Shortly after coming into government, the Coalition published its plans to try and end violence against women and girls. Two years on, are we finally going to see a meaningful commitment to the thousands of women it almost entirely missed out?
The Coalition's Violence Against Women and Girls strategy is an ambitious document. Launched in November 2010, its commitments range across government departments to promise action for women and girls in the UK and overseas. "No level of violence against women and girls is acceptable in modern Britain or anywhere else in the world," declares the foreword. Joint-badged by a Conservative home secretary and a Lib Dem minister for equalities, the strategy document has all the hallmarks of those breezy, confident days early in the Coalition.
The route from policy promise to concrete action is often a rocky one, of course, but political will is still crucial. A "cohesive and comprehensive" response to violence against women, as the strategy bills itself, can help direct resources where they are needed. It can save lives. And the government will report on its progress this November, to mark the international day for the elimination of violence against women.
Which brings us on to women seeking asylum - women who are already in fear for their lives, and who have fled halfway across the world to try and find safety. Around 7,000 women claim asylum in the UK in their own right each year. Not only have the majority of these women experienced sexual violence before they reach the UK, but the evidence is clear that they face an increased risk of sexual exploitation and abuse once here. In the dry language of an excellent recent report by Oxfam, "transactional sex" is a way of life for some women asylum seekers, provided in exchange "for meals, cash, shelter, or other daily necessities". Yet the government's strategy is almost entirely silent on how best to protect them.
Of the 100 'actions' promised in the Violence Against Women document, just one refers to asylum-seeking women and the duties of the UK Border Agency. Buried away in the middle pages, it concludes with a rather grubby caveat: the asylum system "is dedicated to being as gender sensitive as possible". It is a loophole which renders the commitment largely meaningless. Who defines what is 'possible' - and thus where political expediency might start to trump the rights of women - is left unclear.
It is a lack of clarity with a harrowing human cost. Asylum Aid, the charity for whom I work, sees this daily. Accounts of persecution by women are routinely rejected on the most tenuous grounds. We have assisted women who have fled their home countries after being raped by state officials yet found themselves homeless on the streets of the UK. Pregnant women are hurried off to immigration detention centres, where healthcare provision remains sketchy at best.
Not every woman will be granted refugee status in the UK, but every woman should be assured a basic level of safety and dignity while they seek protection here. There is a catalogue of steps that need to be sharpened up at every stage. No woman should be expected to disclose intimate details in front of a room full of strangers, for example, or to male interviewers or interpreters; under these circumstances, it's hardly surprising that relevant information isn't always provided as quickly as officials would like. Asylum decisions, which are disproportionately poor for women, must be drastically improved. We need to see an end to the flimsy arguments sometimes erected in order to reject accounts of rape, torture and other persecution, often in the face of accessible, independent evidence. Much smarter use of the public funds dedicated to asylum work has a critical part to play, too, in ensuring better decisions.
But these issues should not be picked up piecemeal, as and when they are drawn to the government's attention. Guided by an overarching change in culture, the Border Agency needs to start considering gender at the strategic heart of its work. The rights of women should play a part in asylum policy across the board, in precisely the "cohesive and comprehensive" way promised for other women in the UK and beyond.
There is a template for this work. The Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum was founded in 2008 by charities and NGOs who had seen too many women left vulnerable and exposed. The Charter's call for gender-sensitive reforms to the asylum system is now endorsed by more than 300 organisations across the country, and lays out an efficient, joined-up asylum system which meets the needs of the women who might turn to it. Whether this approach is taken up or not, the hesitant, passing reference to asylum in current plans just won't do.
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