Date: Mon, 9 Jun 97 08:36:54 CDT
From: (Rich Winkel)
Subject: South Asian Women Fight Back in England
/** headlines: 131.0 **/
** Topic: South Asian Women Fight Back in England **
** Written 10:49 PM Jun 8, 1997 by mmason in cdp:headlines **

Women fight back: Southall Black sisters raise a fist

By Michelle Dunne, Third World Network, 8 June 1997

In Southall, London, a group of Asian women take the world in their own hands and find ways to tackle domestic violence, homelessness, immigration problems, police and racial harassment, health issues and concern about their children.

It's a shatteringly freezing day in bleakest Southall, and the headquarters of Southall Black Sisters on Norwood Road presents an intimidating face to the world: a glass front shrouded by blinds and black taped-on paper.

A quick ‘Hello, is that SBS?’ on the intercom and I'm buzzed into the warmth inside.

I'm greeted by Jaswant Nagra, 32, who has been with SBS for two years. She shows me briefly around the three small offices and opens the door on a meeting of the weekly support group.

I'm welcomed by centre worker Meena Patel, 33, long-time volunteer Nabila, new volunteer Anita and a support group client. The idea is to put deeply demoralised women in touch with one another and teach them confidence-building skills.

Language presents a problem. The majority Asian clients all understand Hindi, but many have no knowledge of English, which means there needs to be a separate support group for Afro-Caribbean clients—2,000 would support the group for a year.

Patel is trying to raise funds to take a group of elderly women on a week's holiday: ‘Some women have never left Southall, and many suffer from mental illness.’

SBS was set up in 1979, initially to tackle domestic violence. ‘The men in the community were up in arms about racism,’ says Patel, ‘but kept totally silent about domestic violence—they saw it as a private matter.’

The organisation began meeting in women's homes, eventually receiving a GLC (Greater London Council) grant. Now it has three full-time paid workers funded by the borough of Ealing, a youth worker and a seasonal worker funded by charitable trusts. There is also a voluntary management committee of 10 women.

Over 1,000 women contact SBS per year for help on issues such as domestic violence, homelessness, immigration, police and racial harassment, health (including mental illness), and concerns about their children.

SBS is best known for its work on domestic violence. For instance, one client, Kiranjit Ahluwalia, jailed for life in 1989 for killing her violent husband, was released on appeal in 1992. This led to a change in the law on ‘provocation’ and opened the door to successful appeals by other women.

Besides local support and advice work, SBS has supported campaigns elsewhere, including the strike of Asian women at the Burnsall Factory in Birmingham and the Vandana Patel campaign - she'd been murdered by her estranged husband in Stoke Newington police station's domestic violence unit in 1991.

SBS's most prominent current campaign is against the One-Year Rule, which requires spouses to live together for at least a year before the immigrant spouse is allowed to apply for residency in Britain.

SBS has come across many terrible instances of immigrant women being subjected to horrific violence from their spouses on arrival in Britain, and faced with a stark choice—violence or deportation, facing ostracisation or worse at home.

Research by SBS found that between January 1994 and July 1995, some 755 women were threatened with deportation because of marriage breakdown, 512 of these because of domestic violence—3.2% being White.

SBS fears that the immigration and Asylum Bill will result in a lot more women turning up at their door, and a big increase in homelessness.

As an organisation, SBS is unique in Britain. A Huddersfield refuge recently referred two women, thrown out of their home, one with immigration problems, to SBS. They arrived in Ealing destitute, without knowing anyone in London.

In the main office the phone calls keep coming. One call is from a woman wanting immediate refuge—she's given emergency counselling over the phone.

A request comes in from a concerned friend for SBS to go to a woman's home and get her out: Patel gently explains that they cannot do that, that the woman must come to them. A client calls for counselling as she has left her abusive and unfaithful husband, and now feels a lot of anger.

‘It's not usually this quiet,’ says Nagra, without irony. The women work up to 60 hours a week, and will be in the office until 8 p.m. catching up on reading and administrative work.

‘I've got a case load of 130 clients,’ says Nagra. ‘At one stage, I was constantly angry with my friends and partners for no apparent reason. I've had to learn to step back from the problems I encounter here.’

Do they support each other in this respect? ‘Yes, when we have the time!’—Third World Network Features