For over a month this summer, activists from feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied a vacant shop on Peckham’s Rye Lane to highlight the lack of social housing for survivors of domestic violence in Southwark. The site was a hive of activity, drawing in the local community with workshops about the current state of domestic violence services, a crèche and yoga and art sessions. We spoke to two of the sisters about the occupation and what the future holds for South East London Sisters Uncut in their fight against cuts to domestic violence services.
South East London Sisters Uncut was formed in early 2016 as a regional offshoot of the national Sisters Uncut group, a vibrant and well-known feminist direct action group. The national group has recently attracted international attention in its efforts to oppose cuts to domestic violence services. Notable protests saw the group storming the red carpet at the premiere of the Sarah Gavron-directed film Suffragette, burning copies of the Daily Mail outside the newspaper’s head offices, and dying the fountains of Trafalgar Square red.
The South East London Sisters Uncut group has been proactive in making its mark on the local area. In the first half of 2016, it set up a street stall near Lewisham shopping centre, and put up posters around the streets of South East London bearing the slogan ‘Give us dollar George’, calling for the then-Chancellor George Osborne to ring-fence funding for domestic violence services. However, the group’s occupation of a vacant shop in Peckham this summer has been its biggest action to date.
Sitting in the group’s Peckham occupation site, Ashley and Rosa of South East London Sisters Uncut explain the motivation behind their latest project: “Women from Southwark were coming to our meetings and we were just hearing the same thing over and over again: how can we leave, there’s nowhere to go.” Banners baring the group’s unmistakable green and purple logo decorate the walls of the occupation site reiterating the group’s core message with the slogan ‘How can she leave if she has nowhere to go?’
South East London Sisters Uncut point out that social housing is a lifeline for women experiencing domestic violence. This is especially true at a time when government cuts have left domestic violence shelters in crisis, with 34 specialist refuge centres closing since 2010. Yet a recent freedom of information request revealed that 47% of people who approached Southwark Council to be rehoused following incidents of domestic violence were turned away. This is despite the fact that there are 1,270 empty council homes in Southwark.
These sobering statistics galvanised South East London Sisters Uncut to carry out its recent occupation in Peckham, in protest at what they call Southwark Council’s woeful record of rehousing domestic violence survivors. In doing so, Sisters Uncut emulated the actions of the women who set up the first ever women’s refuges in the 1970s, squatting in empty buildings. The focus of the occupation was to demand support and safe, secure housing for all survivors of domestic violence in the borough.
From the first week of its occupation at the end of June to the last a month later, the group says that the site was “buzzing with activity”. A large banner outside the vacant shop announced Sisters Uncut’s presence on Rye Lane and welcomed women and non-binary people from the local community into the space. Over the course of the project, the group held a series of talks about the current state of domestic violence services and organised film screenings, poetry recitals, self-defense classes, art activities and yoga sessions.
As a key part of raising awareness about the challenges encountered by women facing domestic violence, the group’s members were keen to highlight the specific struggles of women from black and Asian minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Sisters Uncut describes maintaining strong intersectional values as one its driving priorities, recognising that women of colour, disabled women, LGB and trans women face the highest levels of violence. Indeed, this is a particular issue in Southwark – since 2010, Southwark Council has cut all funding for BAME domestic violence services. Rosa explains that during talks the group “would mainly raise up the voices of BAME women, and migrant women, and those needing specialist domestic violence services.”
Sisters Uncut’s Ashley observes that opening the occupation “showed how important these type of spaces are for communities”. She says that the group’s activities were met with great support from the local community, and notes that the group actively created a welcoming and safe environment in which Peckham residents could come together, including setting up a crèche to ensure that mothers and carers could participate in the services offered by the occupation.
Rosa reflects on how the space became “quite a social centre. We had people bringing us food, bringing us supplies, stopping in,” she continues, adding that “we even had some women who would come in the morning and have their first cuppa with us before going to work.” As a result, the group doubled in size within the space of a week, enabling Sisters Uncut to draw on the specific knowledge of local residents. By the end of the occupation, almost 200 local residents had written postcards to Southwark Council demanding greater support for survivors of domestic violence.
Now that the occupation is over, what’s next for South East London Sister’s Uncut? Despite drawing significant attention to the plight of domestic violence survivors in Southwark and receiving substantial support from the local community, the group reports that it has so far received a limited response from Southwark Council. Councilor Stephanie Cryan defended the council’s record, arguing that “statistics alone do not show the whole picture.”
South East London Sisters Uncut say they remain undeterred. “Our fight against Southwark Council continues and will escalate” states Rosa. The group says is has other actions planned for the future, and hopes eventually to set up several more localised collectives across South East London. The group also intends to continue to support the work of other Sisters Uncut groups across London and the rest of the country. It is currently working alongside the East End Sisters Uncut occupation of an empty council home in Hackney.
Whatever happens, members of South East London Sisters Uncut insist they will continue to use direct action to communicate their message and press for change. “We want to cause disruption. We don’t want business as usual because business as usual is killing our sisters”, Rosa explains, adding, “so that’s why we turn to direct action.” At a time when much political activism takes place online, Sisters Uncut members feel there is power in taking their campaign to the streets. Musing on the highly creative and visual nature of the group’s protests, Ashley remarks “We choose high visual impact with high disruption – women and non-binary people are a creative bunch, we’re not basic.”
As austerity cuts continue to result in the reduction of domestic violence services and secure social housing, South East London Sisters Uncut describes its activities as being “more urgent than ever. Two women are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner in the UK, and in London an eighth of people presenting as homeless cite domestic violence as the reason. However, South East London Sisters Uncut is determined to fight back against these cuts and work within the local community to support survivors of domestic violence.”
Follow South East London Sisters Uncut on social media for updates about the group’s activities. The group urges local women and non-binary people to get involved in its upcoming activities and calls on male supporters to spread the word to their female and non-binary friends.
WORDS: Emma Snaith - Born and raised in South East London, Emma is a freelance journalist writing mostly about politics and social activism. She also works part time at the Hare and Billet Pub in Blackheath.