African women in UK silently suffer domestic violence

Date: December 8, 2010
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Martha Kanu* bowed her head and sobbed, fighting to get out the words to explain what’s become of the marriage she once thought would be everything she always wanted.

Kanu is one of many African women living illegally in the United Kingdom while waiting to get residency papers. Because many are dependent on husbands or relatives for support or documentation, they are more likely to stay in abusive relationships. Because of this they are also scared to seek help or report domestic violence to the authorities.

“I never thought I was going to be treated this way. I thought he loved me,” she explained.

Kanu has been working full time since she came to UK but her wages go into her husband’s bank account and he won’t allow her to open her own. “He convinced me that as a married couple it is wiser to have a joint bank account but later I realised he has more than four different accounts,” she said.

She said her husband regularly beats her and once broke her ankle. Yet she can’t leave him, she said. “Whenever I try to leave, my relatives both here and in Africa will encourage me to bear with it and wait until I get my definite leave to remain here.”

Although there is little data on domestic violence in the UK, a British Crime Survey study carried out on behalf of the UK Home Office estimates that one in every four women in the UK are likely to have experienced some form of non-sexual domestic violence.

Furthermore, a House of Commons 2007/2008 Home Affairs Committee report on domestic violence, forced marriage and honour-based violence noted that only a tiny proportion of victims of domestic violence will contact statutory authorities, particularly criminal justice agencies, making measurement of the scale of abuse even harder.

Kanu’s husband, who brought her to the UK more than a year ago, asked her to marry him after he saw her picture in a mutual friend’s photo album. Kanu saw it as an opportunity to leave behind the poverty of her native Sierra Leone and start a new life.

Yet after she tried to leave her husband, Kanu’s relatives accused her of becoming westernised and greedy. They told her she should consider herself lucky to have a husband who brought her so far away from Africa.

“I am fed up with him beating me and swearing at me all the time,” she said, her head dropping into her hands. “He told me he will not help me get my papers here and that if I insist he will tell the immigration people that he has nothing to do with me anymore and they will deport me. I don’t want to go back to Africa. Life was not easy for me. I dropped out of school at form two and was helping my aunt selling at a market in Freetown.”

Christyn Brown of Central London Action on Sexual Health (CLASH) believes most abused women are afraid to inform authorities for fear of being deported back to their home country. Brown emphasised the need to reach out to abused women, noting that many end up in commercial sex work in a bid to gain financial empowerment and get away from their abusive partners.

She said victims of trafficking or those in abusive relationships are almost always without their passports or travel documents and usually have rehearsed a false story to explain their situation.

“They are timid and always very careful about what they say,” she said, noting they often work six or seven days a week and their money ends up in the pockets of the men abusing them.

To make matters worse, the African community maintains a culture of secrecy around issues of domestic violence, especially when it involves married couples.

After she moved to London from Nigeria, Grace Anyanhu* also suffered domestic violence but when she tried to leave her marriage she found it impossible to continue living in the UK because her visa didn’t allow her to work.

When her husband burned her with an electric iron she went to the police but he told the court she had showed up in the UK with the scars. She was scared of deportation and of being shunned by her community so she didn’t go to court to identify her husband as the perpetrator. The case was dismissed and she later sought asylum.

Southall Black Sisters, a resource centre offering services to women experiencing violence, estimates it is approached for help by more than 600 women every year.

Sadly, the struggle of some African women does not end when they leave Africa, where a good number suffer similar abuses every day. For those like Kanu and Anyanhu, the dream life they thought they would find in Europe has become a nightmare worse than the one they left behind in Africa.

*Names have been changed

Mariama Kandeh is a Sierra Leonean journalist currently living in London. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to


One thought on “African women in UK silently suffer domestic violence”

Manita says:

Good day, would like to know if domestic abuse is only fisical.
Suppose your spouse not only controls your financial but every little thing he verbally throw into your face and constantly reminds you of how much he spent to bring you in to the country and you know you have gave up everything for him and there is no going back because you only going to be a lunging stock, what can one do? You have no relatives and you can’t go back to your home country.

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