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Women are not safe either in public or private spaces.

Domestic Abuse (Simulation) – Source: Wikimedia Commons

It has been a difficult and painful week which began with International Women’s Day and ended with the worst possible news that Sarah Everard who vanished as she walked home, had been killed and a serving Met police officer charged with her murder.

Then on Saturday night, we saw shocking images at Clapham Common of male police officers physically restraining women, pinning them down, handcuffing and arresting them for wanting to grieve collectively and honour Sarah in love and sisterhood, having been refused a peaceful vigil by the police.

We have witnessed a massive tide of sadness, grief and anger as women reacted to the news and voiced wider concerns about the endemic abuse and violence they face in their everyday lives. Women have powerfully expressed the fear that accompanies their steps in a world where violence against women has become normalised.

On Thursday Jess Phillips MP, Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence, read out in Parliament the names of all the women killed in the last year by a man who has been charged or convicted. It was a chilling reminder that as Jess put it, “Killed women are not vanishingly rare, killed women are common”. On her reckoning, six women and a little girl had been killed since the day Sarah vanished. 

While we prayed that Sarah would be found, willing that she eventually would make it home safely, we know that ‘home’ for many is where women are statistically  most at risk, most unsafe. According to government statistics, one in four women will experience domestic abuse, over 1.3 million every year, and one in five suffer sexual assault in their lifetime.

The UN has described the increase in domestic violence globally as “a second shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19. It is estimated that cases of domestic abuse have increased by at least 20 percent during lockdown with many trapped at home with their abuser. Calls to Victim Helplines have increased dramatically. Reports of domestic abuse to West Midlands Police rose by 38 percent this year. Abuse can take many forms: economic abuse, physical, sexual and psychological abuse by partners or ex-partners.

Frequently victims do not speak out but suffer in silence, afraid of further violence, and many are ashamed, made to feel like it is their fault. They somehow “asked for it”. Women say too, that even if they do report abuse, they are not listened to. A recent horrific domestic killing and the shockingly short sentence received – now under review – demonstrates how perpetrators of violence against women may explain their actions using lockdown stress as an excuse.

The government announced this year that £125m will be allocated to councils to support domestic abuse victims and their children. In addition, Rishi Sunak announced an additional sum of £19m over 2 years mostly for programmes working with abusers to reduce reoffending.

Charities, while welcoming the extra money, said more detail was needed of where the money would be spent and pointed out  that a large shortfall remains in funding domestic abuse services. Funding lifesaving support for survivors must always be the primary goal.

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If we examine the impact of cuts over many years on support services, it is clear that services have been cut to the bone over a long period, looking locally at Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) women’s refuges as an example.

Historically refuges got a large proportion of their income from Housing Benefit which met both accommodation and support costs. From 2004 the support cost element was removed and placed into the “Supporting People” Programme when Gloucestershire’s spend on services for ‘victims of domestic violence‘ was £642,000 p.a. (p.11 GCC Briefing 2004).  In 2005, SP Strategy p.90 shows refuge accommodation available at that time for 40:

  • Gloucester                13
  • Tewkesbury               0
  • Cheltenham               8
  • Forest of Dean          8
  • Stroud                          8
  • Cotswolds                   3

A review in 2008 started to shift money away from refuges in favour of ‘floating support’. Over time all refuge grants have ceased and other programmes have been put in their place. Now GDASS (Gloucestershire Domestic Abuse Support Service) is commissioned from the GreenSquare Group at a cost of £823,759 p.a.

The County describes this service as “a community based, flexible model supporting a continuum of need that includes early intervention and a safe response for those families most at risk.” The current service includes; Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVA) support for high risk victims and the courts, floating support for medium/ standard risk victims, group work programmes, help desk (triage), access to places of safety and healthy relationship work for teenagers in schools” [Cabinet report September 2017 p. 85 – 94.]

While there are merits in this range of support it has been at the expense of, rather than in addition to, supporting refuges. The national organisation, Women’s Aid has shown that the loss of a national network of refuges, as these patterns have been repeated across the country, has made it harder to access places of safety. 

Today Gloucestershire has only one independent Women’s Refuge, the Beresford Stroud Refuge. We also have GRASAC (Gloucestershire Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre) which supports survivors of sexual violence, their friends and family.

 Jess McQuail, Labour Councillor and candidate for the Stroud District Council elections in May this year said:

“Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation. It’s time that ending it was a political priority”

Refuges are in crisis, those remaining have to operate on a shoestring. While demand for places of safety grows, women have to be turned away. Survivors may be forced to return to their abusers or sleep on the streets, prey to the dangers there. Therefore safe, long-term housing is another vital aspect of support.

As things stand, survivors may only be offered housing if they can prove they are more vulnerable than the average homeless person. Councils cut funding for domestic violence refuges by almost a quarter between 2010 and 2017, and last year, Women’s Aid found that 64% of all referrals to refuges were declined.

Women are taught and encouraged to keep themselves safe, but little is done to educate men against chauvinist attitudes and aggressions which create a dangerous and hostile environment for women in public spaces, at work and even in their own homes. Last year saw the lowest ever number of convictions for rape, a mere 5%. This in turn prevents more women from reporting sexual assaults as confidence in police and the judicial system is ever lower.

Violence against women and girls destroys the lives of victims, their families and those close to them. It is a violation of fundamental rights and underlying it is persistent and structural misogyny embedded in our institutions. Those in power need to listen to what women are saying, and take action; stop victim blaming and redirect attention to the conduct of men.
We need to fund support and places of safety adequately for the survivors of domestic violence so that they can rebuild their lives and feel safe and supported.  

Ed: Here are some sources of information and support.

National support services and helplines:

  • National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 200 247
  • Karma Nirvana (Honour Based Violence) – 0800 5999 247
  • Galop (LGBT+)   0800 999 5428
  • National Stalking Helpline 0808 8020 0300
  • Respect (men’s advice line) 0808 8010327

Local support services:

If you are in immediate danger, please call 999. 

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