Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities Contents

9Violence against women and girls

158.There is very little data on the extent of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, but we have heard from agencies and individuals that this is a serious and long-standing problem, at least in Gypsy and Traveller communities. Janie Codona of One Voice 4 Travellers, a domestic abuse charity, estimated such abuse was experienced by as many as 75 per cent of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women, at some point in their lives.234 Win Lawlor of Irish Community Care felt that patterns of abuse tended to follow family lines, meaning that, in some families, abuse is the accepted norm whereas in some it is non-existent.235

The nature of domestic abuse in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

159.We heard from both experts and Gypsy and Traveller women with experience of domestic abuse directly and the stories they told were harrowing. Abuse can begin early and last years and when women try to flee, there are often significant barriers to overcome. Janie Codona told us that the reason that abuse continues to be undetected is because very few women feel able to report.236 She also told us that women feel that marriage is for life and, if a marriage breaks down, women can be ostracised not just from their family but from the wider community:

There are some now who are brave enough to walk away from a relationship, and many of those have to move outside the community. They have to go and live in bricks-and-mortar accommodation, because of the fear that, if they stay within the community, they are still able to be under the ruling of this perpetrator—if not directly by him, by his extended family.237

One woman we spoke to told us about her experience of trying to get a divorce:

When I decided to leave my husband, I had to leave maybe 5,000 family members behind as well because, when I applied for a divorce, that was it: “You have made your bed; you lie in it. You are bringing shame on the family. Your daughters are now going to be punished for what is going on. You are now a dirty woman”.238

160.Kim White, a retired police officer, told us that, in some cases, women and girls have been brought up to believe that they are the property of their husband and therefore do not recognise abuse when it occurs:

A lot of these women are brought up to believe that it is their husband’s right to have sex with them whenever they want. If they have grown up in a home like that, it automatically reflects on them.239

161.However, some of our witnesses felt that there has been a generational shift in how Gypsy and Traveller people behave in relationships.240 Kim White felt that the situation may be changing for the better:

I am finding that the girls are getting more in control of their lives. They have found a voice. […] Once her husband has laid a hand on her, she is saying, “Right, that is it. I am off. Enough is enough”.241

162.In relation to Roma, we received very little evidence at all. All our witnesses agreed that they had never come across a Roma woman who had fled an abusive home, but this may be because they work predominantly with Gypsy and Traveller women.242 The Roma Support Group told us that barriers to Roma women leaving abusive relationships could be severe:

There is a corresponding difficulty in accessing other services including domestic violence support, including the ability to have an empowered interaction with children’s services. This is especially lacking under current welfare rights of EEA nationals and the case of single mothers without a UK work history. While experiencing the need to escape abusive partners or faced with homelessness after the breakdown of a relationship, Roma women have been threatened with having to either accept coach or plane tickets back to their country of origin or being made street homeless (with the subsequent threat of having their children removed from their care).243

As with other issues, Roma women in these circumstances seem to have more in common with other EU migrant groups than with British Gypsy and Traveller women.

Challenges in accessing support

163.Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Women who are trying to leave abusive homes face barriers that go beyond those that non-Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women experience. Gypsy and Traveller women often lose their extended community network when a relationship ends. While this can be due to ostracisation, it is also likely that a woman will be living either on a site or very near to her extended family and, if she needs to leave her home, she will need to be housed far away for her own safety. One woman told us:

As a Traveller woman, you do not have the support of family. [If you leave] you lose your community and you lose who you are because you are leaving everything you have ever known and everyone behind.244

164.When informal support networks are absent, women must turn to external agencies for help. Several women we spoke to found support from a particular social worker who they trusted. However, the women expressed a general mistrust of social services, a view we heard repeated throughout the inquiry.245 This often manifested in the fear that, if a woman were to approach social services for help, she risked having her children taken into care. One of the women we spoke to told us:

I think social services are one of the biggest barriers in why Traveller women are not asking for help or not trying to break free. You have to stay at home, be a punch bag and cover up your bruises in order to keep your children. That is how Traveller women feel.246

165.The police were also seen as untrustworthy by witnesses, although some had had good experiences of support.247 For the most part, witnesses identified particular individual as “trusted” and therefore providing the best support.248 These were people who had “cultural awareness”.249 The women strongly felt that what would make the biggest difference to support given to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women was having a “key worker”250 who understood the specific needs that they had and would not ask “intrusive questions” in a way that the women found offensive and confusing. One woman said:

It would really help: that one person who you can tell everything to, and who can also help you and explain to you. It is just a person you trust.251

While most women said that they wanted to be supported by people who understood the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, this was not universal. One woman said that she had been offered a place in a refuge that was not involved in the Gypsy and Traveller community, and that this gave her the distance that she needed from her community.252 This was a view echoed by Win Lawlor, who said:

We find that, if somebody from the Gypsy Traveller community is in a refuge, no other Gypsy or Traveller is accepted in that refuge […] I was explained why that situation was, and it was simply because a sister, cousin or family member of the male abuser would be asked to go into the refuge to check that she was in there, which meant that every single Traveller woman in there was unsafe, because that information would get back out.253

166.Although our witnesses identified good practice both from some local authorities and charities, it was often the case that funding was short-term and relied on unpaid work by individuals going above and beyond their jobs. One social worker, for instance, would visit all the sites in his area and, in addition to this, ran a football team for the boys on site.254 Janie Codona explained the challenges she encountered while trying to run a small, local charity:

