Believe her!

Afghani women wearing a veil c. UNHCR R.Arnold

As one proud, brave woman who stunned a bunch of MPs she spoke to in 2006 said ‘women must be believed’!

On a weekly basis, our service staff at Scottish Refugee Council encounter women who have sat in silence about their experiences of rape, assault and sexual violence, both from the countries they have fled and on our own Scottish soil.

The deafening silence of fear and doubt

Women remain silent because of fear, distrust and the lack of understanding shown to them by the asylum system.  Women wonder if they will be believed.   And their experience of abuse before and within the asylum system only fuels this doubt.

Recent research findings were a wakeup call for us, and other services, to enable women to take the time to tell their stories. Equally as crucial is conveying the importance of telling their experiences, though incredibly difficult, to the UK Border Agency (UKBA).

Will they be believed? The answer is no, they have not always been believed.

So, what’s next?

I call for the full implementation of the recommendation from the independent Chief Inspector of Immigration's 2009 report on asylum. This recommends that ‘UKBA invites refugees to contribute to its training programme for Case Owners to reinforce how the asylum process affects individual asylum applicants.’

Through this cultural evolution, decision makers would gain a broader understanding and women going through their services should then receive fair and just treatment.

But it doesn’t stop there:

  • All women in Scotland, not just those who have a right to live in Scotland, should be treated as citizens with access to appropriate services.
  • Women should be believed when they report experiences of rape and sexual violence.
  • Decision makers need to carefully listen to women and look beyond only physical evidence.  This is particularly important when considering that for a woman seeking asylum, the onus is on her is to prove that rape, trauma and sexual violence has happened to her.   This is challenging from both the physical and emotional sense – though outwardly signs and scarring may have healed, the emotional turmoil and the hurt remains.

Breaking the silence

As part of our newly funded Comic Relief project, we are proud to be spearheading a programme of work in Scotland that aims to improve the treatment of refugee women and women in the asylum process.

Refugee women’s voices will be at the centre of the work to build a platform among other Scottish Women’s organisations, and both governments, to ensure women’s needs are understood.

We are committed to working to shatter the silence and enable women to have a voice to influence changes needed to the asylum system, including the way it mistreats some of its most vulnerable applicants.

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(1) Comments

  • Shakti Women's Aid
    09 December 2010, 12:45

    This is a very important recommendation for SRC to make and for the UKBA and policy-makers to listen to.

    As our main base is in Edinburgh, Shakti Women’s Aid does not have contact with as many women caught within the asylum system but we do support many migrant women from all corners of the world. Many are fearful of speaking up about abuse for various reasons but often we see fear stemming from a perception of “shaming” family or community (and of the reactions of family or community) both in the UK or back home, or a lack of awareness that She has a basic right to not be a victim of cruel treatment and torture. Recognising She is a victim of rape and sexual assault in the first place is not always straight forward; finally managing to harness the courage to speak out about her experiences should mean being offered the support needed, not further victimization. Women made to return to their country of origin can face being cast out by family or community, or much worse.

    Sadly even women who have been granted permission by the state to stay in Scotland or the UK often do not have their full human rights guaranteed, particularly if they are a victim of domestic abuse. An increasing number of women and their children contacting Shakti have the immigration status of “No Recourse to Public Funds” which means if she experiences abuse at the hands of a partner (British citizen or not) She faces destitution if she chooses to leave, without access to many of the benefits vital to helping her and her children survive and reestablish their lives. For women who are trying to escape oppression and gender-based abuse within their own country as well as within their own relationships only to be faced with more patriarchy and bias, it must be difficult to keep any hope alive.

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