I'm in Trafalgar Square in London, listening to a list of 78 women's names and ages being read out with a crowd of 200. The mood is somber, as speakers take it in turns to pass the megaphone between them. None of the women mentioned—who range from teenagers to the elderly—are here to join the protest today. They were all killed by a partner or ex-partner in 2016.
The action has been organized by Sisters Uncut, the direct action group that protests against cuts to domestic violence services and made headlines around the world after diving onto the red carpet at the Suffragette film premiere last year. Today is a part of a national day of action, with similar protests taking place in Bristol, Newcastle, and Glasgow, and open to all self-defining women and non-binary people. As well as drawing attention to specific cuts, the group also aims to raise awareness of how austerity policies affect women disproportionately, and the different ways minorities are placed at extra risk.
Although British prime minister Theresa May recently announced £20 million of funding for women's refuges—described by one placard today as "a plaster over a haemorrhage"—the group say this isn't enough, and that it won't do anything to help the most vulnerable.
"It doesn't cover specialist services for black and minority ethnic women and non-binary people, for disabled, LGBT+ or other minority survivors," argues Sisters Uncut member Nadine Forde. She also raises the issue of no recourse to public funds—a condition many migrants may have on their resident permits—in stopping women accessing services, and also the role that the lack of social housing plays. According to the group, four out of every five women of color are currently turned away from services.
Around midday, the group begins marching down the main road of the Strand, fists raised in the air. Colourful flares are let off in green and purple—colours originally adopted by the suffragette movement. A drum beats as the crowd sings, "Back up, back up! We want freedom, freedom! These sexist racist cuts, we don't need them, need them!" and "They cut, we bleed!" The date has been chosen as the UK government is due to lay out its upcoming spending plans in the new autumn budget a few days later on 23 November, but it also happens to be Trans Day of Remembrance, and several placards are dedicated to remembering trans women killed by violent partners.
Many people protesting today tell me how the issue is close to their hearts. "I left a relationship that was incredibly abusive—both emotionally and physically," one attendee, Kat, explains. "I was very fortunate to have a friend help me out of that situation, so I didn't have to find a refuge. But one of the defining aspects of abusive relationships is that you lose your friends and connections. The fact that refuges are getting closed down and the people working in them are under such strain is an absolute shame on our society."
Others work day-to-day in the sector and are witnessing first hand the effects of austerity on vulnerable women. "We've been forced to reduce the amount of specialist services we can offer," says another protester, who works in women's housing. "No recourse to public funds is something we come across a lot—women have to be turned away and it's so damaging. And lack of housing is massively impacting things too, it pushes women back into violent relationships." Today is the first time she has joined in with an action: "Hopefully it will draw attention and make people listen, because nothing else seems to be having an impact."
As we approach Waterloo bridge, the crowd spreads out to block traffic on both lanes, shouting "You block our bridges, we'll block yours back!" We sit down as one of the organisers reads out a list of demands: Stop services being sold off to private companies, create a strategic plan to help all survivors regardless of immigration status, fund specialist and BME (black and ethnic minority) services, provide safe and secure social housing, and make panic rooms exempt from the bedroom tax.
Why do the group believe direct action is an effective tool for opposing cuts? "It's about taking up space and showing that women can be powerful," explains organizer Janelle Brown, who has been involved with Sisters Uncut since their first action. "When organizing around women's issues—particularly violence against women—there's so much shame and taboo around the issue. Doing direct action, where you force everybody to pay attention to what you're saying, really helps break away from the shame and the guilt." She also believes this is an important part of the healing process for members of the group who are survivors themselves: "For us, the process of organizing is as important as the outcomes we're trying to achieve."
And there's no better way to show your power in public than by shutting down the day-to-day running of the city you're in. As passersby stand and gawp, it's clear the very sight of a group of women protesting is a statement in itself. As they chant themselves, "Sisters, united, will never be defeated."