The Unseen Stories: Behind the Lens – A Story of Female Collaboration and Care

The inception of our campaign “Unseen Stories: Behind the Lens” began after we looked at the beautiful images of women from around the world taken by photographers Tara Moller, Mary Quincy and Tara Todras-Whitehill. Prompted to consider the role of the photographer to bring unseen stories to light, we felt compelled to create an informative panel discussion that went to the core of why some women are not seen or heard in global discourse. Given The Circle’s ongoing COVID-19 appeal to help women disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and as a result of the kindness and generosity of our photographers, we were thrilled to be able to launch an auction of exclusive photographs in tandem with our panel event.

“ I love being a part of a progressive and passionate movement….” – Tara Moller

 As members of The Circle, which aims to empower women globally and act as a mouthpiece for vulnerable women and girls around the world, the evocative images demonstrating multiplicity of female experience spoke directly to our concerns around who is seen and who is not, and so we ask again: How is it that today so many women’s stories are still left behind? And, what can we all do to ensure that the global female experience is seen and heard?

“There are so many stories of women that are unheard and unseen and to be able to tell their stories and where they come from is a big opportunity that I am really excited to be a part of” – Mary Quincy

 One of the reasons why we are so excited about Unseen Stories is that the women behind the lens also consider themselves feminist photographers and have a wealth of experience and knowledge that they will be sharing with us in the panel discussion hosted by Rashmi Dube tonight. We will be hearing the stories behind their photographs, their experiences in a very male-dominated industry and what working as a photographer means in the current pandemic circumstances.

“The campaign is dear to my heart because I find it hard in my life to be seen in a true sense, in terms of what I have been through or going through. What is in my power is help be an advocate for others. This project is important as it shines a light and a voice to those who are not seen.” Rashmi Dube, Host of Unseen Stories.

Tonight’s event and the week long campaign – to make available select images generously donated by our photographers through auction and download – is an attempt to move forward this conversation and support The Circle’s  crucial campaign to raise funds for vulnerable women and girls disproportionately affected by the pandemic as part of its ongoing emergency appeal.

The Unseen Stories project and its launch is a great example of that magic combination of our conscientious members, female collaboration and care. We hope that you will enjoy our panel discussion tonight (re-run will be made available) and take the opportunity to view our fantastic photographs.

“Visual storytelling is a vital part of our narrative in this world.” – Tara Todras-Whitehill

To bid on one of the beautiful images in the auction, click here.

For the option of donating and receiving a downloadable version of the photographs, click here.

This blog post was written by member of The Media Circle, Muna Khogali.


No Recourse to Public Funds: Migrant Women and Children Pull the Short Straw

Image: The Unity Project

The No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy has been catapulted into public awareness recently as it emerges that not only are thousands of law-abiding migrant families inching towards destitution amid COVID-19, but the Prime Minister had apparently never heard of the policy that dates as far back as the 1990s while the Home Secretary refuses to make an exemption during this time of unprecedented crisis.

Although NRPF predates the current Conservative government, it has been severely ramped up in the past decade under the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ endeavour. What it means is that migrants in the UK who are not considered ‘habitually resident’ are blanket banned from accessing public funds, including carers allowance, child benefit, Universal Credit, disability living allowance, housing benefit and jobseeker’s allowance. Yet the path to permanent settlement (Indefinite Leave to Remain) for those on a Family Visa can take as long as ten years, during which time applicants must cough up extortionate visa renewals every 2.5 years.

The condition applies to at least 1 million adults and 142,000 children. In the midst of a pandemic where job losses are rife, this NRPF could force as many as 100,000 people into destitution or homelessness according to the Migration Observatory and the Institute for Public Policy Research. However, researchers largely overlook the gendered discriminatory nature of NRPF. Migrant women who are single mothers, pregnant, or are survivors of domestic abuse are overwhelmingly harmed by the benefits ban which, in turn, has an impact on the welfare of their children.

All over the world, women and girls are disproportionately ensnared in domestic duties and childrearing. Whenever the relationship between a mother and father breaks down, women are more likely to become the sole care giver – yet are unable to enter full time work to cover the costs. The UK’s inflexible labour market remains hostile to single mothers, leaving women with little choice but to enter zero hours contracts and other means of insecure work. However, the burden is heavier for migrant single mothers as they are shoved even further into the margins of insecurity and poverty due to the benefit ban. As a result, migrant single mothers are more likely to become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty; unable to climb the career ladder to earn more money, yet unable to afford childcare costs even if they could work additional hours and no supplementary support in the event they fall into hardship through no fault of their own.

