Breaking language barriers empowers vulnerable women

by Olivia Darby | Wonder Foundation
Wednesday, 13 February 2019 17:51 GMT

A woman browses through books inside Widnes Library in Widnes, Britain September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Migrant and refugee support organisations have been campaigning for decades for better provision of English language classes for vulnerable migrants

Olivia Darby is director of policy and campaigns, and co-founder of Wonder Foundation.

“I was a mouse – now I’m a lion”. Learning English is not about grammar, idioms and the pluperfect. It is about opening doors, the ability to voice an opinion, to claim rights. Wonder Foundation is a UK-based charity that works to empower women through education, and trafficking and modern slavery cuts like a knife through our work. In Poland, Slovenia, the UK and Spain our projects discover that the migrant mothers they support have complex stories of lies, exploitation and modern slavery. In Nigeria, the Philippines and Honduras our partners ensure that training leads into decent work, giving hope to people who may otherwise take the risks that lead to trafficking out of desperation.

Of the estimated 13,000 people living in Modern Slavery in the UK, the majority originated overseas. We don’t know the languages spoken by people who, having entered the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) are found to have been trafficked. However, of the 1961 people who entered the NRM in the last quarter of 2018, 1,488 claimed non-British nationality and half of these came from just five non-English speaking countries - Albania, Vietnam, China, Romania and Eritrea.

Just start to imagine how your day today would have been different if you couldn’t speak English, If you couldn’t read or write. Could you get yourself or your child to a doctor’s appointment? Could you work? Could you even buy groceries? In the UK, not speaking English puts you in a twilight zone.

The Medaille Safehouse in east Kent houses up to 18 female trafficking survivors at a time, often very young, pregnant or new mothers. The majority are Albanian, with little English, and range from illiterate to graduates.

Sheila Macdonald, founder of Beyond The Page, works with Medaille to create learning spaces which are safe, creative, fun and friendly. Sheila is an experienced ESOL teacher, but has found that working with vulnerable women requires a more flexible teaching methodology. Her expertise, training and experience are essential when juggling the learning needs of such a mixed group of learners, many of whom will be struggling with trauma-related mental health issues.

However hard she tries, the women still don’t feel safe. “It’s like teaching in an airport departure lounge”, Macdonald says. “Everyone is looking up at the board, wondering when it’s their time to go. They are highly anxious, bored, tired and stressed. This uncertainty – not knowing what the future holds for them and their children, awaiting a Home Office decision -  is terrifying. How is someone meant to learn like this?”

Even if it is recognized that they have been trafficked, the support that women will be able to access is limited. Migrant and refugee support organisations have been campaigning for decades for better provision of English language classes for vulnerable migrants. At present, provision is patchy, and women with caring responsibilities face many barriers to access. There are few classes for absolute beginners, or in facilities which offer free childcare, the Catch 22 being that babies are also not welcome in the classroom. Destitution is the reality for many people escaping modern slavery, and without the ability to learn English, there is no obvious way to change this. It is no surprise that so many are vulnerable to re-trafficking – exploitation remains the only means of them increasing their incomes as it did when someone approached them in their village in Vietnam or Nigeria and offered them the job of a lifetime.

Speaking English allows survivors to communicate, to become less anxious and to make friends. Staff at the Medaille safe house notice the difference that the classes make to the women: “People transform in 5 minutes”. Macdonald engages a voice coach to ensure that all the women are listened to and works to overcome their natural shyness to build community and confidence. The women enjoy the classes, and they even give them a moment of escape from their worries. One survivor said, “The singing makes me happy and I forget everything”. Asked whether learning English was making a difference to her, another survivor said, “Before I was a mouse – now I’m a lion!”.

Since starting the SEE-ME project, raising awareness of modern slavery and developing campaign ideas with young people to address the issue, Wonder Foundation has been inundated with enquiries from people supporting trafficking survivors seeking English language classes that they can attend, as our work in both areas conspires to make us a top google answer. We have referred people on wherever possible, but unless charities have allocated funding, there is no provision for most survivors.

Through SEE-ME Stella Sarmias has become a vocal advocate on Modern Slavery. On 5 February, at Parliament, she asked 200 people, including MPs, to improve provision for survivors: 

“The government needs to provide free English classes to survivors and make these a right that all survivors are entitled to. Furthermore, given the complexity of the psychological recovery of survivors, classes should be sensitive to their needs. It is time we put ourselves in the shoes of a modern slavery survivor and consider the challenges of establishing a new life for themselves, a life in which they are in control – survivors deserve to be understood.”