By Jennifer Blair
I was feeling cynical when I attended the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict (#timetoact), feeling that this – like the Modern Day Slavery Bill – was a way for a Tory-led government to show an interest in equality issues, without having to do any work to actually bring about equality or halt the roll back on equality in the UK. Women are still the hardest hit by austerity and the recent reports by HMIP have shown scandalously poor work by police forces around the country on investigating domestic violence.
However, despite my doubts, I was soon swept along by the huge number of women’s rights organisations brought together from across the world. I didn’t get to meet The Jolie, but I did see her gathered up in a huge crocodile of admirers (all seeming very surreal). One highlight for me was seeing great CEDAW advocate and leading women’s rights lawyer/academic Professor Christine Chinkin sitting as a judge putting international measure 1325 – on women peace and security – on trial (look at those wigs in action!).
The event was internationally-focused, rather than British, but since so many attendees were from the UK I was overjoyed when Women for Refugee Women‘s event addressed the terrifyingly poor response of the UK immigration system to women who arrive here after experiencing sexual violence in conflict.
Actress Juliet Stevenson told Margaret’s story about fleeing sexual violence in the Congo and coming to the UK, only to be re-victimised and persecuted by our asylum process and detention in Yarl’s Wood. The story was incredibly powerful and the panel afterwards – which including one woman who had been detained in Yarl’s Wood after experiencing torture and another – Meltem Avcil behind the #setherfree petition – who had been detained with her mother as a child – left me and others more than a little tearful (as well as filled with white hot rage). Shami Chakrabarti gave a rousing speech, referring to Teresa May photographed wearing a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ Fawcett Society t-shirt and saying that feminists do not lock up their sisters for no reason.
After the event I spoke to Juliet Stevenson in front of the Women for Refugee Women stand – they were sewing messages onto a huge patchwork blanket with the help of the Women’s Institute; Angelina Jolie was gifted a smaller version of the blanket – I asked her how she worked through in her own mind telling the story of someone whose life experience and background is so different from her own. She said that perhaps it should have been a black actress telling Margaret’s story, but that she was doing what she was able to do to help, that it would have cost Margaret too much to tell her own story, but it was so important that it be heard.
We discussed the links between Juliet’s work and the effective participation/voices of asylum seeking women within the immigration legal process. Juliet was shocked – as I know many women clients are – to find how little space there is for women to participate (when represented) in many hearings, particularly bail applications, judicial review hearings and appeals. In some cases represented clients are told they don’t even need to attend a hearing, in others they are sat at the back of the room too far from the lawyer making legal argument to have a chance to engage. We talked about ideas – including playing pre-recorded video statements – so that woman clients feel the process fairly represents them, rather than being just another state action overlooking their experiences.
I appreciate that the #timetoact forum was not unproblematic – it was telling which geographical areas were focused on predominantly and which were scarcely looked at – and we cannot let the UK government get away with funding a one-off international forum as a sop to gender equality. For more on this see Charlotte Gage’s excellent blog post. However, that does not diminish the hard work of the organisations participating and the powerful messages we can get from their work, for example I would urge you all to watch the breath-taking Banaz a Love Story, looking at the story of a victim of a killing in the name of honour in the UK.
We hope that the work by all the participants is taken on board by decision-makers, particularly when considering key next steps following the Millennium Development Goals.