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Domestic Abuse in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Groups

Research 23 March 2021


Domestic abuse is currently defined by the Home Office (2013:2) as:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: • psychological • physical • sexual • financial • emotional. The definition of domestic abuse also includes honour based violence and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

There is no official Home Office definition for BAME and for the purposes of this evidence review, the acronym “BAME” stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and is defined as ’all ethnic groups except  white ethnic groups, it does not relate to country origin or affiliation’ (Mayor of London, 2018). The definition includes Gypsy, Roma and Irish Travelling communities as outlined by the Equalities Act 2010. There is a need, however, for an official Home Office definition.

It is widely accepted that domestic abuse affects victims in comparable ways, however, there is also evidence to suggest that those from a minority background, particularly from a migrant community, are disproportionately impacted by domestic abuse (Gill, 2009). This evidence review will look specifically at the prevalence, typology and impact of domestic abuse (DA) in BAME communities. This evidence review will also suggest ways to respond to the abuse in minority communities.

Why focus on BAME communities?

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted already existing systemic inequalities facing black people in the United Kingdom and across the world.

BAME people face what Platt (2007:70) calls ‘ethnic penalty’, which is the poverty and socio- economic disadvantage that minority groups face as a result of their ethnicity. What is disconcerting about Platt’s (2007) research is that it shows lesser outcomes for black and minority groups with the same level of qualifications and language skills as their White British counterparts. Structural Inequality for minority groups is pervasive and extends to the criminal justice system, healthcare, housing and schooling.

Within the criminal justice system, institutional racism against minority groups has been well documented, particularly within the police force (Bowling & Phillips, 2002). ‘In comparison to the white group – [arrest rates are] twice as high for Black and Mixed ethnic women, and were three times higher for Black men’ (Lammy Review, 2017:5). Whilst BAME people are subjected to over policing for certain crimes, Belur’s (2008) research highlights under policing of domestic abuse in minority communities due to ‘cultural sensitivity’. The history of distrust between BAME communities and the police (Bowling & Phillips, 2002) translates to chronic underreporting of certain crimes within minority communities, resulting in many opting to use informal support services (Belur, 2008) or self-reporting to domestic abuse services (Imkaan, 2008). Mistrust of the police has been intensified by practices such as using male translators for female victims or responding inappropriately to abusive practices such as honour based violence (HBV)(Belur, 2008). BAME men and women are furthermore over represented in custody as highlighted by the Lammy review.

The institutional racism extends beyond the criminal justice system to services such as domestic abuse agencies, health care professionals and social services. Research with refuges in England ‘found stereotyping and some racist attitudes to be operating at three levels: among (other) service users, among the workers, and at state level (for example through immigration policies that prevent women from accessing services or public funds)’ (Izzidein, 2008:20).

It is also important to highlight structural inequality and disadvantage facing the Gypsy and Irish travelling community as they are frequently omitted from BAME statistics.

‘Gypsy-Travelers are one of the most socially excluded groups in Britain with greater probability of ill health, poor educational attainment (by settled community measures) and poverty.’(South Wales Women’s Consortium, 2010:2)

Ethnicity is not adjacent to the experiences BAME victims of domestic abuse but it is often integral and can often compound the effects of the abuse. This can be explained through the concept of ‘intersectionality’, which  recognises that BAME people experience the world (including domestic abuse) differently to their white counterparts as they are having to contend with further barriers due to their race (Crenshaw, 1991).  Crenshaw (1991) divides intersectionality into ‘structural’ and ‘political’ intersectionality.

Structural intersectionality describes the multiple layers of oppression experienced by women of colour due to both their race and gender.  Crenshaw (1991) also introduces the concept of ‘political intersectionality’ in which women of colour are caught in the margins of feminism and  anti-racist agendas as  the two can often  have conflicting agendas and ignore the multiple identities held by women of colour ( Gill, 2009).

Gill’s (2009) research highlights, however, that intersectionality is not a static and cumulative sum of oppressions but a ‘dynamic’ process in which individual experiences and different understandings of culture can influence one’s experiences of violence.

