Silenced: Bangladesh’s Ongoing Fight for Freedom of Speech

Silenced: Bangladesh’s Ongoing Fight for Freedom of Speech

Where would we be without freedom of speech?

The freedom to express an opinion, no matter what it may be, is integral to the lives of people. More importantly, freedom of speech is fundamental to the existence of democracy where, without it, any system would inevitably crumble and fall to pieces. It is this human right which helps us to succeed as people, hold onto our identity and nurture our true selves – and it is this right which allows us to exercise and retain our free will. Whether it be in the form of an Islamic marriage where both parties to a Nikah say “qubul”, or to press freedom, where journalists (and even the likes of Katie Hopkins) have both the opportunity and platform to have their views heard, the existence of freedom of speech has been meticulously woven into the very fabric of our society where all individuals are encouraged to speak their truth without fear of any life-threatening backlash. But sadly, this is sometimes not the case – especially in other parts of the world.

Which is what brings me to the situation in my country-of-birth, Bangladesh, where speaking your truth could indeed bring about the very real commination of life-threatening backlash. 40509747_529898554126514_6912469208274042880_nFreedom of speech and the limitations on it have always been a topic of great discussion in Bangladesh – quite surprisingly so, as the country proudly presents herself as being a secular and democratic nation, whereby Article 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh holds that every citizen’s freedom of thought, conscience, speech and expression is guaranteed. From bloggers in the past being butchered by fundamentalist groups for questioning the validity of religion, to students and activists being harassed and beaten by police-hired goons (or the police themselves) if found to have made any open criticism against the State, there has been an ongoing struggle in Bangladesh, where the elite and ruling-class have always held the reins of power, as opposed to the people. Growing up, my experience was (and still is) in stark contrast to that suffered by many people in Bangladesh.

I had it pretty easy compared to most South-Asian kids – in fact, I had it pretty easy compared to any kid, irrespective of age or background. When it came to having my voice heard, I could always count on my parents to give me the freedom to question anything that didn’t quite align with my sensibilities. Whether it be the patriarchy, politics, religion, race or (even) sex, no subject was ever too hush-hush or taboo.  The cards were always laid out on the table, and I had my pick of sensitive topics which I could tear apart and challenge repeatedly. 40562174_1855667394540376_5742216913627381760_n
You could say that at home, my freedom of speech was always ensured. My inquisitive nature, paired with my parent’s willingness to allow me to question the supposedly ‘unquestionable’, gave me an early start to understanding the importance of this freedom – not only in one’s own personal growth, but also in the way in which its very existence helps to shape democracy, impacting the structure of society in a way so profound and just, that it gives equal weight and consideration to all those wishing to be heard.  It is the freedom of speech which gives people the real hope of progression and change. So, as someone who cannot imagine a life where I am continuously silenced for speaking my mind – especially in terms of how society is governed by the State – reservations on my freedom to speak out is something which I find to be incomprehensible, particularly in this day and age. Despite knowing Bangladesh’s tumultuous history and relationship with freedom of speech, I still find the current violations of this right to be deeply distressing.

Recently, the discussion surrounding freedom of speech was reignited following the deaths of two students who died in a road traffic accident in the country’s capital, Dhaka. The deaths subsequently catalysed a small 9 day revolution in which a national out-cry ensued calling for better road safety – predominantly lobbied by the country’s student population. However, these deaths and reactionary protests uncovered a far deeper level of anger, frustration and ongoing resentment towards the government. Lack of road traffic safety merely touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues which common Bangladeshis encounter on a daily basis. The country is riddled with systematic inequalities, where to be taken seriously, one must have sufficient financial resources (in the form of a bribe), or come from a particular background in order to have their basic needs met. From completing simple banking tasks or receiving basic healthcare, to asking for help from the authorities, one must present themselves as a somebody in order to not be treated like a nobody. Corruption and the thirst for power has polluted my motherland, a heartbreaking reality which we have been painfully reminded of again following the arrest of globally renowned photographer and activist Shahidul Alam, for making completely justified criticisms against the State in the wake of the recent protests which have gripped the entire nation.

