The future of secular BME women’s organisations is hanging by a thread

The future of secular BME women’s organisations is hanging by a thread

Over the last three decades and more, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) has consistently addressed the needs of BME women, in particular in the face of their experiences of violence and multiple or intersectional discrimination. This is a term used by the United Nations and statutory and voluntary bodies to refer to the specific ways in which multiple strands of discrimination overlap in simultaneous and complex ways to create heightened vulnerabilities and discrimination.

It is precisely because of the complexity of BME women’s experiences and the historical failure of statutory and other generic services to address them that specialist organisations led by and for BME women like SBS developed in the late 1970s.

We provide an important lifeline for BME women who remain one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in our society. Just as importantly, we have often led the way to key reforms in areas such as forced marriage and honour-based violence.

Currently, through a number of cases, SBS is pressing for greater awareness and government effort to tackle the problem of religious, especially Sharia, tribunals and councils that discriminate against women and children and put them at risk of further violence.

We are also campaigning to highlight the emerging phenomenon of transnational marriage abandonment and violence against women. These are acts of violence committed against women in transnational spaces that leave vulnerable women without recourse to protection and rights simply because the offences against them occur in spaces that straddle a number of jurisdictions. Precisely because of jurisdictional problems, governments and states can and do abdicate their responsibility in bringing perpetrators to account and in upholding the human rights of such women. 

A growing list of long-established secular BME refuges and advice centres based in Brent, Manchester, Nottingham, Leicester, Sheffield, Coventry, Rotherham and elsewhere have either closed or are facing the threat of closure in recent months. SBS is no stranger to these threats.

In July 2008, at the High Court, we won an important legal challenge affirming our right to exist and to continue our work as an organisation of, by and for BME women.  

Despite our success, secular BME women’s organisations are being decimated across the country and this development is exacerbated by the state’s promotion of regressive religious forces that are filling the vacuum and benefiting from the democratic deficit that is created in the process. 

The future of the BME women’s movement symbolised by long-standing BME women’s organisations like SBS is now hanging by a thread. This unfolding crisis needs urgent attention from all those concerned by the growing levels of inequality in our society.

But what is also urgently needed is the development of a progressive politics of solidarity between and within the women’s groups that recognise that what is at stake is no less than the fight for secular, progressive, feminist, anti fundamentalist, anti-racist and human rights values.