‘Backlash: The Hidden War on Women in the UK’ – 1st Nov 2006, London

On the 1st November at the Amnesty International Headquarters in London, the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC) held a night called Backlash, a film and speaker event, as part of the current Why Women? campaign. The WRC is an umbrella body which supports women’s organisations and helps to maintain solid networks between them throughout the UK. The Why Women? campaign is an extension of the WRC’s daily work and with it they hope to raise awareness of the importance of all the work women’s organisations do and the vital need there is for that work because of the high levels of discrimination women still regularly face. Too many people in the UK are under the misconception that gender equality has long been achieved – but the work of women’s organisations proves otherwise and Why Women? is calling on the government to stop under-valuing and massively under-funding these organisations. Why Women? is calling loud and firm for women’s human rights to be put back on the political and public agenda.

The event featured numerous speakers from different groups and organisations around the country: Liz Kelly, chair of the End Violence against Women campaign and Woman Abuse Studies unit, Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse from FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development), a group of young women running a self-help group on self-harm called Girls XPress, Beatriz Concejo from Object: Women not Sex Objects, and Darlene Corry and Laura Mitchison from the WRC. Some of the films were made by these groups, with others from Amnesty, the Poppy Project, The Women’s Library, Womankind and Birds Eye View Films.

So a real range of people attended Backlash, all of whom raised very different kinds of issues surrounding violence and violation – domestic violence, female genital mutilation, ‘honour’ killings, objectification in the media – revealing the problems women face in the UK to be multiple and specific. What every one of them pointed towards, though, were severe gaps in public consciousness, political consciousness, and the law, gaps that can be found at the root of every single case of discrimination.

Women’s Organisations: Filling a Void

Once upon a time in the early 1960s there were no easily accessible health clinics, safe spaces or support networks for women – places where women could go to escape work and family life, talk and ask questions about their physical and mental health. It was solely thanks to the movement of women now known as second-wave feminists that women were actively encouraged to understand their choices and rights, to take control of their lives, and women’s organisations are a direct product of that; in different ways, they seek to fill spaces in society, as counselling services, training projects, campaigning organisations, refuges, rape crisis centres and more.

Yet today, it sometimes feels as if the rights those women once fought for, and the consciousness levels they raised, have been reversed, or at least face the threat of becoming reversed in the future. Just the day before the Backlash event took place, the conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, introduced her 10-minute-rule bill, proposing to reduce the time limit on abortion in the UK down to 21 weeks, from 24 weeks as it currently stands. Women’s rights groups of the sixties fought hard for a woman’s right to choose abortion and this bill can surely be seen as nothing more than a chipping away of those rights; this is especially considering the fact that abortion laws are already more restricting in the UK than they are in most other European countries and of the very few women who do have an abortion at 24 weeks, most do so under exceptional personal circumstances. So the battle to defend women’s liberty goes on.

Consider too the fact that, according to a 2005 Home Office Report, 45% of women experience domestic violence, sexual abuse or stalking during their lifetime [quoted in this report from the Women’s Resource Centre]. That means there are thousands of women in this country who are suffering some form of gender-based violence or discrimination every day – women who have a real need, whether for mental support, medical advice, guidance through the procedures of law or an organisation that is committed to representing them and advocating their rights. Their needs are complex, requiring particular specialist kinds of knowledge and care – exactly the kind of thing that countless numbers of women’s organisations are doing right now. But how many people know what these needs are and how they’re being provided for? How many people know about the realities of the work women’s organisations do?

Southall Black Sisters – For Justice, Equality and Freedom

Since 1979, Southall Black Sisters, a not-for-profit organisation, has been working tirelessly to meet the needs of black (Asian and African-Caribbean) women. As counsellors and campaigners, they have been at the forefront of the struggle for black women’s rights for nearly three decades. One of the key campaigns they are currently involved in proposes that the government amend the ‘domestic violence immigration rule’ (as part of the wider Domestic Violence Bill) which, as it stands, does not include protection against domestic violence for all women subject to immigration control. They also propose that the ‘no recourse to public funds rule’ be reformed to give all victims of domestic violence entitlement to financial support and safe accommodation.

Here’s an example of just one type of scenario in which a woman can currently find herself unprotected by the law: A woman comes to the UK on the basis of a marriage or a relationship with a British citizen, very possibly hoping to leave behind experiences of violence or injustice in another country (half of the women who seek asylum in this country have already been raped) but, upon arrival, becomes subject to domestic violence here too. By law, she must undergo a probationary period, at the end of which, if her spouse or partner supports it, she can apply for indefinite leave to remain. This period used to be for one year but in 2003 it was extended to two. If she decides that the relationship has broken down during this time, and seeks help, she is likely to be removed from the UK, unless she can provide authorities with evidence of domestic violence. Bearing in mind that domestic violence does not always have any visible signs, on top of the fact that if deported, she might be going back to further violence, there are clearly crucial gaps in the current law that do not allow for her adequate protection. Even if she could be sure that the authorities would not decide to deport her – she could provide the required evidence say – limitations on public funds mean that she might be forced to remain in the violent relationship anyway for fear of destitution.