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Students rallying across Bangladesh over lack of road traffic safety following the deaths of two children in the country’s capital, Dhaka                                                        (dailysabah.com)

Alam was interviewed by Al-Jazeera, and as one of the leading critics of the government, he eloquently and poignantly expressed what he himself described as a “never ending list” of problems which the Bangladeshi people face when speaking out against the government or other powerful entities. For one, the media is being silenced and mobile internet cut in order to quell the protests which took place, not to mention numerous killings and disappearances – both past and present – of  individuals the government see as a threat. This entire circus has been founded amongst an authoritarian system built upon corruption which is bringing the country to her knees.

Following his bold and matter of fact interview, Alam was arrested by the police with a case filed against him under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act for having allegedly given “false information” and making “provocative comments” to different media outlets, which under the Act “prejudice[s] the image of the State”. The Act has been used on numerous occasions against journalists as a tool to confine critics, limit freedom of press, and by default, the freedom of speech. It is an incredibly broad area of law which gags any electronic communication perceived to negatively impact the State. According to the authorities, Alam succeeded in damaging the reputation of the Bangladeshi government, currently ruled by the Awami League under Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. According to me, the actions of the authorities were not only deplorable, but also helped to prove the very point which he was trying to make.

The use of the Information and Communication Technology Act in restraining freedom of speech is quite the joke. In its manifesto, the current government made promises of a “Digital Bangladesh” by 2021. Such technological optimism is quite clearly contrary to the actions deployed by the State on ground, as illustrated through the repression of the media and the ongoing limitations on internet access. What is promised by the State, as opposed to what is actually done, seems to be incredibly offbeat.

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Shahidul Alam being arrested on the 6th of August 2018 following his interview with Al-Jazeera (benarnews.org)

After his arrest, Alam was subsequently moved from jail to a hospital, which leads one to think what atrocities he suffered at the hands of the authorities during his time in custody – all for just speaking his mind. Not only is this a great violation of his human rights, but also a painful marker in the history of Bangladesh for its often inhumane approach towards freedom of speech. As Harry Truman said long ago; “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

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Democratic governments are generally confined within a system of checks-and-balances where no single entity within a branch of government can abuse their power, as other branches are empowered enough to prevent certain actions from taking place. But the role which the common man/woman plays within this system is far greater than any institution of the State. The people – through questioning, challenging, and voicing positive affirmations and negative criticisms – can guide, and at times force the government to act in a way which reflects the many and not the few. Ultimately, it is utilising one’s right to freedom of speech which acts as the greatest instrument in maintaining a system of checks-and-balances, allowing democracy to prevail over authoritarianism and dictatorships.

What is perhaps the biggest paradox is that in 1971, Bangladesh (in what was then known as East Pakistan), fought for independence from Pakistan under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League. Agitation towards Pakistan was based upon the continuous discriminatory and prejudiced treatment of Bengalis in their own country; despite making up most of Pakistan’s collective population. The shake-downs and constant harassment of Bengalis who dared to speak out against the dominant Pakistani government (ruled by the Muslim League), with the subsequent omission of  the Bengali script and language from government exams and coins – amongst other things – built up a sense of nationalistic pride amongst Bengalis who wished to regain control of their land and identity, and ensure equality for their people through guaranteeing freedom of speech. So, despite the Awami League being built upon the principles of equality, justice, democracy and secularism, we now find this very same party making a mockery of freedom of speech, where it silences its own people and treats them as second class citizens in their own country.

40528437_660351461006868_321911024355639296_nIt would be wrong to say that the Awami League alone is the only party guilty of such silencing tactics in Bangladesh; The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jatiya Party have too been accused of being behind numerous killings, disappearances and corruptive approaches as an attempt to limit what people say against them.  Bangladesh has long suffered at the hands of the elite and those in power, with many common men/women falling victim to this; either by becoming their pawns or lapdogs – in which their actions perpetuate the ongoing corruption and inequality of people, or by speaking out against such tyranny and finding themselves, or the lives of their loved ones, at risk.

