I hope you enjoyed the week of International Women’s Day?
On Thursday I was at New Art Exchange in Nottingham on an intercultural panel of women working for the local community. It is estimated that over 70% of cuts so far have come out of the pockets of women. This has been taken in real term cuts in child benefit, benefits for childcare and the bedroom tax. Public service job cuts have affected more women than men too, with many women in care professions. Cuts to services for vulnerable women also have devastating effects with domestic violence, family homelessness, foodbank use and child poverty rising. The cuts affect women from new and emerging communities most of all. One of my hats in daily life is an interfaith women’s worker, at least until the funding runs out next month. I’ve searched for venues, found resources, publicized and coordinated events, been a speaker and facilitated discussions across faith and cultures. I’ve also found myself on the front line of threats caused by inhuman political choices by main parties.
Women in poverty and in Foodbank lines. Women working part-time and bringing up children alone with shame poured onto them and decreasing services to support them. Women on decreasing welfare. Women unable to access any welfare at all because of their place of origin or because they are not recognized as citizens or refugees. These are the very people targeted by hate and blame for the financial troubles of the country. Women who have experienced domestic violence like 1 in 3 women across the nation. Women who experience rising hate crime in this culture of divide and rule. Women who have services squeezed and removed. Women who soon I will not be able to help. I write this in solidarity and determination for International Women’s Day to look at the foundations of inequality in the political norms of our country.
Last year a woman from our interfaith group who I will call Mary, was taken with only what she held in her hands to a detention centre under threat of deportation and without essential medicine. Mary was easy to disappear, on paper at least. A single woman of Malawian birth who could be taken in the clothes she stood up in with no family here to protect her. Yet Mary has made the community here her family and this family have embraced her. For nearly 14 years she has volunteered her time in peace and interfaith work, in women’s empowerment and anti-violence. Mary came here to nurse but was not allowed to work or retrain without a visa she spent years fighting to get. She has experienced and overcome domestic violence. A founder member of the women’s group of the organisation I work for, she was on my interview panel. Her church has supported her and she has lived frugally with generosity of her time and skills to others. Yet she was imprisoned without adequate medicine as prescribed for her blood pressure. Her home is in Nottingham now after all these years. She was given three dates of threatened deportation while she watched others dragged off screaming and crying.
It is an unwelcome emotional merry-go-round for her friends and supporters and an emotional torture for her. To visit her I had to be fingerprinted and body searched and have my possessions locked away. In the visitors hall there were Black and Arab detainees and white guards. There was an oppressive feeling to this dynamic. Male and female guards watch over an all women prisoner population. I brought some washing essentials it took five days for her to get after processing was complete. I am proud to be British, though I was less so sitting in the visitor’s hall of Yarls Wood Detention Centre. I found it an unsettling place I cannot forget, though most of the guards were amiable enough to me. It is a prison and as a visitor I felt this too. It has a controversial history and there have been complaints of abuse.
Local Green Party members were among those who signed the petition I started. The Green Party is the only political party represented in Westminster that does not resort to blaming migration for the nation’s ills. It is the party where 50% candidates have to be women. I had to maintain a political neutrality within my role of Interfaith Women’s Worker. The women in the organisation are from many and no political parties. The petition, with hundreds of signatures, was sent to more than one recipient, a local MP and The Home Secretary, a Tory and a Labour MP. Individual emails from myself and others were also sent. From the office of the local Labour MP there was unhelpful advice to get legal representation, which of course had been done and is continuing. The Home Secretary did not reply. Aside from individuals, it appears it is only the Green Party with understanding of migration. Mary is back home but remains under threat of deportation. She regularly has to report to offices in Loughbourgh though she is given no money to do so. She is not permitted to work and still waits a legal right to stay. I share Mary’s story (with name changed for her privacy) to give a human face to migration. All too often media and political coverage makes little to no distinction between new members of our community and terrorists.
Another woman has also lived under threat of deportation since I have known her. Last week she was moved by authorities to a moldy room in Coventry after years as an active member of Nottingham communities. Months ago this happened to another woman, now living in Bradford. Most are not given welfare or allowed to work. Many live in absolute destitution, yet new members of our society are blamed for taking money and services. It is part of wider, blame the poor, the isolated and the vulnerable policies. Across the media and three mainstream parties, those who have, by choice or necessity, moved to these shores are demonized alongside those too ill to work, the underpaid and the unpaid. The funding running out for my role means less cross faith dialogue to help build communities and help bust myths and rising prejudice. It means less support for women at risk.
The name I use is my maiden name, one I am proud of. My family came from a number of different lands two and more generations ago, while one thread is traced back to the doomsday book and another name heralds from Welsh soil. My family have been migrators and survivors. My mother teaches English to overseas students yet I am sometimes asked if I am allowed to work in this country, in which all but one of my grandparents were born. It is a question I am not asked if I use my husband’s name. Blaming the ‘outsider’ or ‘newcomer’ is way of silencing vital debates on economics, social justice and environment. So is sidelining women’s rights. Too often the two come together in a toxic cocktail that poisons communities, kills off diversity, inclusion, equality and cooperation. We do need to discuss resources and use them wisely. We need to create jobs instead of seeing them squeezed by austerity measures while the bankers go back to their billions in bonuses. New and emerging communities, along with those with least money in society, are those often scapegoated for economic and job insecurities. This has happened for generations to women; our rights tied to times of economic success. It is a tried and tested tool to deflect responsibility and avoid action to remedy a system which is broken. So in solidarity, in sisterhood and brotherhood we invite you to help us work towards a fairer, shared, common good.
Antonia Zenkevitch, MA Human Security