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Between Rhetoric and Practice: Domestic Violence Against Women in the UK

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 gov.uk 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
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.


Halliki Voolma was a Cambridge Gates scholar and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies. Her doctoral research addresses the problem of intimate partner violence against immigrant women in the UK and Sweden.