The international community is aware of what is happening,  yet nothing is really being done. There should be pressure imposed upon the Bangladeshi government regarding the mistreatment of its own citizens, urging a thorough investigation to take place on the arrest and custodial torture of Shahidul Alam and those like him. The case against Alam, and others in his position must be dropped. Focus should also be placed upon proper reform of the law in order to ensure once again, the true existence of freedom of speech in our country. There must be checks put in place to end the abuse of arbitrary power by the State.

Clearly, the action taken against a renowned and high-profile figure such as Alam was intended to scare us. But to defend the likes of Alam, is to defend the freedom of speech – a right which should be guaranteed to all humans. My point is, we did not fight for freedom from the Pakistanis to face this kind of horrific treatment from our own. We fought for independence to secure a better future for our people. We fought for a democratic and secular State. Real change must be brought about, and in order to do that, affirmative action must be taken by the people. The people of Bangladesh, including those of us who aren’t in Bangladesh, must continue to speak out, press for, and defend what is right and what is just. The only way to do that is to continue exercising our freedom of speech, for that is what will bring about peace and real progress. We must fix the fractured political reality which exists at the top and give the power back to the people. This is the time for change, because enough, really is enough.

“A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.”
― Napoleon I

So, you ask where we would be without freedom of speech? I say, nowhere. 

 


Shahidul Alam’s full interview with Al-Jazeera can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9j3EgLm62Q

NOTE: As of October 2018, Shahidul Alam still remains imprisoned.

Void of True Justice: The Open Plight of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK

Void of True Justice: The Open Plight of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK

This summer I have been working as a Legal Affairs Intern at the Afghanistan & Central Asian Association (ACAA), where I have had the privilege to meet and work with people who have inspired me to become more courageous, following the example they set each day. Many of these individuals are Afghanistani asylum seekers or refugees who visit our offices in Hounslow where our team of interns work tirelessly to provide them with the support, knowledge and skills necessary to thrive prosperously in the United Kingdom.

Due to ongoing conflict, unemployment, lack of security and poverty, many Afghans (and those like them), have lost their homes and livelihood in their motherland, where these vulnerable people have had no other alternative but to seek refuge in a foreign country.  The displacement of such individuals, paired with millions of casualties within the region, has been an assault on human dignity. The acts of inhumanity which refugees across the world have faced and fled from is something which must be addressed compassionately and effectively by domestic governments and the international community.

Many refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and around the world face systematic setbacks as a result of their situation. Having come face to face with such challenges through my work at the ACAA legal clinic, I have seen first-hand the knock on effects these issues have, not only on the individual refugee or asylum seeker, but also on the migrant community as a whole. It has left many feeling mentally and physically exhausted, bringing about a sense of insecurity and obsoleteness within the community.

In the UK, asylum seekers are not permitted to work. Refugees on the other hand can, but more often than not, secure low-paid employment, as a result of poor communication skills and lack of experience. Low income leads to many such individuals relying on legal aid to gain free, impartial advice and representation when legal disputes arise. Thus, legal aid often acts as the only route to justice for these people. Nevertheless, recent cuts to legal aid has resulted in many lawyers and legal interns such as myself to feel the pressure of an already over-stretched area of law. More devastating however, is the effect these changes have had on the vulnerable migrants who depend upon and seek these services for the true deliverance of justice.

The changes have left many asylum seekers and refugees unable to qualify for legal aid. This is seen most startlingly in great portions of immigration law, where the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 stipulates these areas as being out with its scope. Many vulnerable individuals can therefore no longer use legal aid to assist them with family reunions, nor can they utilise it in making a claim on the basis of the right to family, and private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. With no money to pay for lawyers, and the inability to qualify for legal aid, many individuals walk into our offices with the hope that our team of legal interns will somehow be able to provide them with the assistance they so desperately need and deserve, or, alternatively, they face the daunting task of having to represent themselves, leaving them particularly exposed to exploitation.

The roll back on legal aid has had a specially devastating impact on asylum seekers, where as a result of unemployment, no recourse to public  funds and with practically no money to pay for appeals, these people face the continuous risk of becoming destitute, being detained or removed from the country, despite displaying genuine cases. These people are often stripped from their family, forced to go back to a home which they no longer consider their own.

