Sistah Space and the police bodies responsible for training will soon be in dialogue as part of next steps in the Valerie’s Law petition to support Black women and girls affected by domestic abuse.
The Valerie’s Law petition, which had more than 106,000 signatures, is urging the Government to make “specialist training mandatory for all police and other government agencies that support Black women and girls affected by domestic abuse.”
In particular, the petition is calling for police and agencies to have culturally appropriate training to avoid tragic outcomes as in the case of Valerie Forde.
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In March 2014, Valerie Forde and her one-year-old daughter, Jahzara, were murdered by her ex-partner. He attacked Valerie with a machete and a hammer and slit Jahzara’s throat. The subsequent report by the then Independent Police Complaints Commission strongly criticised the Metropolitan Police who six weeks earlier were informed that the ex-partner had threatened to burn down the house with everybody inside. Unbelievably, this was recorded by the police as a threat to property rather than a threat to life.
Sistah Space, the organisers of the Valerie’s Law petition, works with Black women and girls who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse or lost a family member to domestic violence. Their mission is to provide a safe cultural venue for victims to disclose abuse in a confidential environment and to encourage community integration. Their campaign to bring the petition to an MP debate was successful, and took place on Monday 28 March.
Sistah Space maintains that without basic understanding of the true experience of African heritage Black women, “it is impossible for police officers and service providers to ensure we are equally protected.”
Speaking exclusively to Melan Magazine following the debate, Rose Lewis, Independent Domestic Violence Advisor at Sistah Space, explained why it is vitally important that this detail is addressed in police and agencies training.
She said: “Professionals who deal with African heritage women and girls going through domestic abuse issues should have basic, mandatory, culturally competent training. The reason being is that there are a lot of mistakes, and a lot of lives are being lost; a lot of lives being ruined because the people that are supposed to be helping us don’t know anything about us.”
“A lot of people believe that they are not racist, and that race does not come into domestic abuse issues. Many of those we entrust our care to believe that all women who are in abusive situations are going through the same experiences. That is not true so we have to educate them.”
Lewis believes that without confronting or at least acknowledging that some professionals carry biases, important flags will be missed.
“You will find that some of the iDVAS – Independent Domestic Advisers – who are qualified workers, who are there to advocate for women who have been through domestic abuse and sexual abuse, carry a lot of racism, biases and a lot of negative stereotypes about Black women.”
Not a one-size fits all solution
Valerie’s Law is simple. The law would see police officers, relevant Government agencies and domestic violence organisation staff acknowledge and protect Black women in abusive situations, through better understanding of the specific threats and challenges they face.
“What we’re calling for is that the professionals must have training by African-heritage organisations because we know what the issues are and we know what we go through.”
An example is given by Lewis. “One of the simple considerations we often talk about is about bruising. Time and time again, the number of Black women who have told us that they will go to the police, their GP or even their nurse or midwife to report that they have been a victim of domestic abuse and these professionals will say to them, “Well, I can’t see your bruising because your skin is too dark” or “I just don’t see a bruise”. This is just an example. How can you not factor in that a dark skin Black person may not bruise the way another person with lighter skin would? The whole premise becomes that the Black woman reporting her abuse needs to be the one to prove that she is being abused by showing her bruise marks on her skin.”
“What we’re calling for is that the professionals must have training by African-heritage organisations because we know what the issues are and we know what we go through. So far, they have just not been getting it right. They are being hampered by racism, biases and stereotyping and not really listening or understanding the real-life cultural nuances of the people they are supposed to be supporting. This has had a detrimental effect on the few women who have been brave enough to come forward for help and support.”
Tailored training to support the specific needs of African heritage Black women is at the heart of Valerie’s Law. Dame Meg Hillier, who is the MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, where Valerie Forde was a constituent, made the important point during the debate. She said: “There is clearly a need for greater representation of Black women at policy level, as well as delivery level. Too often, we hear the phrase “BAME” which glosses over the many differences between different groups. It is really important that Black women specifically have a space marked out for them to get the support they need.”
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Lewis agrees. She said: “We want African-heritage women to be acknowledged as ourselves, as Black women, not under BAME or under ethnic minorities.”
“We want professionals, when they come to a Black woman’s aid for domestic abuse, to think: ‘when I was at the training we covered this and that etc.’ We want police officers to be sensitive to the specific cultural needs of the Black woman they are supporting.”
What were the main outcomes of the debate?
Lewis is keen to pay tribute to all of the supporters of the petition and all of the MPs who spoke so passionately on behalf of Black women during the debate.
“We were blessed to have a lot of support from MPs who attended the debate.” Some of those who made representations during the debate include: Abena Oppong-Asare MP (Erith and Thamesmead) who opened the debate, Florence Eshalomi MP (Vauxhall), Taiwo Owatemi MP (Coventry North West) and Diane Abbot (Hackney North amnd Stoke Newington), to name a few.
Rachel McLean MP, Minister for Safeguarding from the Home Office, responded during the debate for the Government. She spoke about the soon to be published Domestic Abuse Act 2021 which aims to “strengthen the response across all agencies”. She also mentioned the commitment to a “Tackling violence against women and girls” strategy and allocating an additional £1.5 million this year for those valuable specialist services for victims of violence against women and girls.
“This is a huge step forward in the journey as they are the ones that actually set the training agenda for the police.”
When pressed on whether the plan has a “specifically reference support for Black women and girls” Rachel Maclean replied: “It will provide further detail on specific types of abuse that can be experienced by different communities and groups, including Black and other ethnic minority victims.”
However, in the short term, the minister revealed that she would facilitate a meeting to bring together Sistah Space with the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council as she wanted: “the leaders in policing to hear directly from Members who are working with Black and ethnic minority women and girls.”
Lewis welcomed this progress saying: “This is a huge step forward in the journey as they are the ones that actually set the training agenda for the police.”
How do we sustain lasting change for the future?
It’s long been recognised that there are significant barriers to disclosing or reporting abuse for Black and minority groups. During the debate, Diana Abbott suggested that better inclusion and representation in management is the key.
She said: “I would say that, although in the short term we need the training, in the medium to long term we need to see Black people in those institutions, whether as social workers and police officers or in management positions where they can take decisions. In the end, that is what will make it possible for people like my constituent or even my mother to go forward and talk about some of the things they are suffering.”
Read the full transcript of the debate here.