Sisters Uncut May Day Protest

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With another £12 billion in welfare cuts promised, Sisters Uncut joined the many voices telling the British government that austerity won’t be accepted.

Images by Khadra Aden.

Laden with bags, cameras bobbing under billowing raincoats, shoppers and tourists scurried about London’s Piccadilly Circus seeking shelter from the winter rain. Space was tight and people spilled off the pavements into congested roads. A din of honking buses and tinny cyclists bells competed as a tightly packed stream of vehicles sped by theatres and neon signs.

Floating above the hubbub the echo of a female voice:

“Caroline Finnegan, 30-years-old.” She paused. “Jacqueline Oaks, 51-years-old.”

“Elizabeth Thomas, 17-years-old.”

Curious shoppers forgot the rain and where they were headed. They looked at the silent crowd of women who stood still while London’s busiest shopping district jostled about them.

“Mairead McCallion, 36-years-old. Milena Yuliyanov, 27-years-old. Clara Patterson, 82-years-old. Hollie Gazzard, 20-years-old.”

The woman’s voice faltered: “Leanne Meecham, 26-years-old. Christine Lee, 66-years-old.”

Shoppers pulled cameras up from their necks, watching, snapping. Arms raised high, phones angled.

Three dozen more names. The megaphone is passed on. A new female voice, her tone is heavy. “Lucy Lee, 40-years-old. Donna Graham, 51-years-old. Sheila Wild, 49 years-old. Sara Al Shourefi, 28-years-old.”

The women, there might have been 100 or so, huddled around the steps of the statue of Eros. Some wore sashes in bright suffragette colours, some held aloft placards, tears ran down the faces of others. “Clare Munro, 47-years-old. Margaret Tate, 63-years-old. Magdalena Welna, 23-years-old. Leeann Foley, 32-years-old.” After each name was read out a woman from the crowd stepped forward and gently placed a spring flower on the steps.

They read the names of more than 100 women and girls, the youngest 23-months-old and the oldest 89-years-old. All victims of domestic violence who died since February 2014 at the hands of their abusers. Caroline Finnegan died from bleeding to the brain and also had a broken nose and eye socket. Elizabeth Thomas was stabbed to death and dismembered. Lucy Lee was shot. Mairead McCallion died from head injuries. Sheila Wild was strangled.

A young woman in a short cream coat and black tights spoke into the megaphone: “They died at the hands of men who wanted to control them, they lived under the constant threat of violence. Some were killed by partners, other by sons, others by members of the community. What they had in common was they were murdered by men who believed they had the right to have power over them. They were murdered because they were women.

“Today we are focusing on those killed by domestic violence as we believe our government is unwilling to support and meet the needs of those women.”

Sister's Uncut Khadra banner

Sister’s Uncut, Khadra Aden

When all the names are read, there is a minute’s silence. The crowd is made up of young women, students, mothers with children in push chairs, older women. Collectively they call themselves Sisters Uncut and many have been involved in nationwide direct action protests against corporate tax evaders and the cuts to public services. But Sisters Uncut is unique among modern protest groups because it is for self-defining women only.

After the emotional silence, the women suddenly erupt: “You say cutback, we say fightback”. “Women united will never be defeated.” They stream onto the main road snaking off towards Regent Street, fists and placards raised. A stereo balanced on the back of a bicycle blares out pop music. They marched up Regents Street, leaving a trail of angry horns in their wake. Passersby stop to read the placards and a few women out shopping stop to talk.

Roxanne, a member of Sisters Uncut, who with a wide smile described herself as a feminist, says: “We’re here today to protest cuts to domestic violence services. Since austerity measures in 2010 women’s services and specialist services have been very badly hit. The cuts aren’t falling in a neutral way, they’re falling in a very gendered way, which discriminate against women. Austerity is killing women. It is stopping women escaping dangerous relationships and stops them living their lives safely. Safety should be a right rather than a privilege. In order for every woman to have that right then we need to stop all cuts to domestic violence services.”

From a small office in a shared building off a popular high street in Walthamstow, East London, Ashiana runs three specialist refuges for women of South Asian, Turkish and Iranian origin. Their staff and counsellors understand the complexities of forced marriage and can quickly recognise when calling the police on your husband in the UK might cause you harm on another continent.

The charity has 20 beds for women fleeing domestic and sexual violence, women at risk of forced marriage and women leaving forced marriages. It’s one of the few such services – catering specifically for forced marriage survivors – in the whole of the UK.

But it’s a service that might not exist at the end of the year because the local council has decided to re-commission funding towards a generic domestic violence provision. At stake for Ashiana is the £100,000 they receive from the council to run their specialist services. They could apply for the new contract but would only stand a chance of winning if they offered a generic service alongside their forced marriage and cultural specific services, for exactly the same money.

Domestic violence refuges across the country, reliant on local authority funding that’s faced significant cuts in the last five years, face similar problems. Specialist services are being asked to provide general services while other refuges are closing as local authority funding is reduced or withdrawn. Women fleeing violent relationships are being turned away because refuges have no spaces for them. Women’s Aid’s annual study found that 155 women are turned away each day. According to a new campaign led by the Sun newspaper 32 refuges have closed since 2010.

Meanwhile, women continue to die. Two women a week are killed by a partner or former partner. We know their names because Karen Ingala Smith, a campaigner and head of a domestic violence charity Nia, began counting and recording their murders in January 2012.

Since 2010 it’s been widely reported that women face the brunt of public spending cuts and welfare reform because they are more likely than men to need benefit support and use public services. What’s worrying is the cumulative impact of austerity on women’s rights. The slashing of the legal aid budget and increasing court fees has made it difficult for women to access the courts. Increased conditionality around Jobseeker’s Allowance and sanctions has driven poorer women raising children into poverty or insecure, poorly paid work.

And so Sisters Uncut have taken to the streets. On their first Valentine’s Day protest, they shut down London’s busiest shopping district. Over the May bank holiday weekend, the group blockaded a street outside the London Councils offices. From the roof of the building they unfurled a flag which read, “You cut, we bleed.”

In July George Osborne will announce his Budget, which could see at least £12bn further cuts made to public services and welfare. It could get even worse.

Photos by Khadra Aden