Changes to legal aid alone cannot be viewed as the sole cause behind the widening gap between vulnerable migrants and the access to justice. The issue also lies within the general treatment of these people, where many, due to an absence of proper and adequate support, are left clueless to the processes involved in exercising their legal rights. Moreover, they often feel isolated and intimidated, lacking the confidence to pursue justice as a result of their shaky understanding of the system under which they reside. This to me is quite simply due to a void in government-backed, tailored support available to these individuals. Although there are many services in the UK (and around the world) which exist to assist refugees and asylum seekers, they are often challenging to find, and due to potential cultural barriers, can come into conflict with the needs of the individual.

The lack of information and awareness amongst these communities with regards to their legal rights was recently demonstrated when we had a gentleman come in to our offices seeking representation for a hearing he had the following day. He was completely unaware that his employment case could possibly fall within the scope of legal aid. Although in a short space of time we were able to help him in writing a successful written representation, his situation could have been dealt with much more efficiently had he been aware of the more professional, legal services that were available to him.

Similarly, providing sound legal advice to migrants can often be an incredibly taxing task, as there is a continuous risk of there being some form of miscommunication. Although at ACAA, we have a diverse range of volunteers who are on hand to translate complex legal matters simply, not all vulnerable migrants are lucky enough to have this sort of assistance.

The strain on legal aid and the lack of informative and educational services tailored specifically to certain migrant groups is what allows these people to be continuously denied their right to justice. After all, if we are to make justice more accessible and widely available to such individuals, we must first educate them on how the system works and raise awareness on what legal rights they hold. Greater funding and genuine initiatives focussed on assisting such people would not only help to bridge this gap, but will ultimately allow these people the chance to rebuild their lives and thrive in society with dignity.

Unfortunately, this can be made more challenging due to public perceptions and a general atmosphere of mistrust towards migrants, where refugees and asylum seekers are viewed as a burden on the system. This leads to people becoming reluctant in supporting charities and government backed steps which help these individuals. But if we are to better ourselves as a society, we must promote justice through securing a system which is fair and built upon the principles of tolerance and community cohesiveness. We must strive towards sincerely supporting those at home who have been denied justice in their own land. To me, justice continues through to the transition period, where refugees and asylum seekers – such as those we encounter at our offices – are granted the same opportunities given to those more fortunate than them. I strongly and genuinely believe that these people must not, and should not, be left on their own.

Whether it be through lobbying for the reformation of the legal aid system, or by supporting charities and government-led initiatives, we can all play a part and contribute to the betterment of these people in some way. Through promoting tolerance and inclusivity as a society, we will also be promoting justice in its truest form. When it comes to the crisis faced by refugees and asylum seekers, it often feels as though we are moving one step forward, yet going two steps back. There is still a long way to go before we can secure a truly equal society where equal consideration is given to all, but by working holistically towards strengthening our justice system, by ensuring its availability and accessibility to all, I am hopeful that one day we can give asylum seekers and refugees – who are arguably the most vulnerable people in our society – the life and opportunities they truly deserve.

 

 

Idiots Abroad

Idiots Abroad

Not-so-breaking news: Brits are consistently ranked as one of the world’s worst tourists. So, as millions of us get ready to pack our bags and fly away for the holidays, this cannot come as a better reminder on how much work we need to do to alter our reputation and attitude towards the rest of the world. 'Shout louder Dear...he's a foreigner...'

Let’s face it, us Brits have some pretty unreasonable expectations when going abroad – especially when it comes to the issue of language. When visiting a foreign land, a lot of us expect or assume that our host country will be teeming with natives who can speak our language. We unapologetically speak in English, perhaps switching up our tone or volume with complete abandon, whilst having a total disregard towards the language of the country we are in. Yet, on the other hand, tourists visiting Britain can never expect to have the same privilege. What is perhaps worse is that many British folk when abroad, mock or get frustrated with locals who are unable to speak English or cannot do so with great proficiency. Imagine the uproar in Britain if a Polish tourist mocked or got irritated with a Brit for not being able to speak the Polish language properly! Note the double standard? If that isn’t a show of narrow-minded, obnoxious and entitled behaviour, I really don’t know what is.

