In 2011 Engender worked with a group of asylum seeking women in Glasgow, who we contacted through UMOJA INC, a Glasgow based charity that works with asylum seekers. Beaten and raped, and in fear of further sexual and physical violence the women we spoke to had fled to the UK, in the hope that they would be granted asylum.
The women told similar stories from different lands, stories of lives blighted by persecution of women by men, in countries where gendered violence has permeated the systems of law and order to the extent that the man who rapes and beats you is often the man to whom raping and beating is reported. Or his brother, or his friend.
Individuals perpetrate the crimes, but each man has a faceless queue of other men stood alongside him who could have been your rapist, your persecutor. The violence is systemic, the perpetrators interchangeable.
As much as the violence, these women are fleeing countries where the existence of systemic discrimination and persecution of women is denied, despite the evidence that they carry on their bodies and in their minds. The women we worked with fought their way to our shores, to Scotland, to Glasgow, in the hope that they would now be believed. In the hope that the UK would listen to their stories, document their scars, help them to heal, and to live a secure life in a country that values women and doesn’t collude with the perpetrators of violence.
But the hopes of the women in the UMOJA INC group were in vain, as are the hopes of many of the 7000 women a year who seek asylum in the UK.
The UK Border Agency does not recognise gender-based persecution. As these women told us about their struggle to tell their stories, in a language other than their own, using an asylum system that seems to be purposefully hard to understand and to negotiate, they explained the pain and frustration of realising that you are telling your story to people who say that the crime from which you run does not exist.
Engender used the learning from research with this group of asylum women to inform a Roundtable discussion that included representatives from the UK Border Agency, and to call for the asylum process to be gendered.
As such, we fully support the Women’s Asylum Charter campaign, run by Asylum Aid and Oxfam, to ensure that the UK government responds with fairness and compassion to women whose rights have been abused overseas, when they apply for asylum in the UK.
At present the UK’s violence against women strategy barely acknowledges the violence experienced by the women who apply for asylum here every year. It does not recognise that our current asylum processes leave these women vulnerable to further sexual and physical abuse, by returning them to their countries of origin, case unproven, or by forcing them to live in the margins of society whilst they wait for a verdict, vulnerable and unsupported.
Please join the Charter campaign and help make the UK a place of safety and respect for women fleeing systemic violence. You’ll find everything you need to lobby your MP in support of this campaign. The campaign ends at the end of September, so please hurry.
We’ll write further on this topic after a second Roundtable meeting that we have planned for October 2012, where we will bring together key players in Scotland and the UK to discuss further how the asylum process can begin to support the women it currently fails.