Across the UK there is a hidden population of some of the most vulnerable people in society. To say in society is a little bit misleading though because to be in western society there are common privileges and rights we share. These are access to things like bank accounts, health and welfare services, communications and public facilities. Some migrant women have none of these.
A new migrant women's vulnerability can be obscured by a dangerous view that cultural norms determine how women live and circumstances cannot be changed. It is of course not unusual for a woman to stay at home while a husband or partner goes out to work, especially if she's a mother of young children. However a woman needs to be able to act independently if things go wrong. A women on her own needs money, communication and the knowledge of where to go for help and advice. Without this she is at risk.
Some women may get help at a point of crisis, perhaps when the police intervene in domestic abuse or she becomes homeless. It takes skilled service providers enable her to integrate into society and stay safe, and in my experience we have a long way to go.
I have known mothers attend Child in Need meetings without an interpreter, women who don't know how to access education, women who have never been to the GP without a husband to translate for her and women with no friends or family to depend on. Even when services step-up, pull together and are switched on to the needs of these women, sooner or later they will hit a wall. The UK benefits system.
As the benefits system has become more difficult to access, EU migrant women and children have become more marginalised. This is because the system doesn't allow EU migrants to claim certain benefits unless they have paid National Insurance contributions or lived in the UK for 5 years or more.
Despite a legal system which acts to keep separated families in contact, a woman and her children can be put on a plane to return to their country or origin, regardless of whether the father lives and works in the UK. She may also find herself homeless, exploited or in other circumstances that no woman, particularly one with children, should find themselves.
When a working father can use his earned entitlements to support himself and a wife and mother in a caring role has none, the progress made towards gender equality starts drowning in a sea of poor policy making.
At the moment there are a few and small life rafts. If services are switched on enough to help women access them, a woman can find work and then be eligible for some essential allowances and credits, she can also approach places like children's centres and advice services and get paid child benefit. If we leave the EU this could change.
Having spent time with women in these circumstances and felt a palpable sense of exactly how vulnerable they are, I am worried. Whatever side of the ship people are standing on it is essential to recognise the domino effect of policy change and where the last one falls it will hit the most vulnerable. Progress is giving the same rights and protection to everyone and leaving the EU could leave EU migrant women and their children destitute. This is gender discrimination and I'm sure you'll agree, is not a society we want to create.Suggest a correction