Issues impacting women in Nottingham during Covid-19 (Winter 2020/21)
Nottingham Women’s Centre (NWC) 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 600 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 information from two focus groups: our quarterly feedback focus group ‘V.I.E.W’, and one specifically regarding misinformation held with Nadia Whittome MP.
Caseworkers have reported a notable rise in the amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories within since the pandemic started. Misinformation has rapidly spread through social media networks (e.g. WhatsApp and closed Facebook groups) and has become normalised. This could pose a threat to public health as the misinformation generally creates mistrust in the Government and the medical establishment, and creates tension between racialized groups.
Reported conspiracy theories include false information on the following topics:
5G internet causes Covid-19; the pandemic has been planned by either the Chinese Government or Bill Gates; drug companies want to depopulate the planet; vaccinations are harmful and/or being used to ‘track’ individuals; an explosion in Beirut was set-up by the Government; white British people’s cultures are being ‘erased’; there’s a plan to ethnically cleanse black people through Black Lives Matter protests.
The history of oppression and violence against racially minoritised communities fuels many of these conspiracy theories. Our caseworkers have noted that misinformation and conspiracy theories are particularly common in communities where English is the second language.
During our focus group on misinformation, it was noted that scientific information is often inaccessible due to the technical language used, whereas misinformation spreads widely because it uses plain language and more accessible formats, such as audio files or memes. It was also noted that far-right organisations are attaching themselves to legitimate campaigns such as anti-child exploitation and veteran’s rights to promote their own agenda of racial segregation.
Women in our focus group want shareable and easy-to-understand online materials that;
- Explain how to identify misinformation
- Actively dispute specific conspiracy theories
- These online materials also need to be available in multiple languages.
Women also want community leaders and doctors to be vocal about getting the Covid-19 vaccine themselves to reassure people that it’s safe. For example, Nadia Whittome MP confirmed that she would be taking the vaccine. Testimonies from already trusted community leaders would be the most powerful, as new conspiracy theories may form around high profile politicians and celebrities having the vaccine (e.g. that they were taking a fake vaccination).
Transphobic hate crimes have quadrupled since 2015. Recent research found that 60% of trans people had experienced transphobia online and more than 50% had experienced transphobia in the street. This is partly due patriarchal gender norms, the hostile online ‘debate’ around updating the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), and anti-trans sentiments expressed by politicians such as Donald Trump.
We are proud to be a trans-inclusive women’s centre. The Board of NWC ratified our trans-inclusion policy on 1st June 1998, although trans women were accessing the women’s centre for many years before that date. Contrary to some populist commentators, trans women have been a valued part of our community for many years and including trans women in our services hasn’t caused any internal issues. The only problem has been abuse from anti-trans activists over social media and the phone. This abuse has impacted our staff and volunteers’ mental health and increased our workloads.
The Women and Equalities Committee (a cross-party group of MPs who are selected to hold the Government to account regarding women and equalities) launched an Inquiry in November to investigate the Government’s handling of changes to the GRA. Our Policy Officer submitted evidence to the Inquiry based on information from NWC staff, volunteers and service users, as well as Notts Trans Hub, TRANS4ME and Nottingham Chameleons. We will publish the evidence in full on our website in the new year, but here’s a quick summary of some of the key barriers experienced by Trans people when accessing services in Nottingham:
1. Misgendering and problems with updating official records
Trans people, particularly non-binary people, have reported experiencing misgendering from reception staff and frontline staff when accessing support services, who do not respect their correct pronouns. This can have a detrimental impact on trans people’s mental health and sense of safety, as well as compromise service users’ privacy.
There are also many reports of support services taking a long time or making it difficult to update official records to reflect a trans person’s gender identity. For example, young trans people have to put their ‘deadname’ (the name they were given at birth, that they no longer use) on their exam papers. This causes extra stress and anxiety during exams.
2. Outdated Equality and Inclusion Forms
Equality and Diversity forms often do not offer a full range of genders, which results in data being lost because it’s not being collected. For example, non-binary people are forced to select ‘Would rather not say’ or ‘Other’. This leaves non-binary people feeling invisible and being erased from Equality and Diversity data and research. One of our non-binary partners remarked: “One day I hope I have the absolute joy of being identified as myself… I’d love to be identified as X”
3. Anxiety accessing services with ‘women’ in name
Trans people have reported feeling anxious about accessing services that have ‘woman’ in the title as they are concerned about potential hostility from anti-trans activists, even if they have a legal right to access those services. This is clearly concerning as trans women are at heightened risk of domestic and sexual violence. For example, Stonewall and YouGov’s research found that 16% of trans women had experienced domestic violence in the last 12 months (whereas 7.5% of cis-bodied women had experienced domestic violence in the same period).
4. Issues with safely accessing toilets
Our trans partners reported multiple issues with accessing public toilets. Most of these issues stemmed from a lack of gender neutral toilets, which led trans people to being confronted or challenged in the toilet and accused of being in the ‘wrong gender’ toilet. For example; “My daughter had an issue in the council-run toilet where the attendant challenged her in the public loos. Also her college made her use the disabled toilets.”
