Abused, exploited and betrayed

Home Office figures suggest that two women are killed each week by current or former partners

Independent, Thursday 17 February 2011

Italian women have had enough. At the weekend, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against their Prime Minister, a man whose sexual manners would disgrace a Sky TV sports show. Silvio Berlusconi appears to regard his office as an opportunity to make crude jokes and hold alleged “bunga bunga” sex parties. Now he’s facing criminal charges, including one of paying for sex with an under-age girl.

Anti-Berlusconi protesters have adopted the slogan “If not now, when?” from the distinguished author Primo Levi. I don’t imagine for one moment that David Cameron or Nick Clegg has ever attended a “bunga bunga” party, but they do have serious questions to answer in regard to the Government’s treatment of vulnerable women.

Every year, thousands of women flee violent relationships, and Home Office figures suggest that two women are killed each week by current or former partners. Often they take their children and face an immediate housing crisis, as well as needing counselling, medical treatment and assistance to find new jobs. At the same time, thousands of trafficked foreign women are “working” in brothels and massage parlours, controlled by beatings and threats against their families at home. When they are rescued, they face months of uncertainty while decisions are made about whether they are genuinely victims of trafficking, as well as needing medical care for injuries and sexually transmitted diseases.

So why is the UK one of only two EU member states which haven’t signed up to the European directive on human trafficking? Only last summer the Government was accused by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group of failing to meet its current obligations to victims, and the directive gives victims more rights and makes it easier to prosecute traffickers. Now the organisations that care for these women have themselves been thrown into crisis. One of the acknowledged leaders in the field – Denise Marshall, chief executive of Eaves, which runs the renowned Poppy Project for victims of trafficking – has decided to return her OBE to Cameron in protest.

“I’ve worked in this sector for almost 30 years. I don’t want to sound melodramatic but I don’t think I have ever felt as depressed and desperate as I do now,” Marshall said yesterday, just a day after Eaves had an unproductive meeting with government officials. From the end of March, Eaves will no longer be able to provide 54 beds in London for trafficked women, and it will also have to close one of its two refuges in Kensington and Chelsea for victims of domestic violence.

This is nothing short of a catastrophe, and workers in the field say they’re hearing similar stories up and down the UK. Women’s groups in Devon launched a campaign earlier this year when the county council proposed to scrap funding for its domestic-violence support services, but local organisations are still having to absorb a 42 per cent cut.

What’s happening to Eaves isn’t just about cuts. It’s symptomatic of a government which mouths platitudes but wants to provide services on the cheap: Eaves has pulled out of the tendering process after being asked to reduce what it spends on each sick, raped or beaten woman by 75 per cent. Eaves doesn’t believe that can be done, and a huge question mark is hanging over the women it’s currently helping. It’s hoping to keep open 11 beds for trafficking victims, using funds from its reserves.

Perhaps the most significant accusation against the Government is that it is failing to help victims of crime. Trafficked women are often brought to this country with false promises of jobs in bars and restaurants, then forced to “service” British men as prostitutes. Women who are running away from violent men are often victims of repeated assaults, including rape.

The Government says that protecting these women is at the forefront of its policies. Like those brilliant protesters who flooded Italian streets at the weekend, the question I’d like ministers to answer is this: se non ora, quando?

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