by Marchu Girma, Grassroots Director

Last term, 30-35 refugee women in our network attended a 12-week workshop on intersectional feminism run by Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu. There were dynamic, vigorous and inspiring discussions among women about what feminism means to them. A great range of different views were exchanged, reflecting the diversity of the women who are from various countries, backgrounds and have different life experiences.

When sexual exploitation of Hollywood stars became a huge story in the media inspiring thousands of women to take courage and say #MeToo on social media, it also inspired refugee women in our feminism discussions to say #MeToo. Common experiences of sexual abuse, harassment, trafficking and being preyed upon were candidly discussed.

Most of all, many of the women were stunned to discover their experiences of not being believed by authorities were shared amongst all women, including Hollywood stars. Many refugee women who disclose to the Home Office their experiences of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual harassment in their home countries, are not believed. Their stories are dismissed and they are asked to provide proof of abuse, where the threshold for belief is overwhelmingly high. Many women have asked me over the years, ‘How can we provide proof of being raped by soldiers or abused by family members?’

Their proof is their bodies and their stories.

The Home Office’s refusal to believe refugee women when they tell their stories has detrimental effects on women’s mental and physical wellbeing. It also leaves women destitute with no support, relying on handouts from friends and charities, or in some cases, homeless out on the cold streets. Such situations expose women to further exploitation, sexual harassment and rape.

Whilst sharing stories in the class, Precious*, a refugee woman from DRC, told the group:

“I was staying in a spare room of a lovely couple who had been married for over 30 years. Every night the husband came to knock on my door. I was so scared; I jammed the table against the door. After a few days of this happening I left the house, even though I had nowhere to go.”

The #MeToo campaign inspired Precious to report the incident. She felt empowered for taking action and for speaking her truth. Many refugee women are ready to share their stories and speak their truth. We now need to give them platforms to speak out and to say, ‘We see you, we hear you, we believe you.’

That is why I will be speaking at the Women’s March Time’s Up rally outside Downing Street with a refugee woman on 21st January.

We are also organising the #AllWomenCount parliamentary lobby on 8th March, led by refugee women. Come and join us!

*We have changed Precious’ name to protect her identity