We get a lot of referrals. They are referred on to us and that is it: “We have referred this person on to you” and, there you are, left with the person, but you do not get the support that you need with that person. Your funds are limited. You have two or three-year funding, or funding for one county but not the other, so you are forever thinking, “What can we do with this person under this present funding stream?”255

Win Lawlor expressed a similar frustration, saying also that public bodies expected charities and volunteer organisations to take on their case loads:

We always find that statutory agencies such as youth offending, health or mental health step back and leave us with that person.256

167.Support for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women fleeing violence must provide women with viable and sustainable options to keep them safe. Organisations with strong records of working with and for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are the obvious choice to provide such services, although we note that some women may choose to use non-Traveller services instead. The funding for these services is currently short-term and unsustainable, however, and does not provide Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women with the safety they need.

168.Local authorities should ensure that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women have access to a single, trusted contact who provides them with the information and support they need. Should this contact be from a charitable organisation, local authorities must ensure that the organisation has sufficient funding to sustain the necessary support.

Violence prevention

169.It is only by understanding the root causes of violence against women and girls that such violence can be prevented. As discussed above, the women we talked to spoke about the non-consensual attitudes that their abusers took towards them. The professionals who spoke to us suggested that part of the problem was isolation and family relationships that excluded understanding of what might constitute unacceptable, or, indeed, criminal behaviour on the part of male family members. Janie Codona told us that the feeling that women must be subservient to men can be so strong that it can lead to children abusing their mother:

Particularly within the Gypsy Traveller community, where they split from a partner, it is more likely that, if they have an older son, he could and does take on the mantle: “I am the head of the household and what I say goes”. There is this child-parent abuse.257

The women we spoke to were keen to emphasise that not all men in Gypsy and Traveller communities are abusers and that they felt that their ethnicity was incidental. One woman told us:

Not all travelling men are like that. Most men carry their wives. We were just the unlucky ones. We ended up with an animal; well, mine was anyway. What your community is does not matter, whether you are gorger258 or Muslim, if you marry that one bad person and he is evil.259

Nonetheless, the women also recognised the patterns of behaviour that were leading to women in the Communities having very little power or freedom in their lives. One of the women told us:

Even when girls and boys are young, the girl is always at home. The girl has a very strict upbringing. You are not allowed off anywhere. Your brother is your boss. Your father is your boss. You are raised to babysit, clean and cook. This is what you are raised to do. You know where you are going. You know you are going to get married one day. Boys have that freedom and they have had always that power where they look after their sisters. They have a reputation to carry […] This is where it starts from a young age, where boys have that overall power, which triggers jealousy and everything else.260

170.When we asked about education and the role that this plays in the attitudes that are formed in young people about gender roles, the group disagreed. Some thought that there was no way to educate boys and that only girls and women would be able to protect each other through knowledge and understanding,261 while some thought it was “worth a try” to work with all genders.262 Kim White, a former police officer, said that she found it much more difficult to “get through to young boys” in her work on domestic abuse. She told us that male police officers found it equally difficult.263

171.Witnesses spoke of various programmes trying to prevent domestic abuse in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, from Kim White’s informal method of chatting to women at the school gates264 to formal, funded projects such as Leeds GATE’s project that involved working with both men and women.265 While Kim White was sceptical of the idea of engaging men, she believed that beginning to have conversations about “healthy relationships”266 with boys as young as five or six years old might be effective.267 However, sustainable funding was seen as a barrier to successful interventions, especially given that, as Win Lawlor stated, programmes needed to be delivered by “trusted people”.268 The work that our predecessor committee has done on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools suggested that working with both girls and boys from as early an age as possible can be effective in embedding positive relationship messages.269

172.A lack of awareness of consent culture and healthy relationships is leading to domestic abuse in young Gypsy and Traveller people’s lives. Both boys and girls need to be taught what abuse is and how to challenge it. All primary schools in England should ensure that they have lessons on consent and respect included in relationship education and these messages should continue through into secondary school. Gypsy and Traveller organisations should be among groups involved in the development of these classes and could, where appropriate, deliver the lessons.

173.We have heard of effective work that community organisations are doing working with Gypsy and Traveller men and women to challenge outdated attitudes towards women. The Home Office should work with these organisations with a view to funding similar programmes across the country.

234 Q619 [Janie Codona]

238 Q649 [Woman 5]

240 Q665 [Woman 2]

243 Roma Support Group (GRT0044)

246 Q652 [Woman 5]

247 Q659 [Woman 4]

248 Q628 [Win Lawlor]

249 Q657 [Woman 5]

251 Q661 [Woman 3]

252 Q646 [Woman 1]

253 Q634 [Win Lawlor]

255 Q639 [Janie Codona]

256 Q639 [Win Lawlor]

258 Romany people use the word “gorger” to signify people who are not Romany. Irish Traveller people use the word to signify people who are not travelling.

259 Q651 [Woman 1]

260 Q654 [Woman 5]

261 Q655 [Woman 1]

262 Q655 [Woman 3]

264 Q632 [Kim White]

265 Q628 [Win Lawlor]

266 Q664 [Woman 3]

267 Q632 [Kim White]

268 Q628 [Win Lawlor]

269 Women and Equalities Committee, Third Report of Session 2016–17, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools, HC 91

Published: 5 April 2019