to continue here”Isha
“I can’t explain how much they’ve helped, this place is like a palace to me,” she says. “Now I am free I can start to think about tomorrow and make plans for my future.”
LBWP provides specialist services for black and minority ethnic (BME) women who are facing violence. The refuges it runs in Newham are a vital part of those services.
But, last month, the organisation lost its tender to continue the work it does there. Instead, Newham Council has decided that a non-specialist organisation will take over the running of the refuges.
“We know that BME women prefer to use specialist services,” Gurpreet Virdee, former director of LBWP, says. “There is an assumption across the country that BME women will use any service that is available, but that just isn’t the case. There’s a real risk that a lack of specialist services could deter them from seeking help.”
As part of a research project by the organisation Imkaan, BME groups in various parts of the country were asked about their experience of commissioning and funding.
The feedback suggested that commissioning processes were failing BME organisations and did not recognise the added value that specialist providers bring.
Freedom of Information requests by Novara Media showed that BME women’s refuges in London alone lost between 45% and 52% of their annual funding from local authorities between 2009 and 2016.
For Isha, the fact that the refuge she turned to was run by a specialist service, was vital.
“The people here understand my background and culture,” she says. “They have helped with everything from food and clothing to my immigration application. I am very scared about what will happen if they [LBWP] are not allowed to continue here.”
The campaign to save the service is gathering momentum. Earlier this week, groups from across London came together to protest outside the council’s office with signs that read: “We can not live without our spaces” and “Stop shutting us down”.
An online petition has attracted more than 2,000 signatures and there has been support from other women’s organisations.
“Refuge services led ‘by and for’ black and minority women have often been hardest hit,” Janet McDermott, head of membership at Women’s Aid, says. “It is essential that specialist BME services like London Black Women’s Project in Newham remain funded so that they can continue to deliver their life-saving work which cannot be replicated by non-specialist services.”
“We know that BME women prefer to use specialist services… There’s a real risk that a lack of specialist services could deter them from seeking help”Gurpreet Virdee
LWBP says that, although the other support it provides will continue, the loss of the specialist refuge service will have a huge impact on some of the most vulnerable women. The group is now calling for the council to review and reverse the decision.
A spokeswoman for Newham Council told Byline Times that it has a legal responsibility to re-procure services when existing contractual arrangements are coming to end: “A key requirement of the procurement process is that a detailed equality impact assessment is undertaken to ensure the ‘decision’ complies with the council’s legal responsibilities and that any impact, positive or negative, as a result of a proposed decision is fully considered and mitigated against.
“There is no change to the level of refuge provision sought in the current procurement activity; it is the same level as is provided now.”