This to me is deeply shameful. More importantly, it perpetuates a hypocritical mindset in which for some reason, us English speakers think we are entitled to special treatment abroad – especially in comparison to non-English speakers. We bestow upon ourselves the title of being the ultimate VIPs, all because we can speak our own language without any qualms.

Quite frankly, thinking that a lot of the world can or should be able to speak English is an incredibly presumptuous and ignorant attitude to employ. It sort of highlights the privileges we have of living in the West. We live in our own little bubble where as a result of lack of exposure to certain situations, we sometimes find it difficult to understand that many people around the world do not have the same experiences as us. We expect those abroad to make an effort in communicating with us, but at the same time, a lot of us don’t offer the same experience to non-English speakers in Britain. It is just plain rude to think that our needs should be specially catered to, particularly when visiting a foreign country. It shows a complete lack of respect and preparation, where we feel the need to make no effort in a country that is not our own.

26037980_1553048914815091_1592224092_oIt’s quite obvious; when visiting a country, you should come as prepared as possible. And by prepared, I mean being aware of cultural shifts and for the purposes of this discussion, being sensitised to potential language barriers. Now, that does not necessarily mean taking a Rosetta Stone course and learning a language fluently, but rather, it means being armed with some words and phrases you can utilise when communicating any difficulties or questions you may have. If you can afford to go on holiday, I’m sure you can also afford to buy a pretty basic language guide or dictionary. Until recently, one had to pay for roaming charges in Europe, but now you can use your data at no extra charge. So really, you have no excuses, Google Translate is literally with you at all times, across most of Europe. Making an effort is so much better than blindly depending on your assumption that people in a non-English speaking country should be able to speak English. Why should they be able to anyway – just so they can be of some convenience to presumptive and entitled Brits?

I understand that due to its “globalisation” English often acts as a common second-language amongst many people. However, we must remember that it isn’t the be all and end all. A great deal of (sometimes) unnecessary importance is given to English, with this being rooted in British imperialism and colonisation. As a nation, we must begin to realise that Britain is no longer the powerful nation that it once was, colonising vast amounts of the globe. All countries have their own identities which we should learn to appreciate, respect and be tolerant towards. That also means attempting to communicate with natives in a way which they are accustomed to, without requiring them to anglicise their approach due to our laziness and entitled attitude.

As tourists, we are given the incredible opportunity to access elements of a peoples’ country and culture whilst also acting as informal representatives of our own country. The least we could do is not rely on English, a language which does not necessarily dictate another peoples’ identity to the core. Language is a beautiful tool which enables one to assimilate effectively. By not attempting to integrate when visiting a foreign land, the purpose of going there in the first place is completely defeated. Language helps foreigners to experience a place in a manner which is unconfined, whereby it really helps you get to the roots and understand what is actually going on around you.

Attempting to speak the language of the land that you are in also acts as a tremendous sign of respect. It brings about a certain feel of solidarity and unification between people from perhaps different worlds. It is a meaningful gesture that is likely to be returned with kindness. Only if there was some law which stipulates that all countries should aim to educate their citizens in English, and that English was the only “official” language of the world, would I understand why it was okay for people to expect or assume others to speak English. But until then, use Google Translate, get yourself a language dictionary for a fiver, and try to accept that the world does not owe you something just because you can speak English. All anyone really owes you is basic human decency, and as far as I was aware, that does not involving knowing English. Being British and knowing English does not somehow make you better and more intelligent than others.

So, let’s make 2018 a year for change. Let’s make British tourists great again (not that we were ever “great”, but you get the idea)! I mean, who seriously wants to be a part of  a nation which is consistently shown to produce the most arrogant, worst and lousy tourists in the world? Isn’t it high time we do something to change our reputation?

#RANTOVER

With love,

Sam x

 

 

An Open Letter to The White Man

An Open Letter to The White Man

Disclaimer: This is an open letter not to the white man, nor is it a letter to a white man, but rather one to The White Man. My intentions are not to accuse or target individuals with this post. All I want is to shed some light on the privileges many white men have but do not always recognise, and often abuse. This letter is an attempt to inform; to explain what life can be like for the rest of us.