Kwong-Lai Poon (2011: 124) recognizes that intersectionality is a complex weaving of identities such as class, disability, sexual orientation and internal factors.

 ‘We need to explore how the experience of violence is mediated, not only through homophobia and heterosexism, but also through privilege (whiteness) and other forms of oppression; how meanings of violence, power, control, agency, strength, and resiliency intersect with social dimensions such as race, gender, class, disability, and sexual orientation within relationships.’

Statistically, domestic abuse has been shown to follow a different trend within minority communities. The Office for National Statistics (2019) data shows that in the year 2018-2019, the rates of domestic abuse amongst BAME communities were higher than their white counterparts, and rates of domestic abuse were highest amongst those of mixed ethnicity. White victims represented 5.6% of the victim population, Asian/ Asian British people made up 3.8%, and black victims made up 7.1%, whilst mixed race victims made up 12.9% (Office for National Statistics, 2019; table 7b). Furthermore, Gill (2017:560) argues that ‘black and native women are more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner. ’ This is supported by statistics which show that, ‘59% of all homicides in London in 2005–06 were of BME women’ (Thiara & Gill 2009: 43). A 2007 study in Wrexham found that’81% of married Irish Traveller women interviewed and 61% of married English Gypsy women had experienced direct abuse’ (South East Wales Women’s Aid, 2010:2).

These figures are not completely representative of the problem due to chronic underreporting of domestic abuse. Data shows us that underreporting is even more acute within minority communities and findings from Imkaan (2020) strongly suggest that BAME women were more likely to stay in abusive relationships due to the barriers associated with leaving. Safelives’ (2020) dataset with 42000 clients showed that, ‘BME clients suffered abuse for 1.5 times longer before seeking help compared to those from a white British or Irish background’. Research shows that a woman facing domestic violence has to make 11 contacts with agencies before getting the help she needs, however, this rises to 17 if she is BME’ (Brittain et al, 2005).

The history of distrust between BAME communities and the police force makes it more likely that BAME women would seek informal sources of support before turning to the police (Imkaan, 2020).  In some close communities, there is also a strong notion of protecting the community and cultural integrity by not disclosing the abuse and this pressure can come from the community or the individuals. Disclosing abuse can be seen as bringing shame (sharam) to the family and to the community (Izzidein, 2008). Research from Safelives (2015) has also shown that some BAME individuals were apprehensive about disclosing the abuse due to ‘specific issues related to racism including stereotypes about refugees and migrants’.

A further barrier to leaving domestic abuse faced by BAME communities is immigration status. According to Safelives, 1 in 5 BAME women have no recourse to public funds and a subsection of these victims do not report domestic abuse due to their insecure immigration status. The current political climate has created a hostile atmosphere for migrant women and some do not come forward as some agencies turn them away due to their immigration status and many fear deportation, which is often used as a control tactic by the perpetrator (Imkaan, 2020). 92% of BAME migrant women surveyed by Imkaan (2020) reported that their perpetrator used their immigration status against them, which acted as a barrier to asking for help. Due to the limitations of the domestic violence rule (the immigration rule for migrants on a spouse visa), the threat of deportation is not only perceived but can be a real threat for migrant women (Belur, 2008).

After leaving abusive relationships, research has shown that BAME women face additional obstacles. BAME women are over represented in refuge spaces with BAME women occupying 6 in 10 refuge spaces despite occupying only 13% of the general population (Lavatt et al., 2020). Over representation in refuges could be symptomatic of many complex factors which are prevalent in the BAME community. Socioeconomic status is one factor which has meant that some victims have ended up in refuges as they have lower incomes and fewer savings which would otherwise enable them to flea safely. The social isolation of migrant women can also mean that they are unable to rely on an extended support network for housing when fleeing domestic abuse (BAWSO, 2020).

Abuse experienced by BAME communities

BAME people experience largely similar types of abuse to other ethnicities and this includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse, although their experiences are compounded by their ethnicity. BAME people are also at risk of facing specific types of abuse such as so called honour based violence (HBV). Although the terminology ‘honour’ is used, there is nothing honorable about honour based violence (Gill, 2009) and it is therefore often referred to as “‘so called’ honour based violence,” which is the terminology that will be used in this evidence review.

