Action needed to address racism faced by victims of VAWG accused of offending, say campaigners

Campaign groups are calling for action to address racism and sexism faced by black, Asian, minoritised and migrant victims of violence against women and girls (VAWG) who are accused of offending.

Jul 5, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: Hibiscus Initiatives

Figures show that nearly 60 per cent of women in prison and under community supervision by probation services are victims of domestic abuse, and for many this is directly linked to using force against their abuser.

Campaigners say women and girls from ‘minority ethnic’ groups are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice system, with black women twice as likely as white women to be arrested.

They want to see improved training and guidance for police to respond to incidents linked to abuse in a “gender-informed way”.

A quarter of girls and nearly a fifth of young women prosecuted in 2021 were from ‘minority ethnic’ groups.

Today (July 5) MPs will debate action needed to ensure the fair treatment of black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women and girls who are victims of domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence, and who find themselves in court as a result.

Kate Osamor, Labour MP for Edmonton, has applied for the debate and will call on the Government to explain how it intends to tackle gaps in law and practice that lead to unfair treatment of black, Asian, minoritised and migrant victims of VAWG.

Specialist charities supporting the debate argue that effective defences are needed for victims of domestic abuse who use force against their abuser, and for those who are coerced into offending.

They are calling for culture change, improvements in training and guidance for police, prosecutors, judges and magistrates, and safeguards to ensure victims’ experience of VAWG is properly taken into account in decisions to arrest, prosecute, convict or sentence them for offences linked to the abuse.

They point out that black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women can “receive particularly unfair treatment”.

Evidence suggests women are three times more likely to be arrested than their male partners at a domestic abuse incident involving counter-allegations, often where they have used force to protect themselves from further harm from their abuser.

Around half of arrests of women for alleged violence result in no further action, which the charities say “highlights the need for the police to respond to incidents of alleged violence in a gender-informed way”.

“Some women are coerced into offending by abusive partners, or face malicious allegations, as abusers use the criminal justice system as a way of extending control over their victim,” they said. “Migrant women with spousal visas or who are undocumented are particularly vulnerable to this form of abuse.”

The debate is supported by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) and the Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership, which consists of six specialist charities focused on women and criminal justice – Hibiscus Initiatives, Agenda Alliance, Women in Prison, Zahid Mubarek Trust, Muslim Women in Prison Project and Criminal Justice Alliance.

It aims to draw attention to the wider inequalities faced by black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women in contact with the criminal justice system, as highlighted in a report published today by the Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership.

Its ‘One Year On’ report reviews progress since publication of its Ten-point Action Plan in January 2022, to achieve equal treatment and outcomes for racially minoritised and migrant women in contact with the criminal justice system. The report finds that activity to achieve change has been limited and piecemeal, lacking an overarching strategic approach, and with no evidence so far of improvements in outcomes for women.

In some respects the picture has worsened, the report finds, with evidence of racism and sexism in the police, police-perpetrated violence against women and girls, and measures in the Nationality and Borders Act and Illegal Migration Bill, which limit the rights of migrant and trafficked women and widen the net of criminalisation.

In addition, as well as being victims of gender-based violence and exploitation, the majority of women in contact with the criminal justice system are experiencing multiple disadvantage, including mental health needs, problematic substance use and poverty.

The CWJ estimates at least 57 per cent of women in prison and under community supervision are victims of domestic abuse. It says the true figure is likely to be much higher because of barriers to women disclosing abuse . Around 63 per cent of girls and young women (16–24) serving sentences in the community have experienced rape or domestic abuse in an intimate partner relationship, says CWJ.

Ms Osamor said: “This debate is a real opportunity to draw attention to how many victims of domestic violence who due to their abuse themselves are accused of offending are unjustly drawn into the criminal justice system.

“I look forward to seeing many other parliamentarians at the debate to raise awareness and urge the Government to undertake reforms to stop this unfair criminalisation.”

Ghadah Alnasseri, head of Policy and Public Affairs at Hibiscus Initiatives, said: “Encountering gender inequality and racism is all too common for black, Asian and minoritised women, as well as migrant women who have experienced VAWG and are in contact with the criminal justice system. However, I firmly believe that these challenges can be overcome.

“We have provided recommendations to ensure that these women receive equal and fair treatment and outcomes. We have collaborated with policymakers and practitioners to press for implementation of these recommendations and have placed the lived experiences of these women at the forefront of our efforts to improve policy and practices that affect them. Our goal is to enable these women to share their stories and experiences at a strategic level.

“Despite some progress in addressing these issues, the efforts have been limited and disjointed. A comprehensive strategic approach is necessary to create meaningful improvements in outcomes for these women.”

Sofia Buncy MBE DL, Director of Muslim Women in Prison project, said its work with Muslim women in the criminal justice system clearly points to “an overwhelming prevalence of domestic abuse, violence and coercion in the lives of these women”.

“There are very few outlets for safe disclosure without being deemed to be dishonorable or understanding how to confidently access support,” she said. “These experiences continue to blight Muslim women’s life chances to move forward to a place of safety without fear of reprisal.”

Indy Cross, chief executive of Agenda Alliance, said the inequalities experienced by black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women in the criminal justice system “are unacceptable”, adding: “At every stage of the system these women are over-represented, let down and their needs are overlooked.

“Agenda’s research shows that it is too often women’s experience of trauma and abuse which drives women’s criminalisation, yet survivors of violence accused of offending do not have their experiences of violence taken into account by law. Instead, black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women face further abuse and vulnerability within the criminal justice system as they tackle the ‘double disadvantage’ of gender inequality and racism.

“Although steps have been taken to address this, our briefing shows that not enough progress has been made. Serious and urgent action is needed now to ensure the fair treatment of black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence.”

The charities say reforms to ensure victims of VAWG are treated fairly when suspected of offending must specifically address the additional barriers to justice faced by black, minoritised and migrant women, such as:

  • Barriers to disclosing abuse, including migrant women’s fear of destitution and deportation due to the lack of a firewall between police and immigration authorities; racially minoritised women’s lack of trust in the authorities to protect them from abuse; community dynamics and cultural and religious constraints for some women, including concepts of honour and shame; fear of violent reprisals; fear of isolation and social ostracism; and concerns about the impact of disclosure on children and siblings who may be stigmatised.
  • Poor quality interpreting and translation leading to misunderstanding or lack of information about the context of abuse in which alleged offending occurred.
  • Lack of cultural competency and discriminatory attitudes on the part of criminal justice agencies leading to failures to recognise abuse or to understand its relationship to alleged offending, and susceptibility to cultural and racial myths and stereotypes.

Women were sent to prison on 4,932 occasions in the year to March 2022 – either on remand or to serve a sentence. Most women are imprisoned on short sentences, and most are imprisoned for non-violent offences.

The CWJ says rates of self-harm in women’s prisons have risen by 20 per cent in the past decade. An estimated 17,000 children experience their mother’s imprisonment each year, while 600 pregnant women, on average, are held in prison annually.

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