International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Labour 4:02 pm, 7th March 2019

My Lords, these contributions are very brief. I know that many of us would love to talk about a much larger range of women’s activities and contributions across the world.

Today, I will limit myself to talking about a very small part of a commission I have chaired for the past 18 months, which last week published a report looking into the experiences of the most disadvantaged women in this country. They have experienced violence and abuse, chronic poverty and what has become, for them, a punitive benefits system that often compounds their problems. Without support, many such women go on to develop mental health problems and use drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma and abuse. That often leads them into a downward spiral, with some of them even facing the criminal justice system at some stage.

The commission looked into the experiences of our most disadvantaged women. As I said, many of them develop a range of other problems. It is estimated that one in 20 women in England—equivalent to about 1.2 million women—have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence throughout their lives. More than half of these have a common mental health disorder; one in three of them has an alcohol problem; and one in five has been homeless. We worked extensively with them. One of our greatest experiences was being able to pick up and train these “women with lived experiences”, as they are known, as peer researchers. They then interviewed 18 women in their own localities who were suffering from these sorts of disadvantages. They were a joy to work with, and I will come back to this.

Many women who come to this country expect to be safe and protected. They have heard us talk in positive terms about what advantages we have as women. However, their experience when they get here is far from that. Hearing from some of them made me feel ashamed. I want to give just two examples of where we really must address the needs of women who do not have settled migration status.

We were told that the hostile environment had led to women in abusive relationships without settled status fearing to report what was happening to them. They were scared to go and seek help. Often, the abusive partners would say that they would be deported if they did so. Safe pathways to reporting violence against women and girls should be created for all women, not only those of us who are confident about our position in this society.

The second example is that of the whole issue of having no recourse to public funds. This affects people who do not have settled status. Too many are denied support, which means they are unable to access help and support. They are unable to go to a refuge and they are unable to access alternative accommodation. They do not have any money and they are certainly not going to be taken on by landlords. As I say, even many refuges will deny access for that reason. They are unable to get treatment for health conditions or for what has happened to them as a result of abuse. We have to look very carefully at abolishing the rule for women in this position.

There are some really good and practical recommendations in the report—although I would say that—which is entitled Breaking Down the Barriers. I do not have time to go into them all and I hope that noble Lords will take the opportunity to read at least the executive summary.

At both the local and the national level we have to make sure that services and NGOs can work across the silos and meet the needs of individual women. We have to use and employ women with lived experience. As I say, they are a real inspiration. They are the ones who know what it is like and are therefore the best first contact with other women. We also have to extend the use of trauma-informed work. Too many women present but no one understands or recognises the consequences of abuse, so they are pushed from pillar to post, from service to service, and no one deals with the essential first thing: that they have experienced trauma as the result of violence and abuse. We have much to do on this, but it can be done. I hope that we will all work towards making a change.