Islington refugee charity backs One Billion Rising to help women in hour of need

Livia Firth is one of the supporters of the charity

Livia Firth is one of the supporters of the charity - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

To many, Valentine’s Day simply means showers of red, sparkly confetti, sickly-sweet cards and messages of devotion dominating the aisles of almost every shop.

Some of the woman in the video campaign highlighting the problems refugee women face

Some of the woman in the video campaign highlighting the problems refugee women face - Credit: Archant

But this year one billion women are claiming February 14 from St Valentine – as they dance and sing in protest at violence against women in organised events across the world .

It is all part of the One Billion Rising campaign.

Islington-based charity Women for Refugee Women (WRW) has promoted the movement to highlight the suffering of female asylum-seekers.

In a video on their website, stateless women are joined in song while a shocking statistic – that more than half of the women who use the charity have been raped – flashes on screen.

WFRW is the base for a self-help group of female refugees who meet at the charity’s office in Featherstone Street to chat, eat and drink, practise their English and to speak out against injustices suffered by asylum seekers.

The charity is supported by Colin Firth’s wife, film producer Livia Firth, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup and actor Juliet Stevenson, who directed a play put on by WRW based on the experiences of women and children in immigration detention.

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In a report released by WRW last year, it found 42 out of 65 female UK asylum seekers questioned had suffered some kind of gender-based persecution, including genital mutilation, rape and forced prostitution – but most have their application turned down.

Applying for leave to remain in the UK is a long and difficult process, with the odds stacked against applicants: WWR found that 67 out of 70 female refugees they interviewed had been refused asylum.

But figures don’t reveal the suffering these women have gone through, nor the fight they face in claiming asylum after – in many cases – fleeing unspeakable atrocities.

A 35-year-old woman, who did not want to be named and now calls the WRW her official residence, was forced to marry a family friend in her home country of Cameroon when she was just 16.

“I wasn’t happy living with him, I was really suffering. He hit me all the time,” she said.

In 2004, she met a woman who was able to fly her out of the country but her struggles didn’t end there.

When she arrived in England, she was forced to work as a prostitute in a brothel.

“I didn’t know where I was going but I had no other option. When I arrived, they took my documents and money. I had never done anything like [prostitution] before.

“I couldn’t call the police because they would make me go back to Africa. I was so scared.”

After eight months, she managed to escape and started working illegally in a care home, but the police caught her and she was imprisoned for working without papers for three months in Derby.

When she was released, she was homeless and destitute with no-one to turn to.

“I met someone who let me stay in her living room and she said, ‘I’m not going to rape you, come and stay with me’ but it was on the floor which was cold and hard. After a while she pushed me out, screaming at me.”

She relies on the support of her church and charities for money and shelter after being refused asylum.

Notre Dame Refugee Centre in the West End gives her a few pounds for travel and some food parcels but it is not enough. The church she attends is her only comfort.

“I came into contact with the charity, Notre Dame, who give me £2.70 a week and I found a church on Old Kent Road to go to. The church members are the few friends I have around me. When you’ve been scared and traumatised all your life, your dreams and hopes go up and down all the time.”

Sophie Radice, the WRW communications executive, said: “Even if a woman is persecuted for reasons that are not based on her sex, because of her religion, for instance, or her ethnic background, that persecution is more likely to take the form of rape or sexual violence.

“It would be wrong to insist that all of the women experiencing such persecution should find refuge in the UK but the treatment of women by the UK Border Agency is too often disbelief and refusal of their claims.

“Many of these women will be removed back to countries where they are in danger but many live among us in the UK, existing in legal limbo, destitution and fear of forced removal, compounding their trauma.

“Days of action like One Billion Rising are so important because it highlights the way that treatment of women across borders must be spoken about openly.

“We are campaigning to end the destitution of those refused asylum by giving them permission to work if their case has not been resolved within six months and to provide welfare support for all asylum seekers who need it, up until the point of return or integration.”