When I approach the Pembury Community Centre, the place is a vision of colour and happiness. Women rub shea butter on their hands; laughing and joking and bearing gifts for one woman: Ngozi Fulani. At times it is easy to forget that she’s the head of an unfunded domestic violence charity.
Fulani, has set up a specialist domestic violence service in Hackney for women of African heritage. Her job frequently takes her on night buses to intervene in domestic violence cases after getting a panicked call in the middle of the night.
“There are people going through it who have no one to go to? Hell no!”
Formerly a registrar, she’d had a reasonably quiet life and handsome salary before she set up Sistah Space in 2015. Did she envision such a career change would take place in her 50s? She laughs: “I was quite happy doing the weddings at Hackney Town Hall. It was fun, well paid and when I came home that was it.” But after her own daughter experienced domestic violence, Fulani trained to be an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA): “When she went through it, I thought, there are people going through this who have no one to go to? Hell no!”
Fulani explains why specialist domestic violence services like Sistah Space are vital. The service was set up after the horrific – and preventable – death of Valerie Ford, who was murdered along with her 22-month-old baby at the hands of her ex-partner. Ford had reported him to the police when he threatened to burn down the house with her in it, but the police regarded it as a threat to property rather than a domestic violence report.
“Women of African heritage often aren’t seen as ‘in need of protection’ compared to our white counterparts. We’re supposed to be so tough, so how can we go through domestic abuse?” says Fulani. Her assertion is backed by recent research showing that black girls aged as young as five are viewed as needing less nurturing, protection and to be less innocent than similarly young white girls.
Fulani also talks about an entrenched fear of police within the black community, branching back from decades of police violence: “We’re not respected [by the police]. Not even seen as equal, that’s the bottom line. They’ll say, ‘You say he slapped you but I don’t see any red face’. It’s like they expect our skin to bruise just like theirs.” Due to suspicions of the police, many people of African heritage are shut out of their communities if they report crimes, says Fulani: “We’ll be looked down on by the community as the whole for selling out to the police. You will get more abuse than when you started.”
This, Fulani says, means Sistah Space recognises a need to be sensitive about police involvement: “I will say, if your life is at risk, go to the police. But victims know from talking to us that we’re grassroots and we are professional. We can advise people how to get help and stay safe, but we won’t engage police unless people want us to.”
Since Sistah Space opened three years ago, Fulani estimates they have helped 150 people; yet despite their vital work in the community they survive without any funding “[When I started Sistah Space] I thought, let me take a year out to give back to the community. It’s been three. I never knew how powerful it would be, but I’ll tell you, I don’t know how much longer I can go on. I’m burning out. You won’t see me in Sistah Space today, you know why? There is no electricity. We’re literally running on nothing.”
The charity currently rests on good will. A woman gave Fulani a car a few years back after hearing stories of Fulani getting on night buses in the early hours of the morning responding to domestic violence survivors calling to say they were scared. But the car has gone out of service now. They fundraise through stalls like the one we see today, selling shea butter and dolls made by survivors. But it’s rare: “We do three stalls in a year but rarely do we make anything. We might get £150 which will pay for the electricity for three months.”
Surviving on small donations doesn’t bode well. Women of African heritage are the least likely to report domestic violence in Britain, and the number of specialist BME refuges in London sits at only nine, down from 12 in 2010 and funding for London’s BME refuges has also been cut by half in the last seven years. Amidst funding cuts, the likelihood of receiving future funding is bleak. Hackney Council have slashed their budget for domestic violence services by 24% since 2010.
Fulani explains that cultural needs are often left uncatered for when women flee domestic violence: “We have survivors who are moved to areas where they cannot access creams for their hair and skin – we can’t use mainstream products. If you place someone where they can’t get their traditional food or cater to themselves, you are adding another trauma, another barrier for the survivor.” She points out that, because there are not many service providers like hers, she provides to a wide community of people in and out of the borough too, not just in Hackney.
“These cuts will kill people. They already have.”
For Fulani, the case that would catalyse the setting up of Sistah Space was much more influential than she first thought it would be: “I didn’t think I knew Valerie [Ford] when I heard about the death of her and her baby but, just like everybody else, I was outraged. I went to the court case every day,” she says.
“On the day her ex-partner was sentenced, I bumped into Valerie’s daughter downstairs. She looked at me and said: ‘You don’t remember me, do you? I was at Clapton girls and you were my teacher there.’ Then I remembered her and I remembered Valerie.”
That was the turning point that led to her demand of a space for the service: “I came home with water in my eyes from the Old Bailey, so bad I couldn’t see clearly. That’s when I realised: there’s nowhere for us to go. I went to Hackney CVS and I said we need a space and we got the space.”
Today, three years later, it is clear from looking around at happy faces in the community centre just how much Sistah Space has done for domestic violence survivors. But Fulani shouldn’t be working as a volunteer: she is a trained domestic violence worker, saving lives.
Is she hopeful that funding will come, amidst such a hostile funding climate? “Look,” she says, “for Sistah Space, the cuts aren’t so noticeable because you can’t cut a service that doesn’t have any funding. But I’ll tell you one thing that’s obvious: these cuts will kill people. They already have.”
To keep Sistah Space’s crucial work supporting survivors of domestic abuse going, you can donate here.
Follow our Right To Refuge series this week to find out more about the domestic violence crisis in our boroughs. #RightToRefuge