5. Digital exclusion and extreme isolation
A lot of the people talking about trans issues are tech competent, young, middle class people with resources that allow them to access support for being trans. Those who are working class and don’t have access to tech may struggle to access resources, services and experience increased risk of isolation, which is highly likely to impact that persons mental health.
3. Women with limited leave to remain and/or no recourse to public funds
We are supporting a number of women with no recourse to public funds or limited leave to remain in the UK. These women may have children who were born in the UK, but have to reapply for a visa every 2.5 years to stay with their children. The process of applying for a visa is costly and stressful, and involves the following charges:
- The cost of the visa, along with a biometric residence permit: £2208
- An upfront payment of NHS charges for the 2.5 years: £1560
- Solicitor’s fees: approx. £700 – £800
- The costs associated with visa renewal, which includes at least one in-person attendance at a centre (the nearest are in Manchester and Birmingham): approx. £30
This totals approximately £4,500 every 2.5 years, which is 521 hours’ work on minimum wage before paying for basic living costs.
Although use of a solicitor is optional, the women reported that attempting to do the application without a solicitor can be very hazardous. If the Home Office is unable to contact them directly they may decide that the application is fraudulent and dismiss it. In these circumstances fees may not be refunded. Using a solicitor means not only that all the forms will be checked but also that they will handle any queries by the Home Office and make sure that the responses are accurate. Most of the women felt that the extra charges involved were worth paying.
The visa process is not only very expensive but also highly stressful. It’s a threat to their right to remain in the UK if they make a mistake or the Home Office decides that they have made a mistake or that their application is not genuine. Two of the women we are supporting have incurred substantial debts trying to challenge Home Office decisions in the past. While they are on the 2.5 year visa they may have no recourse to public funds and therefore may not be eligible for any benefits including child benefits. If they don’t get a visa at all, they are unable to work.
After 10 years of being granted temporary visas, these women will be eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain.
We would like to be able to offer additional financial support to women with no recourse to public funds who are on very low incomes. We would be open to suggestions about where to access such funding.
We would also like to join or support campaigns that are working to reduce the stress and/or cost of the visa process for women with no recourse to public funds. For example, campaigning for low cost legal support, local arrangements for obtaining biometric cards, as well as bigger campaigns around visa fees/renewal times.
Research from the Women’s Budget Group reveals a huge gender disparity in housing. Women’s housing tends to be of a lower standard than men’s in terms of affordability, ownership, safety and overcrowding. On average, women who privately rent spend 43% of their earnings on housing whereas men who privately rent spend 28%. Also the median home in England costs over 12 times women’s median wages, whereas it’s 8 times men’s median wage.
Issues with housing association accommodation have been raised by NWC caseworkers. Six of our current service users have been moved into housing association accommodation without basic flooring, decoration or white goods. The lack of carpet, laminate or wooden flooring makes houses unsafe for young children, particularly those that crawl, and the lack of clean decoration has impacted women’s confidence and wellbeing.
We would like housing associations to provide clean flooring as part of their basic ‘offer’ to new tenants, especially those who are particularly vulnerable such as women who have recently left a domestic violence refuge and/or those with small children.
We would also be open to joining campaigns that challenge high private rental costs for women.
5. Other issues reported through our partnerships
Women’s casual work
Many women rely on casual ‘cash in hand’ work such as catering jobs, cleaning, dog walking and child minding. Much of this work is no longer available because of Covid-related changes and restrictions. For example, a group of women cater for small events for cash, which enables them to pool their resources, socialise and have a small amount of financial independence. They haven’t been able to form a legal entity because their husbands disapprove so it’s been hard to get support during the pandemic and continue with their activities.
Rise in violence against sex workers
Our partners at POW who support sex workers in Nottingham said “We saw a rise in violence against our client base since the beginning of lockdown which has added another layer of complexity for some of the most complex people and disenfranchised people within the city”. A Bill regarding the legality of buying sex has passed its first reading in Parliament so we are expecting to cover this topic in greater detail in January 2021.
Caseworkers have reported that women have been approached over social media for ‘school funding’, which is actually a scam that asks women to hand over their bank details in exchange for a ‘free’ £70. Another scam tells women that a free £200 supermarket voucher is available for single mothers, if they provide their bank details.
Isolation and poor mental health
This continues to be a major issue. Many groups we work with, including trans support groups and Muslim women support groups, have reported isolation as being a huge issue with their service users.
There are many community and ‘grassroots’ organisations that are run by 1 – 2 volunteers who are offering vital support to a whole community of women in Nottingham. We support many of these groups through our Communities of Identity funding, in partnership with Nottingham City Council. These volunteers have often experienced a rise in demand and work, but also more pressure on them as individuals, which is leading to ‘burnout’ and exhaustion. More funding and support is needed for these community leaders so they can continue to offer support through their organisations.
This document was compiled by our Policy and Influencing Officer. If you have any questions or feedback, please email Katie@nottinghamwomenscentre.com.
 From April 2019 to March 2020 almost 600 women came through our door each week, 800 women participated in our courses and activities, 125 women accessed our counselling service and 70 volunteers were involved with the Centre.