IoS Charity Appeal: Fresh start for sisters who fled their family

But the specialist refuge that saved them is a victim of budget cuts

Roshina knew her big sister Farhal was in trouble, but she hadn't realised how bad it was until the night she heard their family arguing. Farhal, 32, had divorced the Pakistani husband her parents had chosen for her four years earlier, and had secretly remarried. The family found out and were livid.

Roshina, who is 18, was supposed to be in bed, but overheard them. "My dad, brothers and uncle were arguing with my mum," she recalls. "They were trying to get her to go to Farhal and say that she had to get a divorce or they would kill her and her husband."

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She knew the threats were real. Their brother had already punched Farhal in the head and face when he first heard she'd had the temerity to remarry. Afraid for her sister's life, Roshina ran upstairs, crawled under the duvet and called Farhal on her mobile, whispering the bad news. The next day they went to the police and escaped together, along with Farhal's 11-year-old son, Malik.

Now they live at a specialist home in Derby for South Asian victims of domestic violence run by Refuge –the charity that The Independent on Sunday chose for its Christmas appeal. At last they feel safe, and will soon be moving into their own place. But now this lifeline is about to be taken away, as Derby City Council says it is withdrawing all funding for the centre.

For more than five years, the centre in Derby has provided a safe haven for women from around the country who are fleeing domestic violence. It specifically caters for those whose families are originally from countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. For many of these women, there are extra cultural pressures that make violence in the home even harder to escape.

Refuge's project is now expected to close on 31 March, when the council has said it will withdraw all contracts. The move is part of an 83 per cent cut to its budget for supporting vulnerable people. Councils across the country are under similar budgetary pressures, making charitable donations increasingly important to Refuge.

Derby City Council acknowledged in its report on the cuts that concerns were raised of "possible fatalities" as a result of the withdrawal of frontline services such as those offered by Refuge, but says it is under "severe pressure" to balance its budget.

Parvati, the director of the centre, says: "South Asian women suffer the most severe abuse, possibly because they live in extended families and can be abused by multiple people. Often South Asian women are very hesitant to share their experience with other people because 'honour' is such a cultural constraint. Many wouldn't leave the abusive relationship if there weren't a South Asian specific service to go to. We're able to provide that holistic support that helps them get back into the community, which a generic service wouldn't."

As one of only a handful of services in the country catering to South Asian women, they have more referrals than they can keep up with. "Women are waiting in B&Bs for space to come up," Parvati says.

Refuge's safe house in Derby wasn't the first place Roshina, Farhal and Malik came to. For several months they were in a refuge run by another organisation in the south of England, which helped people from all backgrounds, but they found that the staff did not understand the cultural issues they faced, nor did they have the expertise needed to access forced marriage protection orders, and they struggled to settle in. Frustrated at the lack of support one day, Farhal said in the heat of the moment that she wanted to run away. "I couldn't believe what they did next," she recalls. "The social worker called over my 11-year-old son, Malik and said to him: 'You do know that if your mum decides to go we can take you away from her.' He had sleepless nights for weeks." In the end they ran away, eventually managing to get a place with Refuge in Derby.

At any one time around 16 women and their dependents can be housed in four properties, which are run like homes and dotted around the city. With just six staff, they also manage to run outreach services in the community, helping to find vulnerable women and support them in their own homes.

Sabira, 39, was found by a Derby-based Refuge support worker, who used a network of contacts in the community to discover that she was being abused by her family. Sabira is disabled, and her mother-in-law and husband had forged her signature to take away her Disability Living Allowance, instead giving her just £10 a week to feed herself and her two children. When the children asked their grandparents for food they would be given rotten scraps.

She came to the UK from Pakistan in the early Nineties in an arranged marriage, and for the first three years was denied permission to ring home. "I wasn't even allowed to answer the door," she recalls. Last year Sabira's husband tried to cast her out of the family – she wasn't allowed to use the toilet and was made to go outside in the garden. He and his parents came and took her 10-year-old son in the middle of the night, then told social workers she was mentally unfit to look after the children.

Her English is limited and she couldn't see any escape. But with the help of Refuge, she was able to explain to a social worker what was happening. Now she receives her own benefit and looks after her two children. "They wanted to take my home, my money, my kids. They didn't love people, they loved money. Without this help they would have taken everything."

Without help, the picture is bleak. Rates of attempted or successful suicide are more than three times higher among Asian women in the UK than the national average. Experts believe this could be an indicator of abuse, when suicide can seem the only escape.

One in three of the South Asian women supported by the charity in Derby said their abuser had attempted to strangle, suffocate, choke or drown them. Almost half had been threatened with murder, and 50 per cent of the centre's new clients last year were deemed to be at risk of so-called "honour-based" violence.

Recent immigrants who fall victim to abuse often also face language and immigration barriers that specialist staff at the centre are trained to work around. All the workers are from a South Asian background themselves and between them speak eight languages and dialects.

Sunita, one of the support workers, said: "We're able to understand the cultural barriers they face, such as family pressure to go back to the abuser. There's an extra vulnerability because of that pressure. Having someone from a similar background to support them encourages them to rebuild their lives. You're not going to be able to build up a relationship in a generic service, because you'll need a translator and everything will be through a third person."

Cath Roff, strategic director for adults, health and housing at Derby City Council, said: "The council is considering a range of savings to balance its budget, which is severely under pressure … It is working with all affected organisations to devise contingency plans for the potential loss of funding." Ms Roff added that the council was "considering whether a small number of high-priority services, including the refuge services, may be offered a time-limited extension on their contracts beyond the end of March 2013", but said that no decisions had been made.

According to Sunita, anything short of saving the centre will not be enough. "This is the only route to safety for the majority of South Asian women we support. When specialist routes to safety go, it's like the drawbridge closing up. The results could be deadly."

Names have been changed to protect identities

The Independent on Sunday Appeal is for the national domestic violence charity Refuge. To make a donation visit: http://refuge.org.uk/independent-on-sunday-appeal/

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