So called “Honour based violence” (HBV) is defined as:

“A crime or incident which has or may be committed to protect or defend the honour of the family/community. it incorporates a range of violent behaviors from forced marriage and female genital mutilation to killings” (Eshareturi et al., 2014:370).”

There have been debates as to whether so called HBV should be located under the framework of domestic abuse, as unlike domestic abuse incidents, so called HBV is usually perpetrated by multiple perpetrators – including the victim’s extended family and community members. ‘Victims at risk of HBV were more than seven times more likely to be experiencing abuse from multiple perpetrators compared to those not identified as at risk of HBV’ ( Safelives, undated,:8). The Home Office does, however, include HBV under the framework of domestic abuse and by doing so also acknowledges the seriousness of so-called HBV. Safelives‘s data suggests that victims of so-called HBV are more likely to be at high risk of serious harm or murder (58%) compared to other people accessing domestic abuse support (48%) (Safelives, undated: 33)

Honour based practices are rooted in underlying patriarchal notions of collective ‘honour’ (Izzat in Urdu) over individual needs (Gill, 2009) with strong consequences for  defying the status quo and bringing ‘shame’ (sharam in Urdu) to the family and community.

Although so-called HBV is not culturally specific, research shows that it is predominantly gender specific. Research shows that the notion of preserving family honour is particularly incumbent upon women within some minority communities (Gill, 2009; Izzidein, 2008; Safelives, undated). Data from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on cases flagged as ‘”HBV” reveals that (where gender was recorded) 76% of victims were female (Safelives, undated: 7). Practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) are only perpetrated against women as the woman’s chastity is equated with family honour. Despite women being at statistically higher risk of honour based violence, men can also be victims- particularly men who belong to the LGBT community.

In the United Kingdom ‘1,000 cases of so-called ‘honour’ crime were recorded between 2010-14’ (Safelives, undated: 6). As previously highlighted, there are multiple forms that so-called HBV can take– this includes ‘ dowry related crimes’  and ‘ marriage abandonment’ which is a newly acknowledged form of so-called HBV.  Marriage abandonment is the practice in which ‘perpetrators take victims abroad and leave them with no means of returning or accessing support’ (Safelives, undated: 23). There have been documented cases of husbands taking the children and victim to a foreign country or their country of origin and then disappearing after taking their passports away.

Dowry related crimes are defined by the United Nations (2009:20) as ‘any act of violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after the marriage.’ Dowry is the exchange of gifts or money, to the family of either the bride or the groom, in exchange for the persons hand in marriage. Dowry is commonly practiced in some South Asian and African communities.

A prevalent form of HBV is ‘forced marriage’ which is one in which the victim is unable to consent or is coerced, threatened or pressured into marrying an individual against their will.  ‘In 2016, the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) gave advice or support related to a possible forced marriage in over 1,400 cases’ (Safelives, undated). A forced marriage should be distinguished from an arranged marriage, which is legal and between two consenting adults. It is important, however, to consider that the lines of consent can be blurred in some, but not all, arranged marriages where victims receive undue pressure or coercion to enter into a marriage (Gill, 2009). This is a particular issue for LGBTQ victims who are forced to enter into heteronormative marriages in order to preserve the family honour. There are added barriers for BAME LGBT victims of domestic abuse (see Musimbe-Rix evidence review on Domestic Abuse in LGBT communities for further discussion on issues facing LGBT victims of abuse).

In extreme cases, so-called HBV can manifest itself in honour killings. ‘An incomplete survey of the cases that received coverage in the national media showed that during the period 1998 to 2007 an average of 12 honour killings were investigated by the police each year,’ although research suggests that this might be an underestimation (Gill, 2009: 476).