For migrant pregnant women with NRPF, a report published last year by the Unity Project found they are unable to take sufficient maternity leave. Pregnant women with an insecure immigration status are forced to work longer hours both before and after giving birth to cater to the high fees of their new-born baby. Even if the mother-to-be is in a secure job that can provide statutory maternity pay, after the first six weeks the maximum amount is capped at £151.20 per week which without a backlog of savings to rely on, is evidently inadequate to cover rent and other essentials, let alone a child.

To make matters worse, NRPF is putting women’s lives at risk. Migrant women are at an increased risk of domestic abuse when compared to British women, and already figures are reaching eyewatering heights: during COVID-19 lockdown, five women a week have been murdered by the hands of their abuser. Yet NRPF serves to intensify the precarity of migrant abuse victims’ circumstances as without public funds, they can be turned away from refuges. The 2017 Nowhere to Turn Project by Women’s Aid discovered only one refuge space was available to women with NRPF per every region of England, yet the recent Domestic Abuse Bill fails to extend support for women with NRPF or to prevent this from happening again. Campaigners such as The Step Up Migrant Women coalition argue the Bill deliberately ignores migrant women with NRPF, claiming the Government knows they exist but that “it is deliberately choosing to ignore their needs.”There is one, marginal escape route on offer to migrant victims of domestic abuse. The Destitute Domestic Violence Concession opens a shortcut to permanent residency for survivors with a Spouse Visa, however, the process is littered with obstacles and the paperwork is beyond reasonable. Women must jump through hoops to gain a mere three months of public funds while Scottish Women’s Aid even found some councils were advising victims to remain with their abusive partners due to a lack of support. Even so, this backdoor exit is only left ajar for migrant women under Partner Visas; other migrant women under different visa categories are offered no such escape route.

Children to migrant parents are at a clear disadvantage when compared to their peers; they cannot receive free school meals while they are more likely to face destitution and even homelessness as a consequence of their parents’ NRPF. In the event the child does not gain British Citizenship by the time they reach 18, they face international tuition fees to study in a UK university in the country that they have called home their entire lives.

One recent landmark case is exemplary of how NRPF trickles down to affect the standard of life for children. The court heard the heart-wrenching testimony of an eight-year-old British boy who had been plunged into severe poverty his whole life and even street homelessness with his mother, who has NRPF but works as a carer. The court decided NRPF breaches Article 4 of the Human Rights Act in the child’s case, and new guidance has since been issued. However, the new amendment doesn’t go far enough: only those who entered the UK via the family route may apply for protection, and even then, they have to prove that they are at risk of ‘imminent destitution’.

Already, a similar system is in place to protect the welfare of children, which is evidently failing. Local councils have a duty to safeguard its residents and issue Section 17 support in dire circumstances, yet lawyers at Garden Court Chambers have found that not only are applications “onerous, difficult and slow” as a result of austerity and budget cuts, but destitute families have even been told they are not eligible and that their kids may be taken into care. A shocking 6 in 10 families who attempt Section 17 access are refused – and even successful applicants can receive as little as £1.70 a day.

What this shows us is that whenever aid is devolved into the hands of local authorities, vulnerable people become victim to the ‘postcode lottery’ and migrant women with NRPF in particular pull the short straw. The Unity Project goes as far to argue that the Government is failing in its obligation to the Equality Act 2010, finding that NRPF serves as “indirect sex-based discrimination”.

For a country that considers itself propped up by the pillars of civility and justice, this policy that causes new-born babies and children to grow up in extreme poverty, while leaving women with the impossible choice of homelessness or domestic abuse, is in direct conflict with the UK’s commitment to human rights. It is high time the benefits ban is lifted, allowing vulnerable people to access welfare support in the same way Britons can. Until then, No Recourse to Public Funds will continue to unnecessarily spiral thousands of hard-working and ordinary  women and their children into misery and hardship.

If you are concerned about the impact NRPF is having on migrant women and children, contact your local MP today to encourage Boris Johnson and Priti Patel in changing this damaging, hostile policy.

This article was written by Olivia Bridge who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.


Exploitation in the Fashion Industry: An issue from Leicester to Phnom Penh

Image: Rex

Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed to be ‘appalled’ by the illegal wages and working conditions of a garment factory in Leicester, a story that was front page news of this weekend’s UK papers. The factory, which is under investigation for unsafe working conditions and poverty wages, produces clothing for brands including Boohoo and Nasty Gal and has paid wages as low as £3.50 an hour. Although shocking, these findings are not new. Leicester is responsible for around a third of the UK’s fashion manufacturing and has been subject to claims of unsafe conditions including blocked fire exits, unsafe conditions and illegal wages for years – recently coming under additional fire for an almost complete lack of PPE for the workers who continued to produce clothing through the UK’s lockdown. When Vogue Magazine spoke to Debbie Coulter, Head of Programmes at the Ethical Trading Initiative back in 2017, she stated that workers were housed in units that “frankly you’d be fearful of entering – lack of fire safety equipment, fire safety risks, building safety risks.”

