Saliha, if you feel able to, please tell us about your experiences as a female victim of domestic abuse, but also with your blindness.Q
Yes, I come from a community where, growing up, I was always told that because I am blind and a woman, I could not have high aspirations or become independent. When I sought support to become free of this and to become independent, I found many barriers. There was a lack of understanding in relation to disability and issues around gender-based violence. I found that services were not accessible. There was a lack of information in accessible formats.
As a group of survivors, we come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and we have had different experiences, but, quite commonly, we have all experienced reaching out to a system that has failed to support us—a system that has been unable to meet our diverse needs and, for many of us, a system has been re-traumatising and re-victimising.
Q Thank you. The Women’s Aid campaign is a great campaign, so I am pleased to hear that you are part of it. If you are familiar with the contents of the Bill, what do you think the domestic abuse commissioner can do to help women in your position?
I think that for disabled survivors there needs to be a statutory duty conferred on all organisations to provide information in accessible formats. I support the campaign by Stay Safe East around repealing the carers’ defence clause in part 5 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which is on domestic abuse. I think that awareness-raising is a key priority for our group, because we have found a lack of awareness around these issues, both within statutory and non-statutory services.
Q Just to finish up with Saliha, through your campaigning do you think that, at the moment, in different areas—you can probably only talk about your own local authority area—there are enough specialist services available for victims with disabilities?
Q Thank you very much. Now I am going on to Somiya. Thank you very much for coming in. I have read a little bit about the story of your children and about your travels around the world to try to get back access to your children. Can you tell us about that as briefly as you can—not necessarily from the beginning, but from when you found yourself in Britain. Your ex-partner is a British citizen—is that correct?
Currently, we have applied for me to remain in the country as a parent, and we are waiting for the Home Office to make a decision. It has been eight months so far, and I am relying on support from Southall Black Sisters, because I do not have access to public funding—I have no recourse to public funds because of my immigration status. This has crippled me financially and kept me in limbo.
I do have very limited access to my children. It took me four and a half years to be able to get to common ground. My daughter was three when she was abducted; she has very little recollection of me. I could not come here because of visa constraints, as my children are British citizens and I am not, and I had to go pillar to post to be able to come to common ground and to be able to have access to my children. My daughter’s elder brothers have to remind her and to ask her, “Do you remember that this is our mother?”, and she says, “No, I can’t remember.”
Q If you do not mind my asking—please feel free to say if you do not want to answer any of the questions I ask—did you suffer violence and abuse at the hands of your ex-partner?
When I got married, it was based on cultural customs in India. I was living in Bombay, and I was 19 when I was married to a British citizen whom I did not know. I wanted to further my studies, but my parents thought differently and according to our custom. I did not want to disappoint them, so I agreed. My idea of marriage was quickly shattered, because it was not long before I began to feel that I was married to be a slave. I was the housemaid; I was there for him to use as an object to have babies. I was the nanny, and I was the nurse.
The situation soon developed into physical, emotional and financial abuse—verbal belittling at every opportunity. My husband had total financial control over me. He controlled every aspect of my life. I was strongly disallowed from making contact with my own family, which has left me isolated and alienated from my family. I was not allowed to have friends or to work outside the house, except for at the family business. I remained in the marriage because of the constant threats that if I would not conform or do as they said, my children would be taken away from me. Because of the fear of losing my children, I remained in the marriage, which lasted for 12 years.
Q Now that you are here in Britain, you have limited access through the family courts, presumably, to your children. You are fighting your immigration status. How long have you been in the immigration system, if you do not mind me asking?
Eight months now, but I would like to tell everybody that it took me three years to get to the United Kingdom. My children and I have been living with this ordeal for four and a half years. My daughter was three years old; she is seven years old today, and I have two older children who are 14 and 15 years old.
Q When you have interacted with services in the United Kingdom, do you feel that they understand the issue of abandonment across borders? I am afraid that I have seen lots of cases of women abandoned as part of the pattern of domestic abuse, and their children removed. Do you think there is any understanding of you as a victim of domestic abuse?
Not really, because there is a lack of awareness about the abandonment of spouses. Even though we are married to British citizens living abroad, we do not have any rights to remain in the country. It took me three years to try and understand how I could get on common grounds with my children. There is a lack of awareness. People do not know how to deal with convoluted cases such as this one. This has hampered me and I have lost a lot of precious time with my own children—so much so that they are alienated and it is going to be very hard work to be able to re-establish my life with my children.
Yes. Had it not been for Southall Black Sisters supporting me with their own funds and with accommodation, subsistence, money for trips, advice and help at many levels, I would not have had any chance to be able to come here after so long, to be able to be with my children, to have a life. If it wasn’t for them supporting me at many levels, I wouldn’t have been able to come here. I would have been homeless. I would have been absolutely devastated and destitute, because when my ex-husband abandoned me he left me destitute. After 12 years in my marriage, he retained all the savings, the earnings and the assets I had worked for. He deliberately left me destitute.
Q Do your children have access to any support about the situation that they have been in throughout their childhood? You might not know, but are they able to get any support through their schools?
I approached the school when I came here. My older son has special needs, but the school did not even recognise that. He had a major speech delay. He saw the abuse. As he was growing up, he saw me being abused. He was abused by the father, sometimes physically, in a very bad manner. He has been left with a lot of difficulties. I don’t think much justice is done because they need to have a lot of counselling to understand that it was no fault of mine that the children were left without their mother. It was because of the father’s choices, because the father decided to alienate the children and move away from me. He used his British passport to alienate the children from me, knowing full well that I was the only one on an Indian passport and it would take me forever to get there, because I did not have any recourse, any source of income. I had no connections in the United Kingdom whom I could rely on. He used his British passport full well.
