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Why Migrant and Asylum-Seeking Women need single sex spaces

Recent debates around the Equality Act 2010 and single-sex provisions for women has become contentious as of late, to say the least, especially around the 2019 General Election as party’s fell over themselves to show just how enthusiastic they are to erode women’s rights.

Unsurprisingly, it isn’t male MPs and councillors who will pay the price. It is vulnerable women and those on the edges of society who will have their comfort and safety sacrificed. This includes elderly women in care homes, teenage girls in schools, female patients in hospital wards, abuse victims in refuges, sex trafficking survivors in crisis centres and disabled and religious women in most public arenas. However, one demographic that has been swept under the rug is refugee, migrant and asylum-seeking women, who equally require sex-segregated services for the exact same reasons.

To consider why some women require safe havens from the inclusion of men is to consider the rife sex inequality and misogyny that is prevalent around the globe. Growing up as a female is unsafe everywhere. In some countries, girls have to evade female infanticide from birth, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as young children and breast ironing during puberty. The dreaded arrival of menstruation often concludes with girls being sold to older men for the purpose of dowry gains and childbearing, even though their tiny and undeveloped bodies are not physically capable at performing such a momentous task. When besieged by war, rape and sexual violence becomes a weapon to terrorise female prisoners and villagers, but even in peacetime, the looming threat of male violence is constant.

Even in so-called ‘progressive’ Europe, the modus operandi is the same. Women and girls are bought and sold as commodities to meet the ever-growing and porn-sick demands of the sex industry, under which migrant women of the most extreme impoverished countries are trafficked into on a conveyor belt for men to exploit. Forced marriage and forced prostitution continues to rise in tune with the body count of women murdered by men – fathers, sons and partners alike – in honour-based violence and domestic abuse. The overarching theme is that women’s bodies are seen as disposable vehicles for profit, sexual gratification and child-rearing, no matter where you look. It is a miracle that this relentless poaching by men hasn’t seen the female sex threatened with extinction.

Most human rights and world aid organisations support sex-segregated sanitation facilities to combat male violence and to prevent women and girls from effectively being pushed out from participating in public life. Women’s toilets are a necessity, not a privilege, yet washing and lavatory facilities in European refugee camps are routinely designed mixed-sex to the point where women wear adult nappies at night to avoid sexual predators. Little girls are forced to engage in a phenomenon which is inaccurately described as ‘survival sex - in which they are paired with a man for “protection” in exchange for sexual favours. One midwife volunteer for Gynaecology Without Borders said the number of girls compared to the volume of condoms she distributes in Calais refugee camp makes her “wince”.

Clandestinely crossing into the UK from these pockets of hell is a major operation for all refugees. However, satisfying the rigorous and intimidating UK asylum system is arguably the highest hurdle asylum-seekers face– and many women are refused by failing to disclose the extent of their trauma.

Some women just point-blank fear divulging their personal and private suffering in the presence of male police officers, male immigration enforcement and male translators. The charity Hestia even launched a super complaint against the police in March for breaching sexually exploited victims’ requests for female officers, drawing upon case stories that included one victim having to retell her ordeal in the reception area in front of members of the public and another having male officers turn up to interview her in her bedroom. Sometimes, sex inequality can be considered to be so normal that some women fail to report that they are victims, which is especially pertinent for young women who have been groomed and raised like a prize cash cow all their lives. Others stay silent out of fear of familial abuse, community ostracization, being disbelieved and, of course, murder.

Being too traumatised to speak can see victims unfairly detained or deported – the latter often making them vulnerable to re-trafficking. Yet the Home Office even actively facilitates deporting liberated women: new guidance left immigration lawyers gobsmacked only recently as it outlined support for deporting Nigerian victims of forced prostitution on the basis of them having gained ‘wealth’ in the UK. Aside from not one survivor in the history of the world walking away from slavery wealthy, it just goes to show how little even the highest ranks of authority think of women; that money is reasonable compensation for repetitive rape, abuse, physical and emotional trauma and captivity.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) responsible for sensitively handling slavery and trafficking cases has also been known to actually jeopardise women’s recovery. Survivors of unimaginable human rights abuses have been relocated into mixed-sex and shared accommodation – or granted temporary housing in the same vicinity of the address from where they were originally exploited.

A piloted scheme by STEP – the British Red Cross, Hestia and Ashiana – tip-toed into the arena of demanding “gender-specific” care standards for trafficked, enslaved and sexually exploited women, deciding that women being housed in mixed-sex spaces is “highly inappropriate” and serves to “reinforce the disempowerment of the trafficking experience for survivors”.

“I am very afraid and can’t sleep. Yes, of course [it’s worse] because I am a woman… that’s what I’m thinking all the time”, one woman in a mixed-sex refuge told STEP.

“I have bad memories in my head, and I can’t get a friendship with a man”, another survivor said.

STEP’s volunteers even found some women were fearful to tell their GP that they had been trafficked in fear that he would ring the police: “For all the doctors and psychotherapists my preference is for a woman. I feel very nervous, even scared of a man. Even though I know it’s just their job, I still don’t feel ok”, a woman reiterated.

Of course, abuse shouldn’t be the only prerequisite to demanding safe and private spaces, and such a commitment must be extended to prisons, schools, care homes, shelters, refuges, sports and hospital wards – although the NHS only recently publishing guidance suggesting women requesting female-only wards will be treated as though a ‘racist or a homophobe’. But the very fact that victim’s voices are being defined as bigotry trumps the lead for making trans activism the modern century’s most misogynistic movement.

The existing exemptions in the Equality Act must be maintained. This is not a compromise that women and girls are willing to make.


By Liv Bridge, freelance writer

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