Geetu* is fragile, a tiny birdlike creature who could be broken if she were hugged too fiercely. Except she was broken not by love but by a man who would sweep her into his arms and throw her on the bed or on the floor or against furniture in a fit of rage. She learned to protect her head with her hands as she came crashing down. A small woman with a big story, hailing from the wide open spaces and stunning views of the highest part of the Himalayas: Nepal. Because she is from there, the British state’s calculated policy of creating a 'hostile environment' for migrants with its battery of immigration rules meant that she didn’t get the protection from male violence that other women can expect.
At 17, she fell in love and eloped with a man from a lower caste, that old fissure that runs deep in south Asian society and corrodes it from within. She was a Hindu, he a Buddhist. She was disowned by her family. As the only daughter, they felt she had committed a big sin. His family didn’t approve of the match either, which is strange as a higher caste girl should have been seen as a catch. They merely tolerated her presence.
From the beginning he was controlling and aggressive. If he caught her talking to other men, he would pick a fight with them. He would come home at midnight without explanation, even though he was only a student; she would not dare question him. She felt particularly excluded from family life because they talked in their own language, Tamang, rather than Nepali, the widely spoken language that Geetu understood.
Six years of living in fear but still in love. When the opportunity arose for them to come to the UK in 2009, she took it in the hope that things might improve if they were living on their own. They came on her student visa, which allowed her to pursue qualifications in health and social care. He came as her dependant, in the language of immigration rules, for a brief period, until the college that provided her course shut down. He then got a job as a chef and a work permit on the back of that, and she became his dependant. It is this dependency status that men classically abuse to exercise control over their women.
For the first two years, he behaved himself. They were adapting to a new place and settling down. But from 2011 he began drinking, gambling and sleeping with other women. When he had to move to Bristol for work, she refused to go with him because her student visa allowed her to work part-time (20 hours) but she was not allowed to change her job. She was in the process of applying for her dependant's visa and until that was granted, she wouldn’t be able to take on employment.
He wouldn’t hear of it. He slapped her so hard that she went flying, fell on the floor, bruised the side of her face and developed a black eye. She had a high temperature for five days but he locked her in a room so she could not see the GP or go to the police. In the end she had no choice but to follow him to Bristol, where the beatings continued. Her cries disturbed the neighbours, who complained to the landlord, who rang her husband and threatened to call the police if he didn’t stop.
For a while the beatings stopped. "He would still throw me," Geetu said. "He tortured me emotionally and compared my small body with the body of the European waitress with whom he was having an affair." Her application for a dependant's visa was refused because she had come on a student visa; the Home Office said that she would have to return to Nepal to apply for the new visa. She went back for four or five months and returned on a dependant's visa. She went to live with him in Bristol where he forced her to work 60 hours per week as a care assistant.
After three years, he returned to London but lost his job soon after. On her meagre wages from the care home she had to meet not only her expenses in Bristol but also his expenses in London, including £800 in rent, money for gambling and for entertaining his various girlfriends. When he finally found another job, he applied for a new work permit; under immigration rules, the employer has to sponsor the visa of a non-British worker. The application failed. While they appealed the decision, the couple were not allowed to work.
He forced her to take a cash-in-hand, live-in domestic worker’s job with a family who made her work 12 hours a day, six days a week, for £50 per day. On one of her occasional days off, when she went to visit him, she discovered that he had gambled away the £800 she had saved up for his rent. They had an argument. He left her and took up with his Nepali girlfriend. Geetu could not stop crying; she attempted suicide. One of the few people she knew in the community, an older woman who she called 'aunty', took her in and looked after her for a year. In return, she cooked and cleaned.
Her husband’s girlfriend would ring her up, saying: "You illegal bitch. I’m going to report you to the Home Office and they will detain you." Geetu lived in fear of deportation. She became anorexic. Her GP referred her to Southall Black Sisters (SBS), who found her accommodation and a solicitor who lodged an application for asylum. Until her case is resolved, she is not allowed to work and must live on £37 per week. She will soon be starting Recovery College, where she will learn to deal with depression and anxiety, and plans to divorce her husband and start a nursing course. Although she is slowly starting to pick up the pieces, her depression hangs over her like a cloud. Relatively speaking, Geetu has been lucky. In this environment of austerity, there are many women living on the brink of death, who overstretched groups like SBS simply cannot reach.
In early 2018, Theresa May announced her intention to introduce new legislation to deal with the intractable problem of domestic violence. A draft bill was due to be published during the 16 Days of Activism against violence against women, which began on 25th November, but Brexit has pushed all other business aside. The bill is meant to indicate that "This government is committed to doing everything [it] can to end domestic abuse", yet how likely are migrant women to feel the warmth of the government's embrace?
When the Windrush scandal broke earlier this year, it highlighted the inhumanity of that 'hostile environment' for immigrants, which Theresa May spoke so proudly of creating when she was home secretary. For a brief moment, it opened up our national consciousness to the radical idea that migrants are human beings too. Recently, under mounting criticism about the impact of the 'hostile environment' on the reporting of domestic violence, the police announced that they were issuing guidance to all forces which would state that the immigration status of victims of crime will no longer be checked, as it has been in the past, which has stopped women like Geetu from going to the police. This guidance is being scrutinised by groups like SBS who say that it does nowhere near enough to address the fear that migrant women have of reporting crime. We need to ensure that all women, including migrant women, are able to access safety and protection without fear. They should not have to endure violence as the price of their lives here.
If you would like to help women like Geetu, you can donate to Southall Black Sisters, who provide emergency support for migrant women who cannot work while applying for leave to remain.
*Not her real name