Why we’ve taken over the underground with poetry on International Women’s Day
Friday, March 8, 2019
Content note: racism, murder, domestic abuse, misogyny
Sisters Uncut stormed the Baftas, occupied a prison for a week and now, on International Women’s Day, has taken over London’s underground with poems.
Why? While the government likes to use this day to present itself as feminist, its policies are criminalising women and non-binary people. The poems on the underground show the stories of women who have found themselves locked up in prison, locked out of refuges, and locked in violent relationships, due to government cuts and hostile environment policies.
The draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which was published this January, seeks to increase arrests and threatens vulnerable women in the process. No woman should be criminalised for calling the police after being abused at home.
Similar policies across the USA have led to an increase in survivors of domestic violence being arrested, especially those from marginalised and oppressed communities. Police investigations can also leave women vulnerable. Testimonies from sector workers and case studies in the media show that survivors are often arrested following interactions with police, despite their partners being the primary aggressors.
The bill lacks substantive engagement with how factors like race, gender identity, sexuality and class shape experiences of domestic violence and access to support. It only pays lip service to migrant survivors and survivors with no recourse to public funds, while failing to mention how the government’s racist immigration policies force many migrant women to remain in life-threatening situations, instead of seeking support.
Insecure immigration status can often itself be a consequence of violence, but under the government’s racist ‘Hostile Environment’ policies, calling the police on an abuser can result in immigration checks, detention and deportation. Recent Freedom of Information Requests reveal that 27 out of 45 police forces across the country share details about the victim’s immigration status to the Home Office – this includes cases of domestic violence. Last summer, Southeast London Sisters Uncut exposed covert immigration officers, who were being embedded in local-authority run domestic violence services in an attempt to catch those with unstable immigration status when they attempted to seek help.
Women with insecure immigration status are cut off from accessing state funds. This means that migrant women can be turned away from domestic violence shelters. A 2017 Women’s Aid study shows that only 7% of women with No Recourse to Public Funds found space in a shelter when escaping from domestic violence.
The government’s cuts to domestic violence services disproportionately target specialist services, making it increasingly hard for migrant and BME survivors to access the support they need. This often leaves migrant women with no way out; the government further cut all legal aid to immigration in 2012, meaning that being in formal employment, opening a bank account and even driving is a crime when undocumented.
This is why the #Stepupmigrantwomen campaign calls for a ‘Firewall’ at the levels of policy and practice, and safe reporting mechanisms: ‘seeking safety should never be more dangerous than staying with a perpetrator’. Reporting domestic violence and other crime and accessing services should be separate from immigration control. This is a matter of life and death.
As anti-carceral feminists, Sisters Uncut believe that the criminal justice system does nothing to protect domestic violence survivors. In the UK, 46% of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence.
A year and a half ago, we occupied Holloway Prison to demand services not sentences. Holloway, the largest women’s prison in western Europe, was closed suddenly in 2016 and the 600 inmates were moved to prisons in rural areas, separated from their support networks. The prison is now standing empty on a 10-acre site of public land. An estate regeneration expert, GVA, is managing the sale of the land. Meanwhile, the money from its sale will go back into building 5 new mega prisons across England.
Holloway has a painful and complicated legacy as a place of criminalisation and state violence against women. The suffragettes were force-fed and labelled terrorists in Holloway, Sarah Reed tragically died in Holloway after being abandoned by the state, while the ‘ringleaders’ of the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikes were imprisoned in the prison. Any future building on this land must reflect and redress this traumatic past. Public land should be used for public good, not to benefit a small elite.
We reclaimed Holloway prison for a week-long community festival to show the government precisely what it could be doing with the land. We took over the space to service the local community and support local women, rather than criminalise them.
A host of local campaigns, including our occupation of the prison, has meant that the site’s planning document now includes reference to a women’s building and ‘affordable housing’. How exactly this will look is yet to be seen — but Sisters Uncut continue to keep our eye on the state and its actions.