Nottingham Women’s Centre is a charity and community space that empowers women by providing financial and employment support, counselling, training, social activities and activism in a women’s building in central Nottingham. Before lockdown measures were imposed, around 250 women came to the Women’s Centre every week. We are now supporting similar numbers over the phone and online.
Our staff and volunteers have supported many women facing crisis during Covid-19. It’s a difficult time for everyone at the moment, but it’s been especially hard for women who were already struggling with their mental health, poverty or discrimination. This blog is a summary of the main issues that have been highlighted by our caseworkers and management team, along with issues identified by our local ‘Communities of Identity’ funding partners, POW and Women’s Resource Centre.
Mental Health Crisis
“Mental health is the primary issue for our young people”
– Communities of Identity Funding Partner
Women and girls from a wide range of backgrounds across Nottingham have reported increased mental distress due to bereavements, isolation and Covid restrictions. Co-ordinators for groups supporting Muslim women, young people, sex workers and trans women have reported mental health issues as the primary concern for their community members.
Research by the international charity CARE has also highlighted the global disparities between men and women’s experiences of Covid-related mental health with 27% of women reporting increased mental illness since the start of the pandemic compared to 10% of men.
“The main issue impacting our service users is social isolation, especially for women living alone. Some have been furloughed and struggled to survive on less hours or less pay, which has affected their mental health. They were worried about feeding children at lunchtime while kids were off school isolating due to Covid cases in their classes, and during school holidays. We are aware that ourselves and other organisations need to be even more aware of people’s mental situations caused by events over the last year. For those women already on an unsteady path Covid has rocked them and they have no or very little support. A lot of the women we speak with do not want to go back to the doctor and get labelled with the stigma of mental health.”
– Building Bridges, Breaking Barriers (Communities of Identity Funding Partner)
“The main issues have been not able to do any activities hence women are being isolated and losing confidence but we are trying to support and help women in any way we can by doing packed lunches and to help them to stay positive and gain confidence and live a healthy life for we do cook healthy lunches”
– Muslim Women’s Group (Communities of Identity Funding Partner)
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a huge piece of legislation which proposes major changes to Government policies relating to crime and justice, including protests. We are acutely aware of how many women’s rights have been won through non-violent direct action and are therefore are deeply concerned about the new protest restrictions.
Currently the police can impose specific measures on the routes of marches and put restrictions on protests that may result in “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community“. The Policing Bill will allow Police chiefs to put more conditions on rallies such as imposing a start and finish time and setting noise limits. Offices will also be able to fine individuals up to £2,500 if they refuse to follow Police directions. These restrictions are designed to prevent the occupation of public spaces and other forms of nonviolent direct action.
More than 150 rights organisations including Liberty, End Violence Against Women Coalition and Unite have co-signed a letter to Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, warning that the legislation would be “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens” and have asked the government to “fundamentally rethink its approach”.
Some of our clients are concerned and angry as they have been excluded from the £20 Benefits uplift announced by Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the latest budget because they have remained on ‘legacy benefits’. An estimated 1.9 million disabled people will miss out on the £20-a-week payments which has led to two disabled people launching legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Some of our clients have chosen to stay on ‘legacy benefits’ (e.g. ESA and Child Tax Credit) rather than move over to Universal Credit system for a wide range of reasons such as: UC usually being paid monthly rather than fortnightly, payment amounts perceived as being less predictable, and concerns about the five week delay between an application for UC and receiving the first payment.
Women who do choose to switch to UC may be entitled to an ‘advance payment’ loan, which can be taken out at the start of the five weeks but many women fear they will not be able to survive on the reduced level of benefit paid while repaying the loan.
There are different rules around savings, earnings and eligibility for UC and the £20 uplift is only guaranteed until September. Longer term this means some women may be worse off switching, and it’s not possible to ‘switch back’ to legacy benefits. The finance blog MoneySavingExpert says “as rough guidelines, those who are better off (on UC) are typically those who pay private rents in expensive cities. Those who might be worse off are those with disabilities.”
Our caseworkers have noted that, on average, women are paid 10% less on UC in comparison to legacy benefits. It’s understandable why some women do not want to switch, but we do not believe it’s fair that they have been excluded from the £20 benefits uplift.
Gypsy, Traveller and Roma Women in the Criminal Justice System
New research by The Traveller Movement reports that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) women are shockingly overrepresented in the Criminal Justice system, forming approximately 6% of the prison population and yet just 0.1% of the general population. This is even higher at the women’s prison in Derbyshire (HMP Foston Hall) where at least 9% of women self-identify as Gypsy/Irish Traveller. The Traveller Movement demonstrates how GRT people are routinely discriminated against by the police and therefore have poor outcomes throughout the justice system, contributing to this overrepresentation.
‘Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Women in Prison’ calls for policymakers to implement a series of recommendations, including:
A call for increase in the use of Out Of Court Disposals (OOCDs) for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Women, and also for consistent ethnic monitoring to capture how these are implemented by the Police.
A call for more integrated sentencing plans to better support GRT women upon their release.
Prisons need to become trauma-informed spaces, and HMPPS should commission providers with expertise in Domestic Abuse and Adverse Childhood Experiences to develop a better understanding of the intersecting needs of GRT women.
Roma ethnicity must be introduced into ethnic monitoring by Criminal Justice organisations to allow the experiences of Roma women to be better recorded and better included in calls for reform.
Problems with Unpaid Work Orders
Unpaid Work Orders are community orders or suspended sentences where people are obliged to carry out between 40 and 300 hours of unpaid work, usually at a charity or community project.
Some women haven’t been able to complete Unpaid Work Orders during Covid restrictions because charities have either closed their premises and activities or have been overwhelmed with work and unable to take on extra responsibilities. The Orders are time-limited by court, which has led to some women’s Orders expiring before they have been given the opportunity to complete them.
We know that a clear end date for court orders, and all forms of punishment, are really important for women’s rehabilitation and mental health. However, rather than allowing women to move on with their lives, some courts have extended court Unpaid Work Orders by a further 6 to 12 months. This has left some women feeling distressed and frustrated, which has led to some women mounting legal challenges against the extension as other types of orders have not been extended.
Rise of online sex work
There are growing numbers of women offering online sex work. Research by the sex workers organisation, POW Nottingham, has highlighted a new community of online sex workers, mostly consisting of young women, working on the platform OnlyFans.
Even though these women don’t necessarily identify with the term ‘sex worker’, they can experience risks relating to sex work including: harassment, outing, and stalking.
The research also found that street and off-street sex workers have generally not moved online. This could be due to digital exclusion, language barriers or lack of marketing or technological skills.