Thank you for sharing your story. I am sure it is very difficult having to keep repeating your story, but thank you. It is very powerfulQ .
You have obviously been getting help from the Southall Black Sisters, which is good to hear. Have they or anybody else referred you to the national referral mechanism, which is for victims like you?
From what I understand, it takes forever for that system to work, and I don’t think that system works as efficiently as the pilot scheme by Southall Black Sisters. I don’t think I am an expert here and I do not understand the terminology, but what I understand is that the other system that you are referring to takes forever. It is not a system that works efficiently to the full benefit of the victim.
I really felt abandoned, even by the British state. I think they have failed me. Had there been any other channel of being here, I would have been notified by the embassies, because the embassies in the different countries that we lived in knew exactly what was happening with myself, with my children. At some point the father had abandoned the children with me in South Africa with no immigration status. The British embassy knew full well that we were in dire straits, and not much help was available, so I think I have been failed.
Quite commonly, across the board in terms of the group that I am here to represent, we have felt like the system has failed us, whether that is in the family courts or the criminal justice system. Many survivors have been failed by the criminal justice system time after time: for example, repeated failures to enforce protection orders. Even accessing legal aid has been problematic for many women. Many had to navigate the legal complexities of the system with very little support, which impacted on them both emotionally and financially.
You say that you have been failed by the system, but could you give us some specific areas where the system does not actually exist for you? You cannot be failed by a system that you do not have access to. In some areas you have no recourse to public funds. In that situation, the system does not fail you; the system does not exist for you. Is that the right way of looking at itQ ?
Yes, I agree with what you are saying. In many cases the system does not exist, but where systems do exist—for example, the family courts—women feel that so often they are not believed. For many women, it has been re-victimising and re-traumatising. One woman from the group described it as horrific, traumatic psychological warfare, and mind games that just replicated the abuse in the relationship. This is a system that exists, but also seems to fail to listen to children and to keep them safe. That is what women have reported.
Q Saliha, you heard the previous question from my colleague about referred services. Since you advocate for other people as well, is it your experience that referred services are available, accessible and easy to obtain for people in your situation and the people you represent?
Speaking from a disabled victim’s point of view, no, because the services that exist either have an understanding of issues relating to disability but no understanding of domestic abuse and gender-based violence, or it is the other way around and they understand domestic abuse but there is no awareness of disability and how they are linked.
I will keep my question very short. Somiya, given your terrible experiences, what would you like to see the new domestic abuse commissioner do to ensure that the voices of survivors of domestic abuse are brought to the front of how we respond to that challengeQ ?
Today I am speaking on behalf of everybody; I know a lot of women in a similar situation and it is my duty to speak on their behalf. The Government have this opportunity to right the wrongs and they must lift the ban on recourse to public funds. Most of the times, our perpetrators have used that to further exploit and blackmail us, because our immigration status is used against us. In my case, I did not have access to public funds and I was able to come to the United Kingdom and join my family and be with my children.
Time is also of the essence here; if we do not get help on time, it is as if we did not get help at all. No recourse to public funds should be lifted; help should be available to everybody who needs it, irrespective of their immigration status. The only qualification to be in the system to be able to obtain help should be that we are human beings and we should be treated that way, not differently because of our immigration status, and addressed with dignity and respect like anybody else has to be in this country. If somebody was born here and a resident, they would not have been treated as I would have, and this is an opportunity for everybody here to right the wrongs.
Q On the specific point about the independent commissioner to lead on and tackle domestic abuse right across the country, what impact do you think having that kind of independent person established within this legislation will have?
Sorry. The legislation we are considering would create a new independent office of domestic abuse commissioner, whose role is obviously to lead, to co-ordinate and to be an independent voice separate from Government Departments, working with charities, survivors and other interested parties. How do you think that role could also be used to ensure that the voices of survivors are heard more effectively than perhaps they have been in the past?
I think the answer lies in your question. The voices of the people who need to be heard, and of those who are affected, have not been heard so far. The voice of everybody affected must be heard. The independent commissioner who is going to be appointed will have to raise many issues, some of them related to the immigration barriers. With all the barriers that we as immigrants have, and not being able to access recourse to public funds, I think more understanding would help them understand how to make changes to the Bill, and what is required.
When I was struggling and was pleading for help from a number of NGOs, both in South Africa and in the United Kingdom, I was told in South Africa that they could no longer help me because the children were British citizens, and then living in the United Kingdom I was told they could not help me because I was not a British citizen. Then, after exchanging a lot of correspondences with organisations and NGOs in the United Kingdom, a family law firm based in London got in touch with me. Legal aid was granted after a very long struggle, and legal proceedings began. Eventually, my immigration solicitors connected me with Southall Black Sisters, because I had to be here but I had nowhere to stay, no source of income, and nothing to rely on.
I think they were referred by one of the organisations, called Indian Ladies UK, because I had been exchanging correspondences with hundreds of organisations in the United Kingdom. For the three-year period that my children were abducted until the family law firm in London found me, I did a lot of work on my level to research and find help, and that is how Southall Black Sisters got in touch with me.
My advice to other women in an abusive situation would be that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is help available out there; there are organisations such as Women’s Aid that can provide support. For the survivors out there, communities may say that we brought shame, but I always say their shame is our honour, and that is what we hold on to every single day.
That is a very good note on which to end this session. We are almost at the end of it anyway, so I thank both of this session’s witnesses very warmly on behalf of the Committee. As has been said, coming to give personal testimony of this kind is a very brave thing to do, so we really do appreciate it. Thank you very much. We will move on to the next session.