Research from Safelives (undated: 26) suggests that the following can be precursors to honour based killings:

  • Defying parental authority
  • Westernized dress and behaviour
  • The existence of a non-approved relationship
  • Rejecting a forced or arranged marriage
  • Leaving a partner
  • Seeking divorce particularly when a dowry maybe large
  • Rumors and gossip

This list is by no means exhaustive but gives some indication about some risk factors that practitioners should be aware of. The high profile HBV deaths of Banaz Mamod and Shafilea Ahmed illustrate some institutional failings and missed opportunities to safeguard victims of this abuse. The consistent message from literature is that  so called HBV should be dealt with as seriously as other domestic abuse crimes. There is a ’one chance rule’ – frontline  professionals might only have one opportunity to save a victim’s life (Eshareturi et al., 2014).

For a long time, BAME feminists heavily criticized the government and institutions for dismissing so called HBV as cultural and therefore justifying a non-interventionist approach (Siddiqui, 2014; Eshareturi et al., 2014). There has been a recent shift over the last few years, from cultural sensitivity/relativism to ‘mature multiculturalism’ which means that multicultural sensitivity is not an excuse for moral blindness (Siddiqui, 2018:367). This approach places a positive responsibility on institutions to not dismiss abusive practices in BAME communities as ‘cultural’ but to acknowledge them as a public issue (Siddiqui, 2014). Positioning so called HBV as a cultural problem can be dangerous as it is not cultures but people that kill people (Walker & Gill, 2019).

It is important still to remember that practices such as so-called HBV, although pronounced in some communities, are not unique to certain religions or ethnicities. There has been a lot of focus on South East Asian communities when documenting HBV, however, research has shown that HBV can extend to other minority communities such Orthodox Jewish communities and travelling communities.

I work with girls who experience ‘honour’-based violence who are from Sikh families, or who are from Indian families and from Christian families, you know, or have no religion… I don’t want it to be a case where I’m blaming a particular community…. It’s not that issue. At the same time though, I think it’s really important that we do talk about it.
Ariana, Saheliya (BME women’s organization; Safelives, undated, p. 27)

The risk factors should be considered for any individual coming from a closed             community group where there is a strong sense of community over individual    ideals and where there are grave consequences for ‘dishonouring’ the family or the community.

Domestic abuse, COVID-19 and BAME communities

COVID-19 highlights the inadequacies of the socio-economic frameworks that reproduce disparity through neglect as evidenced in the inability of safety nets to address the basic needs of vast groups thus increasing marginalisation (Imkaan, 2020:4)

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to intensify and reinforce pre-existing socio-economic and structural inequalities. The comorbidity of domestic abuse and COVID-19 should be acknowledged as not only a public health issue but as a sociological issue. As previously highlighted, research has shown that BAME individuals are statistically more likely to experience poverty and economic disadvantage.

Trade Union Conference (TUC) analysis of official figures shows that one in six (16%) BME workers are employed on insecure terms and conditions, compared to one in ten (10%) white workers… “BME workers are hugely overrepresented in undervalued, low-paid and casualised jobs, with fewer rights and no sick pay” (TUC, 2020)

If you are a BAME woman – the odds are even more stacked against you. A study by the Fawcett Society showed that more BAME women were concerned about being in debt (42.9%) compared to 37.1% of white women (Fawcett Society 2020:4). The economic impact of the pandemic has subsequently left more BAME victims of domestic abuse vulnerable to coercion, economic abuse and destitution (Imkaan, 2020).

Despite the government introducing the furlough scheme, some individuals in zero hour contracts or who had been made redundant before the scheme introduction were unable to access this government help. Access to Universal Credit, which was already precarious, has also been much more difficult for women subject to domestic and sexual violence, refugees and rough sleepers (Citizens Advice Bureau, 2020).

 ‘Over twice as many BAME women and men reported that they had recently lost support from the government (42.5% / 48.3%) than white women and men (12.7% / 20.6%).’ (Fawcett Society, 2020)

For some migrant women with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), losing your job during the pandemic has meant reliance on their perpetrators and left them vulnerable to economic abuse. This has resultantly forced victims to stay in abusive relationships as they have been unable or found it difficult to access benefits that will enable them to move on (Imkaan, 2020). Without adequate social protections, BAME women might be more vulnerable to other forms of gender based violence such as trafficking in persons; forced prostitution and modern slavery.

