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Photos: South East London Sisters Uncut.
‘You leave our sisters in hostels, in B&Bs, on the street. How can she leave if she has nowhere to go?’
These were the words of the feminist, direct action group Sisters Uncut as they disrupted a council cabinet meeting in the London borough of Southwark on September 20. Thirty protestors of the South East London branch stormed the meeting in order to challenge Southwark Council’s poor track record of rehousing domestic violence survivors. After reading out the names of the 138 women who have been killed in the UK since August 2015 due to domestic violence, the group demanded greater support for women fleeing domestic violence in Southwark.
South East London Sisters Uncut claim that data they have obtained from Southwark Council through recent freedom of information requests shows that there are 1,270 empty council homes in Southwark. Yet 47% of women who try to access safe and secure housing after experiencing domestic violence are turned away by the council. Moreover, the council only has 27 beds for refuge provision for immediate short-term support.
Following the protest, South East London Sisters Uncut secured a meeting with Southwark Council in early November. To celebrate their success, the group marched from London Bridge station to the council’s offices on Tooley Street. As they marched, purple and green smoke flares were set off—the group’s signature colours adopted in homage to the Sufragette movement. Speakers balanced on the the back of a bicycle blared out music as the group chanted ‘sisters united will never be defeated.’
A domestic violence support worker, Jasminder Akhtar, spoke about her motivation for taking part in the protest: ‘Southwark Council’s housing policy is putting survivors at risk and they are failing in their duties towards people fleeing domestic abuse.’
Ayse, a member of South East London Sisters Uncut, added: ‘Quite a few women we’ve spoken to in Southwark have said they have been told to return to their abusive partners by the council.’
At the meeting in November Sisters Uncut plan to focus on Southwark Council’s housing allocation policies. They will demand safe and secure and housing for all survivors of domestic violence in the borough and that survivors are given band 1 priority for allocation of council housing. Sisters Uncut are also calling for funding for specialist BAME, disabled and LGBT+ domestic violence services, as all funding for these specialist services was cut in 2010.
Since their formation at the start of this year as a regional offshoot of the national Sisters Uncut group, South East London Sisters Uncut have highlighted the need for secure social housing for women fleeing domestic violence. Over the summer they reclaimed a vacant shop on Peckham’s Rye Lane for a month, hosting workshops to discuss the current state of domestic violence services attended over the month by approximately 700 people. However up until they stormed Southwark Council’s cabinet meeting in September, the group has received a limited response from the council. Councilor Stephanie Cryan defended the council’s record in a statement on the council’s website, arguing that ‘statistics alone do not show the whole picture.’
Elsewhere, Sisters Uncut have achieved considerable success. In response to their reclamation of an empty council flat in Hackney over the summer, the mayor of Hackney has promised to fulfill some of the group’s demands, including filling all empty homes in Hackney by September 2017. In Doncaster, Sister Uncut’s actions resulted in the revival of a domestic violence service that had been forced to close at the start of the year.
As for South East London Sisters Uncut, they are determined to continue their fight against Southwark Council until their demands are met. The group insists they will continue to use direct action to press for change. At a time when most political activism seems to take place online, Sisters Uncut members feel there is power in taking their campaign to the streets.
Reflecting on the groups recent protest, Sisters Uncut’s Ayse said ‘domestic violence services are being decimated and we can feel really powerless but our last protest was a really good reminder of why we do direct action and that direct action does work.’