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In the fight for gender equality, the rights of migrant women cannot be an afterthought

The pandemic has exposed the harsh reality for migrant women in the UK and the rights they’ve been losing for years. From the prospect of becoming undocumented after Brexit and the unlawful evictions asylum-seekers are facing to the cruelty of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF), an immigration condition that essentially forces some women to choose between destitution and staying with the abuser. When you add gender-based violence to this experience, the hostility seems almost insurmountable.

In a time when ending violence against women and girls is gaining momentum in Scotland, we cannot forget the struggle of migrant women nor let it become an afterthought. It has to be at the forefront of our activism, our work and our policy.

Since the pandemic started, we have seen the wave of violence against women and girls spread across the globe. Whilst the violence and abuse existed before the Covid-19 outbreak, lockdown measures have made it easier for perpetrators to increase the abuse, to isolate and gain power over their victims.

And although women’s organisations and services are ramping up efforts to support as many women as we possibly can, when it comes to migrant women the idea that support is available only goes so far. Let’s not forget the barriers (many of them deeply entrenched in our society and our government policy) that prevent migrant women from even beginning to think about support after an abusive experience.

Lacking the basics such as food and housing, being prevented from applying for benefits after losing a job because they have NRPF, having no access to a phone (let alone a computer or the Internet), and the fact that much of the vital information they need isn’t in their language are some examples of the massive hurdles migrant women must overcome on their journey to get support.

On a more systemic level, there are the hostile immigration policies that keep eroding their rights, and critically the racism that Black and Brown migrant women face on a regular basis, such as not being believed when they disclose abuse because of the community they come from; or when, rather than addressed, their experience is branded as a cultural feature of their ethnicity; being dismissed for being ‘too angry’ or ‘too upset’ instead of being taken serious; feeling unable to report the abuse for fear of being deported; and being turned away from support when their issues are deemed to be ‘too complex’.

At the same time, we mustn’t mistake these barriers for a lack of autonomy or a need to ‘save’ migrant women. On the contrary, as a sector and as feminists, we must start listening to migrant women and joining their efforts to change the system instead of waiting until equality has been served to the majority first. We also must recognise that these communities have already been working hard to support each other and to change some of the most inhumane policies in the UK.

In Scotland we only need to look at the work of Shakti Women’s Aid, Saheliya, Hemat Gryffe, Amina, Ubuntu Women’s Shelter and many grassroots organisations who have organised and addressed some of the issues migrant women are facing. But these organisations rarely have a seat at the table when it comes to influencing wider and urgent changes.

Allyship is about making space for the women and organisations being impacted by racism and cruel immigration policies. It is about ensuring we understand the impacts the UK’s hostile environment is having on women, of extending services to those who don’t speak English as a first language, and improving justice for survivors who are simultaneously affected by gender-based violence and immigration policies.

This work is essential to improving equality and justice for all women in Scotland and beyond because, ultimately, advancing migrant women’s rights and achieving gender equality are one and the same thing.

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