The structural disadvantage facing BAME victims has extended to domestic abuse refuges. As refuges are publically funded institutions, access to these life-saving services has long been limited for BAME individuals with NRPF. 4 in 5 victims with insecure immigration status have been turned away from refuges due to their immigration status (Amnesty, 2020). Although some refuges do have funding for victims with NRPF, their funding is extremely limited and there is an expectation that the individual pays for their stay or has their stay funded through public funds. During the first months of the pandemic, although funding has been increased for domestic abuse services, no special provision has been made for BAME individuals – particularly those with no recourse to public funds.

‘Imkaan members in the North of England also report an increase (in referrals) of 30-50% but are struggling to find appropriate refuge spaces available and the sector expects that BME refuges will remain full’(Imkaan, 2020)

Responding to abuse in BAME communities

Despite literature showing the distinct need of BAME survivors of domestic abuse, research shows that BAME women are underserved by the criminal justice system and other safeguarding agencies. This comes largely due to a limited knowledge of BAME communities and a lack of understanding of the cultural specificities and needs of BAME people in so called ‘white centric services’ (Lovatt et al., 2020).  As previously outlined, BAME people have a unique set of needs, experiences and cultural background which shapes the way in which they experience and respond to abuse (Gill, 2009).

  1. A starting point is understanding that BAME people do not always disclose abuse, particularly to someone who might be classified as an ‘outsider’ (Izzidien, 2008). It might therefore take more trust building, patience and a unique set of skills in order to get a victim to open up about the abuse. Professionals should equally be aware that some victims from the BAME community might not always be ready to disclose, due to reasons previously outlined. Nonetheless, professionals should be skilled and confident to ‘ask the question’ and safeguard victims regardless of their ethnicity (Izzidein, 2008; Safelives, undated).
  2. Training-It is imperative that frontline professionals are upskilled to work with BAME survivors by receiving specific and appropriate training on working with minority groups (Izzidien, 2008). Literature has shown that it is vitally important that this training includes specific information on so-called HBV. There are BAME organisations such as Imkaan who deliver bespoke training on working with BAME survivors/victims.
  3. Tackling institutional racism-Training alone is not enough, on a strategic level, there is a lot of work to be done in order to tackle institutional racism, starting with the criminal justice system (Lovatt et al., 2020). This is starting with, but not limited to, the police, who are the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system.

Minoritised women are not fairly treated by the police, and their interactions and access to justice needs to be reviewed in the criminal justice system, as a whole. It cannot be separated from a wider context of institutional racism, which has led to historic and current over-policing, surveillance, and hyper-visibility of BAME communities within the criminal justice system (Lovatt et al., 2020:2)

Beyond the police, there has been evidence of some public services and charities being directly discriminatory towards BAME victims (Lovatt et al., 2020) and this needs to be tackled through a combination of training and a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to racism. Literature further recommends that another way to address institutional racism is to increase BAME representation in organisations who work with victims of domestic abuse (Lovatt et al., 2020). Having BAME frontline staff and leadership can increase BAME victims’ confidence in frontline services and could result in more culturally sensitive policies. Moreover, there needs to be more resource and funding for BAME organisations who are best equipped to respond to the needs of their own community. The Ministry of Justice pledged to support third sector organisations such as Clinks to conduct research and make recommendations on how the government responds to domestic abuse in minority communities.

4. Responsive policy and services– Services, institutions and professionals need to be responsive to the needs of BAME communities in order to traverse the barrier that currently exists between the community and frontline services. There cannot be a “white centric” approach to working with BAME victims (Lovatt et al., 2020). The Ministry of Justice Female Offender Strategy, 2018) clearly recognises the need for diversionary approaches for female victims of trauma including victims of domestic abuse and it also recognises the double disadvantage faced by foreign nationals and BAME individuals.

