The UK’s Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, 2019 has been described as a ‘landmark’ piece of legislation. This recognition is due in part to the Bill’s extension of the definition of ‘domestic abuse’ to include ‘economic abuse’. However, due to recent political events pertaining to Brexit, the Bill has been side-lined and we have now entered the pre-election period where no major legislation can be passed. Following the election, it is imperative that the Bill is brought back. However, it should be amended to address the more vulnerable position of women in immigrant and other minority communities.
Once enacted, the success of the law will depend on its ability to address and overcome the barriers to reporting economic abuse. In its current form, the Bill relies on individuals to report abuse. From an intersectional perspective, the self-reporting requirements of the Bill fell short of providing support to women from minority and immigrant communities on several bases.
First, some cultural norms among South Asian communities place a stigma on seeking help outside of the family, preferring to deal with private issues within the family. This makes it difficult to report abuse and access official support. Women who migrate to the UK after getting married are sometimes cut-off from their support networks in their home countries and there is evidence that they are vulnerable to economic and other forms of exploitation and abuse. This isolation is compounded by the fact that women from certain ethnic minority groups are often not taken seriously by official services. This response is informed by harmful stereotypes and assumptions that draw on notions of acceptance of abuse within a specific community—assuming ‘it’s a cultural thing’ or that ‘they’re used to it.’
Accordingly, there is a risk that taking measures to ameliorate economic abuse may be met with increased physical or verbal violence. Attempting to leave economic abuse via divorce can lead to harassment, ostracization, loss of social standing and honour-based violence against women. The government needs to consider the risk of honour-based and other forms of violence that some women are faced with, their social isolation, the prejudices and stereotypes they face, and how these act as a barrier to reporting their abuse.
Second, the Bill did not provide for any language support or mandatory translating services for women. A study on the experiences of South Asian women in the UK found a reluctance to report for fear that their English skills were not good enough to explain their situation.
Third, the Bill did not provide any safeguards against the threat of deportation. Women who are not British citizens or who do not have a legal right to reside often fear that contact with officials will result in deportation. In its current form, the Bill fails to protect this class of women, entrenching their vulnerability and emboldening the perpetrators of abuse.
Fourth, while the Bill provided a new support system for those with no recourse to public funds, which allows eligible individuals to access three months’ worth of public funds, whilst their application is being considered, this only applies to those who are eligible for indefinite leave to remain and have submitted their application.
To redress these barriers, the following changes should be made when the Bill is re-introduced. First, access to public funds should be extended to all victim-survivors of domestic abuse, regardless of their immigration status. The time period for this should also be extended. Second, the Bill should provide adequate funding for refuge spaces for victims of domestic abuse who are in the process of applying for the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession. Third, the Bill should include reassurances as to the security of immigration status. Furthermore, to increase access to justice and state resources and support, the Bill should provide for compulsory translators and exempt domestic abuse victim-survivors from the legal aid means test. Another important intervention is community engagement and the creation of strong bonds between frontline domestic abuse professionals and migrant communities. Within the Bill itself, more could be done to remove structural barriers that prevent women from seeking official help and redress.