There seems to be a general assumption floating around that women do not leave abusive partners because of psychological dependency, boosting the image of women as downtrodden victims unable or unwilling to help themselves. What the evidence from Southall Black Sisters shows is that women’s situations are not always that clear-cut, and many more would most likely leave their abusive partners if they had access to the right vital economic freedoms. Southall Black Sisters has proven that ultimately, the main pillar on which women’s gender inequality is based is always economic.

Southall Black Sisters is just one of many organisations around the country dealing with serious and specific women’s issues with real professionalism.

Celebrating the Grassroots: Taking Control

It’s a pretty bleak story, but actually the Backlash event was just as much about celebration as it was about facing facts. It was a celebration of grassroots action and the results that are being achieved now – not just a look towards the results they hope to achieve in the future. At the end of the night, the WRC showed a short film about women’s organisations in conjunction with their campaign. It was made on a shoestring budget by people who worked or volunteered for the WRC, all novice filmmakers. Not only is it a good campaign idea – they handed out free copies of the film to everyone who attended the event in the hope that they would show it to friends, family or put on screenings of their own – but it’s also an interesting film in its own right. All the women who work in the various organisations seem to possess a certain quality – a quality you could visibly see in speakers throughout the night – and the Why Women? film fully captures it on screen. It’s got something to do with self-possession, self belief; these women have access to their voices and the diversity of their voices, and the filmmakers showed they possess those qualities too, in choosing to ask questions and investigate in the first place.

Besides overtly political acts like campaigning, grassroots refers to personal action as well. So too, besides the women in organisations, other women were represented at Backlash – those who visit the centres, form independent groups like Girls XPress and those who have no direct contact with women’s organisations whatsoever – all of whom showed that same strength, resilience, articulacy. Even if they had been forced into the position of victim at some point in their lives, the different organisations seem to have allowed them to access those qualities of strength, not as something entirely new, but as something they had within them already. Some of the women from Her Centre – Domestic Violence Support Group spoke about it in the film:

“The thing I most get from the group is my sanity back.”

“When I’m here I’m confident, I can just speak, because for many years I’ve had to keep quiet – I’ve had to shut up my whole life.”

“It feels like going to the doctor’s and getting some medicine – that’s how I feel about it. I feel like I’m taking care of myself by coming.”

If grassroots means the ground work or source of something then that’s what seems to be one of the crucial things to come out of women’s organisations; they help women to help themselves, to know that they can take control of their lives as independent self-sufficient women, and have the right to live those lives without fear or threat.

Breaking the Cycle: A Call-Out for Change

Women’s organisations will remain grassroots because it is the only way to access and understand the needs of the women they work with; but the results they achieve this way will not lead to permanent eradication at the roots of injustice without widespread awareness of gender inequality, and without adequate reliable funding from government and donors. As Sheila Coates from the South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre points out in the Why Women? film, women and girls are passed over to these groups by every other statutory and voluntary agency anyway, bypassing the NHS, and saving the government a lot of money; they’re being used for their services but not recompensed for it – and they should be.

Most likely one of the main reasons why women’s organisations are not getting the support they need is owing to the existence of gender discrimination in the first place. After all, only 19.5% of MPs are women and only 2 of those are ethnic minorities. Not to suggest that it is only individual women in the government who are capable of showing an awareness of the issues and of doing something about it – certainly individual men are capable of it too – but the very fact that there are so few women in government, and even fewer ethnic minority women, is surely yet another example of just how prevalent gender discrimination still is in this country. The irony is that the very injustices women’s organisations bring to light in other women’s lives, they suffer from too; indeed it’s all across the board. Once again, the biggest factor holding women back from full independence and control over their lives is economic. Without money or power, changes are much harder to make.

It’s a vicious cycle, but one that continues to be fought and with results. The women who came to this event to speak, the women who made the films and those who were in them, the women who work in the organisations and those who visit them, the women who support the campaign and those who are interested in the issues – all play an important part in the struggle for women’s human rights and an end to violence and discrimination. There are many people committed to achieving gender equality but without the necessary combination of awareness, money and support their efforts cannot be maintained.

The writer is predictably preoccupied with her tail of unfortunate letters

[This post was updated in February 2019 to remove the writer’s name]