These findings are clearly abhorrent, but it does beg the question, if the Home Secretary is so appalled at these conditions in the UK, then why aren’t the Government acting with the same force on those brands working transnationally?

Fashion brands outsource their manufacturing to source globally cheap labour, production is moved to wherever the labour is cheapest. Poorer countries compete against each other for the investment of garment production, selling the labour of the most vulnerable in their society for a price at which they cannot sustain decent lives. Workers’ rights and wages are squeezed to ensure the highest profits for retailers. This is a globally sanctioned system of exploitation that we know is happening yet continue to facilitate. Why are these conditions and wages unacceptable in Leicester, but an unfortunate bi-product of capitalism in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia or Indonesia? It cannot be one rule for ‘us’ and another rule for ‘them’. Fundamental human rights are the same for all humans and need to be upheld across the board with the same rigour.

Across this industry, almost 80% of the workforce are women. The majority of which, are not earning a Living Wage. In addition, these women are subject to harassment within the workplace and unsafe conditions – the extremity of which can be demonstrated in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in 2013, that resulted in the deaths of 1,134 people. In Vogue’s 2017 exposé of factories in Leicester, they identified that a large proportion of workers being exploited were women who had come to the UK speaking little English. Many “come to UK on a six-month visa and work every hour they can before returning home” and brands exploit their urgency to earn and expectations of the worth of their labour to ensure vast profits on cheaply produced clothing.

Image: NGWF

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign’s report False Promises: Migrant Workers in the Global Garment Industry “the lack of legal protection is at the root of much of the exploitation faced by migrant workers.” These workers are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of workplace exploitation and The Circle has recently made emergency grants to garment workers in Bangladesh who had been abandoned by retailers who cancelled orders and refused to pay wages; many of whom were migrant workers who were excluded from even the most limited government aid during the Covid-19 crisis. In the UK too, the Government have come under intense scrutiny for the exclusion of migrant women from services and protections offered by the Domestic Abuse Bill that will be discussed today. Allowing systems that exploit the most marginalised members of society, whether that is in the UK or abroad, erodes the standards of basic human rights.

Debbie Coulter warned that multinational fashion companies “act with such impunity it is quite frightening” and we have seen during the Covid-19 crisis that brands have not upheld the rights of their workers, have refused to honour their contracts with suppliers, and yet seem to have emerged unscathed. The fashion industry cannot be a special case and now, more than ever, there is an urgent need to establish legislative change that will ensure a Living Wage for garment workers globally; from Leicester to Dhaka to Phnom Penh. Click here find out more about The Circle’s Living Wage work.

Article written by Anna Renfrew, Projects and Communications Officer at The Circle.


Domestic Violence in South Africa

Image: Khayelitsha, South Africa

This week has seen the global number of COVID-19 cases surpass 8.5 million, with many countries worldwide continuing to implement some form of lockdown measures. As the country with the highest number of infections on the African continent (over 90,000 cases and 1800 deaths as of June 22nd), South Africa has been no exception, introducing one the strictest lockdown policies of any country. In place since midnight on March 26th, South Africa’s exceptionally strong lockdown involved the deployment of almost 25,000 security forces personnel to enforce the strict new regulations (more than 17,000 arrests were made for lockdown violations in the first 6 days alone), and a ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. These measures stayed in place for over two months, with the first relaxation of restrictions to a ‘level three’ response only happening on June 1st.

While the implementation of lockdowns across the globe have successfully prevented even greater rates of infection and death, they unfortunately bring with them an unintended, deadly consequence – an increase in domestic violence. An upsurge in violence has been reported in all corners of the globe: in Hubei, the Chinese province at the epicentre of the original outbreak, domestic violence reports rose by over 300% during February. In Malaysia and Lebanon, calls to hotlines have doubled on the previous year. A recent report by the United Nations Population Fund explores the recognised increase in domestic violence cases since the onset of lockdown around the world, stating the primary reason for increased rates of violence as the simple fact that stay-at-home orders and restrictions on movement increase women’s exposure to violent partners. An increased amount of time in the presence of an abuser increases the likelihood that a victim will be subject to a violent attack.

