The first national conference of South Asian women in Britain - Dreams, Questions and Struggles - Sapne, Sawal aur Larai was held in London on 7, 8 and 9th March 2003. Organised by a coalition of Asian women’s groups ‘Asian Women Unite!’, it brought together more than 200 South Asian women from across the country. The resolutions passed were as follows:
‘Remember Gujarat’ Vigil in London
On March 3, a ‘Remember Gujarat’ candlelight vigil was held outside the head offices of the British Charity Commission in London to demand that they withdraw the charity status of the HSS (which fundraises through the largest Indian charity in Britain Sewa International) and VHP(UK). Holding banners which read ‘2000 murdered, 20,000 dispossessed, still no justice!’ and ‘Gujarat genocide never again!’ the protestors demanded that the Charity Commissioners act now.
Organised by South Asia Solidarity Group, the vigil was supported by fourteen other organisations including some of the largest and most influential Asian voluntary sector groups such as the Newham Monitoring Project who are involved in combating racism, Southall Black Sisters, well-known for their campaigns against domestic violence, The Council for Indian Muslims and the Indian Muslim Federation. Also attending were the British Humanist Association, Ahimsa, Cambridge South Asia Forum. The South Asian Alliance, Birmingham, a contingent from Women Living Under Muslim Laws and a variety of student organisations.
The Charity Commissioners have been investigating the HSS and Sewa International since last September but in the words of the petition handed in by the protestors, “so many months have passed and no action has yet been taken. Funds collected from unsuspecting British donors continue to be used to finance the ongoing violence. Children, women and men are still being killed in Gujarat and fresh pogroms are feared elsewhere in India. We urge you to act now”.
A representative of John Stoker the Chief Charity Commissioner told the protestors that the Charity Commissioners were continuing with its investigations and would not rule out a visit to Gujarat to investigate the links between British organisations and those in India.
We condemn Bush and Blair’s drive to war on Iraq – we know that it will have a devastating effect on women in Iraq who have already faced the onslaught of ten years of sanctions and undeclared war. We also condemn the government’s use of the so-called war on terror to legitimise an upsurge in state racism. We resolve to build Asian women’s participation in the Anti-War movement and to send delegates to the Stop the War People’s Assembly on 12 March.
We condemn the activities of communal, sectarian and fascist forces which are fomenting hatred and violence in the countries of South Asia and dividing our communities here. We resolve to oppose all fundraising in Britain for such forces. We support the demands of women’s organisations in India campaigning to bring the perpetrators of the Gujarat genocide to justice and for safety, security and legal redress for the victims. We are extremely concerned that funds raised in this country are being channelled to organisations in India which are orchestrating communal violence (as was exposed in a Channel 4 News Report on 12 December 02). We resolve to campaign for the derecognition of the HSS/Sewa International and VHP(UK) as registered charities and expose the communal and anti-women activities of these organisations.
We are deeply concerned about the withdrawal of funds of a number of women’s organisations and resolve to collectively lobby for the support of these organisations.
We demand well-funded comprehensive education for our children which is equal both at the point of access and the point of delivery and does not involve selection. We are extremely concerned about the level of racism in schools; at present the rise of anti-Muslim racism is particularly disturbing. We resolve to campaign for the development and implementation of anti-racist policies which tackle institutionalised racism. We distrust the government’s proposals on increasing the number of single faith schools and are particularly concerned about the way these will reinforce patriarchal power in our communities and transfer control over education to religious institutions and bodies.
Although we welcome the relaxation of the standard of proof of domestic violence in cases of women migrating to live with partners settled in the UK, the probationary period tips the balance of power in marriages against the women and their children making them more vulnerable to intimidation and violence. Women (and their children) are under tremendous pressure because of the probationary period to remain in violent marriages, and violence in such relationships is known to escalate with time. We demand that the probationary period be abolished and women be informed about their rights. We demand that the names, addresses and telephone numbers of organisations they can contact if they face domestic violence or abuse should be given to them when they first enter the UK to join their partners. Women who try to leave violent and life-threatening relationships are often forced back into them because they have no recourse to public funds. This makes them destitute in the period when they try to claim the right of appeal against deportation which the state guarantees. This is both discriminatory and inconsistent and we demand a repeal of the rules on ‘no recourse to public funds’. And we demand that this is applied to women without children as well as those with children.
We resolve to lobby Women’s Aid to make it a rule that every refuge must take at least one ‘no recourse to public funds’ case. The current policy of classifying as ‘overstayers’ those women who are unable to regularise their position immediately after the probationary period ends is unjust and is in effect ‘punishing the victim’. We demand that women in this position be allowed to appeal under the conditions of the November 2002 ‘Domestic Violence Rule’.
Many Social Services Departments across the country have excluded children from their rights under the Children Act or interpreted the Act to the detriment of children’s welfare. We demand that the government draws up guidelines for Social Services departments on this issue. We demand that the Supporting People Initiative recognises women with no recourse to public funds.
We resolve to share experiences and instances of good practice and further early interventative and preventative work as a means to empowering, educating and supporting young women. We resolve to set up a network of Asian women taking up mental health issues which will include users and survivors, practitioners and workers in Asian women’s support organisations. We will work towards a day of action, communication and publicity on World Mental Health Day in October 2003 to raise awareness of these issues.
The legal system lacks an analysis of race and cultural issues. It claims an awareness of race and culture but this is being used to support Asian men’s access to parental contact. More damage is being done by ‘cultural awareness’. We need to confront this.
The women’s movement needs a network in every town and city and access to feminist barristers. We resolve to build this network. Women need to arm themselves with knowledge of their rights in the context of family law. We resolve to produce and distribute materials to this end.
Women lack knowledge of their rights at work. This information must be made available to workers in their own languages. We resolve to distribute a rights leaflet in places of work and have discussions with workers. We will collate a dossier on incidents where representative bodies like Unions/CREs have failed Asian women workers.
We resolve to publicise Asian women workers’ struggles which are going on.
We will set up a network of Asian women taking up issues in employment.
We resolve to pressurise the unions to disseminate information about rights at work to Asian women workers and to have more representation for Asian women
We resolve to access the policy action infrastructure via the notion of social exclusion. We resolve to lobby for more positive action programmes enabling Asian women to access employment.
We resolve to organise a one-day conference on the British state’s interventions in our lives, focussing particularly on the no recourse to public funds legislation and the interventions in the context of ‘forced marriages’ and single faith schools. The conference would also provide a space for us to exchange ideas on how we see women’s oppression. It would be held in the first week of July, in Manchester or Sheffield.