Our co-founders, HRH Princess Eugenie of York and Julia de Boinville, speak to Karen Anstiss. Karen is the Service Manager of Caritas Bakhita House, a safehouse for women who have escaped modern slavery.
A few days before the lockdown in the UK, Karen moved into Bakhita House so that she could continue the essential work that she describes as her “dream job.” The last few months have been exceptionally worrying for many, especially survivors of modern slavery, for whom the current isolation and uncertainty presents particular challenges.
Bakhita House is a place where survivors of modern slavery can begin to recover, regain their independence, and return to a normal life. Although a normal life is not possible for anyone in this current environment, Caritas Bakhita has continued to provide quality support for the eight women and three babies living in the house during COVID-19. Karen believes that it is not just about putting a roof over their heads, but about ensuring that what is under the roof is a caring and loving environment.
Despite difficult circumstances, Karen is brimming with so much hope and optimism that, no doubt, inspires the other women in the house. She believes that we should focus on all the good that is coming out of this pandemic. This conversation was truly uplifting. We are so pleased to hear that everyone at Bakhita House is safe and well.
Supporting survivors during COVID-19
A week before the UK was put into lockdown on 23rd March, Karen moved into Bakhita House so that she could continue to support the eight women and a young baby living there. Since the lockdown, two more babies have been born, bringing the hope of new life to the house. As the risks of COVID-19 to newborns and pregnant women is still unclear, Bakhita House shut its doors to ensure that they protect the residents already there.
As Karen explains, this lockdown has been extremely difficult for survivors. Having been previously controlled and trapped by their traffickers, the isolation and restrictions to movement of the lockdown can trigger traumatic memories of their enslavement. The women, who observe various faiths, are not able to find solace and community at their places of worship; this is particularly challenging for one woman, who is observing Ramadan. The future of survivors is even more uncertain than usual, as asylum requests, benefit payments and other steps towards independence have been put on hold. The usual needs of survivors have not changed during this time, but the way Bakhita House addresses these needs has.
Bakhita House normally focuses on equipping women with the practical and emotional skills necessary to lead an independent life, but that has been incredibly difficult during this time. For example, the women would normally be encouraged to purchase and prepare their own breakfast and lunch so that they learn budgeting and other skills necessary for an independent life. Now, however, the Bakhita House staff do all the shopping to provide three meals a day in order to protect the women from being exposed to infection.
Nevertheless, Bakhita House has adjusted and created a “new normal.” The house has created a routine full of activities that aims to distract the women from their trafficking experience and COVID-19. Their volunteers are unable to come, but some are now using skype to assist with English lessons. The survivors are also receiving music and drama therapy over the internet. Just like many of us, they are baking, sewing, gardening, and playing games. A few months ago, Karen wrote a lovely article for our website about the power of a simple game of Uno. In the evenings, they all sit down to enjoy a communal meal.
What can you do?
Karen believes that it is important to continue raising awareness. Modern slavery and trafficking have not stopped during COVID-19. Rather, it is likely that those who are already enslaved will experience more abuse and isolation than before. However, anti-slavery efforts have not stopped either. Rescues are still being carried out where possible. Policy-makers are still pushing modern slavery onto the agenda; the UK government announced emergency funding of 1.73 million for modern slavery support services and extended the period of government-funded support services from 45 to 90 days.
Caritas Bakhita House provide women escaping modern slavery with the immediate safety and support to allow them to begin the recovery process. They offer women a range of services, including emergency support, legal and financial assistance, mentoring, and help with accessing accommodation.
Opened in 2015, Caritas Bakhita House is owned by the Diocese of Westminster and managed by Caritas Westminster. So far, they have supported 122 women, aged 15-70 and from 39 different countries. As Bakhita House sits outside the government’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM), they are fortunate to have the flexibility and resources to provide longer-term, need-dependent support for their women.