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IntroEvery year the London-based Latin American Women’s Rights Service, LAWRS, supports around 4,000 Latin American women living in the capital city. LAWRS plays an important role providing advice, advocacy and training to women, many of whom endure long working hours, domestic abuse and the heavy burden of supporting their families. LAWRS’ director, Carolina Gottardo, talks to LAB’s Tian Spain about her work and the new challenges faced by her organisation.

By Tian Spain, for LAB   09 August  2012

Many Latin American women come to the UK to escape poverty, exploitation, violence and domestic abuse in their home countries. Yet when they arrive they find that the same conditions are being reproduced here. Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) was established to support and advise them. Today, as economic conditions in Europe and the UK worsen, LAWRS’ drop-in advice service is struggling to cope with a 40% increase in demand. LAWRS Director Carolina Gottardo spoke to LAB’s Tian Spain.


Listen to the full interview: 


lawrsLAWRS was founded in 1983 by a group of women from Latin America who realised that, while the number of new arrivals from the region was growing, there were no services or support available to them. Women were disproportionately affected by the migration experience and therefore needed culture- and gender-specific services to help them.

LAWRS today gathers information and offers advice and support about economic security and integration into new communities. Advice covers money, debt, homelessness, housing and all matters relating to poverty. They also help women to enter the labour market, by offering ESOL (English) classes, training and personal development programmes.

Another LAWRS service aims to tackle violence against girls and women, with crisis intervention and advocacy to ensure that women receive protection and counselling. Women are encouraged to know and campaign for their rights so that they become more active in civil and political issues and integrated into local services. The aim is to help Latin American women to become more visible and recognised as an ethnic minority in the UK.

Many Latin American women come to the UK to escape violence and poverty in their countries and in hope of finding better opportunities. Paradoxically, the very same problems confront them on arrival in the UK. Compared to other ethnic minorities, the Latin American community suffers from a high level of feminization of poverty and migration, because many women come to the UK on their own, usually with the intention of sending money back to families and children left behind.

Of those women whose families are in the UK, many are the main or sole carer. Some 60% of the women who use LAWRS services are single mothers and therefore heads of household. Machismo is still rife and conditions in the UK can generate high levels of violence for Latin American women. Most Latin Americans are forced to accept an occupational status lower than the one they are qualified for or accustomed to. Many men end up working in cleaning or catering, doing what they consider ‘women’s work’. Feeling their masculinity under threat, they may resort to violence to assert it. Gender-related violence is very high for Latin American women living in the UK and LAWRS has a programme aimed specifically at these issues.

Latin American women who become victims of domestic violence are at a disadvantage in the UK because they do not understand the system and don’t know where to go for help. Often they are listed as dependents on a spouse visa, and live under the threat of being denounced to the immigration authorities. Lacking the support of families and friends, they may spend many years trapped in an abusive household. LAWRS deals with such cases on a daily basis.

Women typically have to combine many jobs, mostly as cleaners, which means getting up at 3am to start work at 4am before offices open or shift work in the evenings when office workers have gone home. Latin American women are a significant part of this army of invisible workers, poorly paid, and often exploited.

Changes to welfare and housing benefits introduced by the Coalition Government since 2010 have had a major impact on the Latin American community, with women suffering most. LAWRS has experienced a 40% increase in demand for its services, while it itself has had its funding reduced.

Another major contributing factor to this increase in demand has been a sudden influx of Latin American women from Spain and Portugal seeking refuge from the financial crisis in these countries. The number of women seeking LAWRS services and queuing at their Monday drop-in sessions has increased dramatically and LAWRS can barely cope. With funding scarce throughout the voluntary sector, they have had to dip into reserves to pay for extra workers. With their low visibility, Latin Americans are not a popular target for funders, despite having a population in London similar to that of the Polish and Chinese communities.

Last year LAWRS and the Trust for London commissioned a comprehensive report titled, “No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London.” One of the main challenges for funding this work, according to Carolina, was that there were no clear statistics available on the number of Latin Americans living in London with which to convince potential funders. So LAWRS asked funders to check who was cleaning their own offices the next day. Of course when they checked, most found that their cleaners were indeed Latin American. According to No Longer Invisible, only one in five Latin Americans claims benefits and the employment rate for the community is 85%, far higher than the general population employment rate of 61%. The report also detailed the skills the Latin American population possess, their poor access to services especially health, and high levels of poverty and overcrowding.

To read the report, “No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London”, click

To read the article in The Guardian, “How London’s Latin Americans are fighting back”, please click here: –

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