Abandonment is an under-recognised form of domestic violence, and far from protecting women, our legal system helps their abusers, say Cris McCurley and Pragna Patel
The importance of tackling domestic violence has become increasingly recognised in recent years, thanks to the work of campaigners and lawyers, but one form of abuse of women continues to be overlooked and its victims denied legal solutions.
Earlier this year, Lincoln University published groundbreaking research, Disposable Women, into the abandonment of women who came to the UK from India to marry men of Indian heritage living in this country. Up to 15,000 have been abandoned in this way in the Punjab alone, yet the problem of abandonment remains undetected and un-addressed in the UK.
It is not just women from India who are being abandoned by their husbands, but also affects those from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
The report findings about the plight of these women are shocking and it should be compulsory reading for all lawyers working in the domestic violence field.
The authors call for abandonment to be recognised as a specific form of abuse against women, and highlights the interplay between this and other known forms of gender violence, such as financial and physical abuse, sexual, coercive control, domestic slavery, dowry and visa abuse. It is not just the women themselves in this situation who are acutely vulnerable, but also their children.
Just this year, the government updated its Violence against Women and Girls strategy, which now sets out policies for dealing with female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour violence, but remains silent on the issue of abandonment. In fact, as Pragna Patel points out in her foreword to the report, far from acting to protect abandoned women, the UK immigration, civil and criminal justice systems serve to strengthen the arm of their abusers.
Many of the women are tricked into staying or returning to their country of origin, and then left there. Their husbands then return to the UK and are able to take advantage of our strict immigration controls to ensure their wives are unable to rejoin them, by failing to sponsor them, or revoking their visas. Those considered ‘less suitable for marriage’ are particularly vulnerable to abandonment: women who are darker skinned, poor, with lots of sisters, old (anywhere near 30), or been previously divorced. Pragna Patel points out that the problem is only likely to grow, as the crisis in the care system in the UK will lead to a rise in marriages to provide carers for relatives, the elderly and infirm.
The report calls for an understanding of the severity of the stigma and the ruinous consequences that ensue for women when their marriage ends. It is the fear of this that allows for the abusive coercion and control to continue unchecked and be so effective
Recurring themes of severe controls (even down to CCTV monitoring in family homes), total isolation from family and the outside world, and endless abuse will come as no surprise to front line domestic violence workers. However, the report calls for better training of the judiciary and family lawyers, and for changes to the immigration system to protect these women.
Often women are given disinformation by their in laws, and told they have no legal rights or protections, or right to access services in the UK. They are told that if they alert anyone to their predicament, they will be deported.
By abandoning women in their country of origin, abusers and their family are able to prevent them from asserting their legally guaranteed rights in the UK to children, financial support and even divorce. The Home Office will not issue visas for women to enter this country so that they can engage in legal proceedings, even in respect of their children in the UK. Women may be able to participate in their cases by video link but this is unsatisfactory and doesn’t guarantee a fair hearing. For women in some rural areas, even this isn’t an option as they do not have access to video link technology. In the vast majority of cases, women are denied their human rights, especially their rights to children and financial support.
The report calls for a series of changes to ensure that the plight of abandoned women is given a similar level of legal recognition as those facing other kinds of abuse:
- Women who have resided in the UK and then abandoned abroad should to be entitled to claim under the Domestic Violence Rule and the Destitution and DV Concession, since abandonment is a form of domestic violence;
- The Home Office should issue temporary visas to such women as a matter of course so that they can pursue their rights in UK courts;
- Domestic violence victims should have the right to a full immigration appeal, which is currently denied;
- Information on family immigration rights should be given to all women when applying for their spousal visas;
- A training programme for the judiciary that addresses the social realities for migrant women, especially the stigma that follows marriage breakdown;
- Better understanding of the practice of dowry and ‘stridhan’ (payments and gifts from the bride’s family to the groom’s family), so that this is reflected in financial settlements to prevent abandoned women from being left destitute.
- The UK government should explore the possibility of reciprocal agreements between countries for enforcement of court orders in family law cases.
To this list we can add the need for careful safety planning by domestic violence advocates working with women vulnerable to this emerging form of abuse.
Some progress is being made. SBS is currently leading work in this area and has convened a working group of family and immigration law practitioners who will be meeting with the President of the Family Division and the Home Office to discuss the need for better protection for abandoned women.
Cris McCurley is a partner at Ben Hoare Bell and Pragna Patel is director and solicitor at Southall Black Sisters