“The necessity for tailored approaches is even more acute for those with protected characteristics, such as Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women, or women with experience of trauma.” The Ministry of Justice Female Offender Strategy (2018:29)”

It is interesting that the Ministry of Justice Female Offender strategy speaks of BAME women or women who experience trauma without distinctly highlighting the co-existence of both. The multiple disadvantage faced by BAME women needs to be clearly recognised and acknowledged in the service provision such as through specialist diversionary schemes for BAME female victims of domestic abuse and this should not fall under a general female offender strategy.

It is  widely recognised  that domestic abuse can often be a root cause for female criminality and this can often be more acute for the BAME population group(Prison Reform Trust, 2017). A study into the needs of Muslim women in prison recognised that:

There were strong elements of coercion and/or manipulation behind the criminality of Muslim women, where some had been groomed into committing crimes. Examples of this were covering for the crimes of male family members or being charged with wider family crimes. Emotional blackmail was key and there was a strong sense that a Muslim woman must ‘self-sacrifice’ and think of the greater good by ‘doing the right thing’.(Prison Reform Trust,2020:10)

It is also clear from reviewing literature that the intersecting identities of BAME people can often be overlooked in policies or predominantly ‘white centric spaces.’  Illustrative of this, is the predominant lack of recognition within literature and policy of BAME LGBT victims of domestic abuse as facing different obstacles to other LGBT survivors including discrimination from within the LGBT community (Stonewall, 2018). For domestic abuse policies to be fit for purpose, they need to reflect the broad range of experiences of BAME people and not subsume them under just one umbrella term as this can be more harmful than productive.

5. Tailor made support– services can be adapted is by using appropriate translation services. There have been accusations of ‘first responders’ using male interpreters for female victims, without asking the victim if this was appropriate (Belur, 2008). Allegations of professionals’ using children or other family members as interpreters during domestic abuse situations is also highly inappropriate and can put the individual at risk from the wider community. Outreach to BAME communities can also be achieved by printing material and running campaigns in languages other than English.

Additionally, specialist accommodation for BAME victims fleeing domestic abuse needs to be made more readily available and it needs to accommodate their cultural needs.  The government, following numerous campaigns form BAME organisations, have announced that:

‘£1.5m will be made available  toward a ‘Support for Migrant Victims’ (SMV) pilot scheme, to be launched later this year, to support migrant victims of domestic abuse who do not have access to public funds to access safe accommodation’ (Home Office, 2020:14).’

6. A delicate balance between informed and stereotypical approaches – An important consideration when responding to abuse in BAME communities is not to homogenise, as not all BAME victims are the same. Although BAME is a term that is widely used to group people from minority ethnicities, their experiences are not homogenous. Inequality is a spectrum amongst the BAME population and it is constructed through complex factors including: lived and cultural experience such as class, sexuality, sexual orientation and immigration status (Gill, 2009). BAME also encompasses the experiences of multiple ethnicities which are inherently different and diverse across the “BAME community” (Gill, 2009). Policies should also reflect the broad spectrum of experiences of BAME people.

Cultural practices need to be understood in order to support an individual but approaches should still be person-centred, which requires a delicate balance.


The research has shown us that domestic abuse disproportionately affects those from a minority ethnic group due to long standing structural inequalities. The evidence has highlighted how the pandemic has further entrenched those inequalities, particularly for those with no recourse to public funds. The evidence also shows that BAME victims are different to their white counterparts due to their cultures and language, which make them unique but can also serve as a barrier to accessing support. Research also shows that minority communities are statistically more likely to experience so called HBV. An intersectional lense should therefore be applied when working with victims of domestic abuse, remembering that each individual brings on a unique set of oppressions. The evidence shows us that there is still a long way to go in tackling abusive practices in minority communities.  It is important that professionals responding to domestic abuse in minority communities: continue to challenge institutional racism; receive training on working minority communities; strive for representation in their organisation and invest funding in BAME organisations. Domestic abuse cannot be tackled in silo without addressing the inequality facing BAME people. Institutional racism and structural inequality will continue to be perpetuated through the silence of policy makers and their inaction will strive to further disenfranchise marginalised groups.

Stacey Musimbe-Rix – Probation Practice Researcher
KSS CRC Research and Policy Unit


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