Sisters Uncut occupies empty council flat in Hackney to highlight domestic abuse aid cuts
PUBLISHED: 11:37 14 July 2016 | UPDATED: 11:37 14 July 2016
A direct action feminst group has occupied a flat in Hackney following a town hall protest over cuts to vital domestic abuse programmes.
“Women have to weigh up between staying in a situation that could end up with them dead or taking a chance and leaving, but losing their secure housing.”
Sarah Kwei told the Gazette these words as she marched around the Pembury Estate with more than 100 other women on Saturday afternoon, as Beyonce’s song Hold Up blared from a sound system.
“This is why people don’t leave. We say: ‘How can she leave if she has got nowhere to go?’”
A few minutes later, Sarah and her feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut entered one of Hackney’s 286 empty council homes.
This was the start of an occupation of the three-bedroomed bottom floor flat that is due to be demolished.
Their goal? To highlight the plight of victims with nowhere to go.
Sisters Uncut protests against cuts to domestic violence services. The group – which has so far stormed the Suffragette film premiere, dyed the Trafalgar Square fountains blood-red and barricaded the entrance to the Treasury to grab media attention – has now transformed the flat into a community centre, where members are holding courses to educate women about domestic violence.
The afternoon began at Hackney Town Hall in Mare Street, where the Sisters laid flowers and held a minute’s silence for women murdered by abusive partners.
They then set off purple and green smoke bombs – the colours of the Suffragettes, who also carried out direct action at the turn of the century, like kidnapping members of Parliament and threatening to set off bombs, to get attention for their demand women be given the vote.
The Sisters are employing direct action techniques because they say housing for women fleeing abuse is in jeopardy – now more so than ever.
While the housing crisis is national, Hackney is one of the hardest hit boroughs.
Estate regeneration plans mean 915 social homes will soon be lost, and the new builds replacing them will be too expensive for most people, the group says.
The government’s forced sale of empty council homes as part of the Housing and Planning Act, meanwhile, only exacerbates the situation.
Sisters Uncut claims domestic violence charity Hackney Refuge has been forced to turn away 60 per cent of women seeking help because demand so vastly outstrips supply.
The scarcity of secure, social housing and deep cuts to refuge funding mean survivors are regularly housed in unsafe temporary accommodation or hostels.
The Gazette speaks to a woman who knows this all too well. Aged 13, she, her mother and five-year-old brother had to flee her abusive, violent step-father.
During her GCSE years they lived in 15 different bed and breakfasts and temporary accommodation in Hackney, Redbridge and Essex.
“It was a dire situation,” she remembers. “It was terrifying on top of the level of disruption to our lives. I felt powerless, like I wasn’t in control of my life. I felt frightened.
“We were very lucky, and after a year we got a council house – but people wouldn’t get that now. They are in temporary accommodation for years before they get somewhere to live because the stocks of council housing are dwindling further and further and the waiting list is getting bigger and bigger.
“The policy of getting people’s foot on the property ladder, an obsession with home ownership and private rental leaves women trying to flee domestic violence in the lurch.
“They need long-term housing and they need it quickly, and not having it leaves them destitute or in situations where they can’t leave.
“I grew up experiencing violence against women as something normal in my community and as an adult I’ve dedicated pretty much all my life to bringing it to an end.
“I’m so proud to be here today and showing this level of strength with so many different women because it makes me feel like I’m not powerless any more and I’ve got all my sisters with me.”