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Illustration by Emanu

Dear White Man,

You, my friend, are the most powerful being on this planet: top of the food chain, leader of the pack, sitting on the top rung of the ladder by virtue of your birth.

You, as a result of your skin colour and gender, receive opportunities that people like myself could only dream of. You, White Man, are a force to be reckoned with. A force which is often underserving of such power; a force which didn’t earn such privileges but was handed them at birth; a force which thrives at the expense of others because the world allows it; a force which leaves the rest of us feeling much less than we are.

A controversial declaration? Perhaps. An exaggeration? Absolutely not.

You see, White Man, the world has set you at the head of the table. Whether you admit this is entirely up to you. In fact, a lot of what goes on in this world is entirely up to you.  You declare what war is, you define what beauty is, you dictate societal norms, you just generally hold more power than you appreciate.

First of all, you are a man in a world designed for men. A world where women are not seen as people but as empty vessels who are there to satisfy the needs of men, to soothe their egos and to do what they say. You are a man in a world where women are seen as weak of mind and body. You live as a man in a world where a woman is judged on her looks and not the contributions she makes to society; whether that be as a mother, friend, teacher or lover. You live as a man in a man’s world. How convenient that must be for you.

You occupy the highest roles in society and make the most money. You look dishevelled without being derided and disregarded. You walk at night without fearing constantly for your safety. You are always heard and you are always respected – that too for your mind, and not for your body. I as a woman, cannot expect any of these. You can, and do, just because you were born a man.

But that is not all that you have in your favour. The colour of your skin has also proven useful to you. History is the greatest witness of this. From forcefully colonising nations to reigning terror on those who were not in line with your ideals and practices, you, White Man, set forth a precedent, a reoccurring theme of entitlement. This so called “respect” which you have acquired through your tyrannical oppression in the past is still apparent today. You don’t have to worry about institutional racism. You don’t have to worry about being shot at mercilessly by the police because of the colour of your skin – an epidemic which is plaguing countries such as America today. You dominate the mainstream media and politics –  the very fabric of our society – leaving the rest of us marginalised. You are not burdened by damaging stereotypes regarding your race. Nobody jokes that you smell of curry or that you come from the “ghetto” and have a tendency towards violence. You, White Man, have been let off easily.

I am not here to attack or antagonise you. Nor am I here to say that you don’t have problems of your own. Of course you do. We all do. You may be from a deprived area and that could hold you back. But even then, statistics show that you still have a better chance of “getting out” and beating this vicious cycle of poverty – more so than say men from ethnic minorities and just all women in general. I mean, all you have to do is  search Google to see these statistics for yourself.* What I am trying to say is that you are privileged despite all of these issues which many others also face. You, White Man, do not have to face the systematic setbacks that people of other genders and ethnicities do. You see, we have to work extra hard and overcome far more obstacles than you do. Isn’t that unfair?

I do not expect an apology letter in return from you. I do not expect you to turn down jobs as a result of guilt. I am not saying that you are implicit or personally liable for all that is wrong in this world. I also appreciate that it is not always your fault that you seem to be the preferred choice because of who you are. I am just saying that it is a shame that this is what the world has come to. I am saying that it is heartbreaking that we are told that this is what we must become accustomed to.

You, White Man, are always taken seriously. You are always believed. You are always the right man for the job. If the world is anyone’s oyster, it is yours. So I ask of you only one thing: a simple request. Acknowledge the power that you have. Acknowledge your privilege. Instead of abusing it, instead of kidding yourself that you are entitled to the position you have in society, help us. Help me. Give us the opportunity and the space to thrive. Help make the world a fairer place. I hope that once you do recognise your privilege, you, when in a position of power, could potentially use that to hire and acknowledge the bias that exists and fight against it. Maybe I won’t be able to see this change in my life time, but I hope that talking about these issues will help to aid that process. I hope it will help to bring us closer to equality.

After all, the world belongs to us all. There is space for each and every one of us no matter what race or gender we belong to – all we need is for you to budge up a bit.

From,

A Brown Woman


* ‘Persistent Poverty in the UK and EU’ (Office for National Statistics, 2014) and ‘Poverty rate by ethnicity’ (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2017)