The economic pressure felt in households worldwide resulting from COVID-related involuntary unemployment, reduced salaries and redundancies also contributes to this phenomenon, as financial stress increases incidences of domestic violence. Nearly 60% of women globally are employed in service industries (such as childcare, retail and hospitality) and countless numbers in the informal economy, which are disproportionately affected by current restrictions due to the difficulty of fulfilling such roles remotely. In South Africa, over one third (35.9%) of women who are employed are employed informally. This means women are uniquely impacted by the economic consequences of COVID. This loss of financial security decreases a woman’s economic independence, further reducing their freedom from violent partners and giving them even fewer resources with which to flee a setting of violence.

The increased strain on domestic violence support services is another factor contributing to this ‘second pandemic’ in countries around the world. Lockdown measures and transport restrictions reduce the ability of domestic violence workers to physically meet survivors, or for survivors to access friends and family who act as their support networks. Domestic violence shelters and meeting spaces have in some cases been shut down or repurposed as intensive care clinics or homelessness shelters, with technical issues and staff illness further reducing their capacity to assist victims.

As a country where seven women are killed every day and a reported 40-50% of men have admitted perpetrating physical partner violence, South Africa was already tackling an epidemic in domestic violence before the onset of lockdown. Thousands of protestors took to the streets of Cape Town last September in response to rising rates of violence, prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare femicide a national crisis and promise new measures including dedicated sexual offences courts and harsher penalties for perpetrators. There were therefore fears that South Africa would be especially vulnerable to a spike in domestic violence cases resulting from lockdown measures, and early reports indicated this was indeed the case – a founding member of one women’s NGO reported in mid-April that domestic violence shelters were already reaching capacity.Furthermore, from the start of the lockdown to May 1st, the Gender Based Violence National Command Centre (which has remained fully operational throughout the pandemic) had received 12,000 calls. Yet official data released by Police Minister Bheki Cele indicates that domestic violence cases were down 69.4% and hospital admissions for trauma down 66% in the month of March compared to the previous year, suggesting the trend in South Africa may not be clear cut. How can we make sense of this drop in reported cases amongst the increased vulnerability to violence that women are experiencing at this time?

A key element of the South African lockdown has been the total ban on the sale of alcohol, which may have curbed violent or abusive behaviour to a certain extent. The World Health Organisation recognises that “alcohol consumption, especially at harmful and hazardous levels, is a major contributor to the occurrence of intimate partner violence” and records that in South Africa, 65% of women experiencing spousal abuse within the last year reported that their partners always or sometimes drank alcohol before the assault.

Image: Protesters in Cape Town. Nic Bothma/EPA

Secondly, the strict nature of lockdown rules in South Africa mean that it is more difficult for victims to report cases and some women are simply unable to do so, meaning the reported number is highly likely to be an underestimate of the true figures. Restrictions on movement outside of the home mean women intending to report abuse or flee may have no valid excuse to give their abuser for leaving the house, and as highlighted earlier, they may be unable to seek refuge in a shelter or other safe space due to those spaces being repurposed or temporarily shut down. Fear of harsh punishment if caught breaching lockdown regulations by one of the 25,000 security personnel enforcing the policy may also deter women from seeking help outside the home. Within the home, many women may now be spending 24 hours a day in the presence of their abuser, rendering it often impossible to make phone calls seeking help or reporting abuse. While some NGOs are striving to establish online and text message services and national hotlines remain open, this only partially mitigates the problem. Intimate partner violence has always been a grossly underreported crime, with a reporting rate of under 40% before COVID-19, so reporting may be far below 40% now due to the unique difficulties presented by lockdown measures. In recognition of this dilemma, the United Nations has stated that “in the case of restricted movement and limited privacy, women are finding it difficult to phone for help. So, the likelihood is that even these figures represent only a fraction of the problem.”

Earlier this month South Africa implemented the first relaxation of its lockdown measures to a ‘level three’ response, sending an estimated 8 million people (of a population of 58 million) back to work. There are hopes that this will provide some respite for domestic violence victims, allowing them more time away from their abuser and a better chance to contact support networks if they or their abuser are now returning to work. Domestic violence services will also benefit from an increased capacity to help victims, but the resumption of sales of alcohol from June 1st as part of this first phase of relaxation casts doubt upon whether the safety of women in South Africa will improve as a result of these measures. One thing that is certain is the importance of South Africa, and all other countries, ensuring they employ and prioritise a gender-responsive strategy within their COVID-19 responses for the duration of the pandemic. If they fail to do so, and instead choose to de-prioritise gender-based violence during this crucial time, the overall indirect death toll from COVID-19 will be much, much higher.

To support survivors of violence in South Africa through the Women and Girls Solidarity Fund, click here.

This article was written by Holly. Holly is 23 years old from East Sussex, England. Since graduating with a degree in Politics and Economics in 2018 she has worked and volunteered in Africa and Asia and is currently living in China. Her interests include human rights, international security and development.