Members of the UK’s largest Indian migrant women’s group gathered outside the headquarters of Britain’s biggest police force on Thursday (11 May) to protest the repeated police failures in protecting vulnerable migrant women.
The protestors – from Indian Ladies in UK (ILUK) – made impassioned pleas for police forces across the country to improve awareness of the unique circumstances faced by migrant women. They also implored those in positions of authority and power to address the serious lack of understanding in how to handle cases of the physical, emotional and psychological violence endured by these individuals.
These victims’ circumstances present unique challenges – they are in an entirely alien environment; they lack a support network; their visa status means that they are often unable to access public services; language and cultural barriers mean that, quite often, reporting abuse is as terrifying as experiencing it; above all, a lack of understanding of the law and their legal rights hampers their ability to obtain help and support.
Among those participating in the demonstration was ‘Pallavi’ (name changed to protect victim’s anonymity), a young woman originally from Indore in Madhya Pradesh who moved to the UK in 2017 after marrying a British citizen. Soon after she began suffering abuse at the hands of her husband, the only person that she knew and relied on in the UK. After months of mental, emotional and physical abuse she was locked out of her marital home with no family, no support. She was left homeless and without any possessions. When she reached out to the police for help – at the very least to retrieve her personal belongings – they refused even to register a complaint.
Pallavi became emotional at the demonstration, repeatedly telling the officers there: “You failed me! When I was out on the streets alone, abandoned by my husband and with no support, you failed me! When I was being threatened repeatedly by my husband’s family, you didn’t even register a complaint. You failed me!”
Another victim, Sunita, described how she had been thrown out of her marital home – which she shared with her husband and two children. She was falsely accused of being “mentally ill”, a favourite refrain of the perpetrators, and sent to a mental asylum, only to be released within hours after doctors found nothing mentally wrong with her.
When she reached out to police, they once again failed to register a complaint and refused to help in any way.
This inability to provide assistance has led to organizations like ILUK having to take matters into their own hands. ILUK founder Poonam Joshi, who led the demonstration, said: “The worst part of my work is having to help women whose lives have been destroyed by the men they have entrusted their lives, only for them to be repeatedly let down by a policing and justice system that treats them like second class citizens. The times where I have had to call police officers and remind them of the rights that women have or to coerce police forces to offer help are countless. Also, we have been forced to take the law into our own hands because the situation has become so desperate and it is US having a word of warning with husbands to let them know about the protections and rights of women.
“Tens of thousands of women have been put at risk because of the widespread failure of police forces across the country to tackle domestic violence. These failures are doubly damaging to first generation migrants because they not only have to contend with the trauma of abuse but then have to deal with a system that lacks understanding of the support that they require and urgently need.
“Often the default position is to take the abuser’s word at face value because these particular victims are unable to articulate what they are going through and are unable, unwilling or too fearful to demand their rights – either because they just aren’t aware or through cultural factors. We need a dramatic change in police attitudes, empathy and education of officers who deal with these victims.”
Another supporter, Bhavini Patel, articulated the unique burden carried by these victims. “Police don’t realize the emotional labour that we carry as migrant women. Communities don’t realize the extra burden of being migrants in a foreign land, to be able to contend all those challenges while also dealing with abuse. These women are extraordinary and while they have the support of their sisters, the justice system needs to do far more and far better to help them. It’s just not good enough at the moment”.
Joining members of ILUK at the demonstration – many of whom left work early to participate in solidarity with victims – were representatives of Sikh Women’s Aid, another community organization that helps victims of domestic abuse victims across the West Midlands.