On International Women’s Day last week, women from all backgrounds came together both to celebrate how far we have come in tackling gender inequality and to shout about how much more there is still to do. From Hollywood to Westminster, we have seen how the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are spurring a new drive to end sexism, inequality and endemic violence against women.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the one place a woman should feel safest – her home. Domestic abuse remains at epidemic levels in our country; last year alone an estimated 1.2 million women experienced it across England and Wales, and over 13,000 women with over 14,000 children escaped abusive homes to the safety of a life-saving refuge in England alone. We were pleased to see the government mark International Women’s Day by launching a consultation on a new domestic abuse bill – a truly once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the lives of survivors. Women’s Aid will be working tirelessly to ensure that survivors’ voices are at the heart of this new law.
As part of that process, we look forward to working with Labour, a party with a strong commitment to tackling domestic abuse and all forms of violence against women and girls. Together, we need to guarantee that this new bill will protect all women, including the most vulnerable and marginalised, and those with no recourse to public funds.
We are clear, however, that the precarious funding position of specialist services risks derailing the bill. New laws to improve our police and criminal justice response to domestic abuse will mean nothing if survivors cannot escape to safety, or access the support they need to recover from abuse. Women’s Aid network of life-saving services grew from the strength and solidarity of women in the 70s, who refused to let survivors suffer in silence, and built support services from the ground up. But on just one day in 2017, 94 women with 90 children were turned away from refuge in England. The bill, and the action and awareness raising set to underpin it, must ensure that all survivors get the support they need, when they need it. Women’s Aid’s research shows that insecure, short-term funding is the single biggest issue facing specialist domestic abuse services across England.
The government’s proposed funding reforms threaten to compound this crisis. If planned “short-term supported housing funding reforms” go ahead from 2020, over half of refuges responding to our survey would be forced to close or reduce their bed spaces. Our public campaign has had an incredible response – over 170,000 people have signed our petition, and Labour MPs and peers have strongly challenged the government on these reforms over the past five months in parliament, but we need to see a cast-iron guarantee from government that these devastating refuge funding reforms will be withdrawn. Last week the Prime Minister promised that securing sustainable funding for services was a priority.
And, whilst measures to strengthen sanctions on perpetrators are welcome, we need urgent action to ensure survivors are safe, too. Women who escape an abusive partner are being wounded by welfare reforms, and those with insecure immigration status are being left vulnerable and unprotected. We are calling on government to urgently improve the response that survivors receive when they visit health services, engage with social services to support their children, or seek to move to a safe new home in a different area. Too often, women tell us that professionals in these sectors fail to believe them.
This has to change. Domestic abuse must be brought out from behind closed doors and made everyone’s business. Women’s Aid looks forward to working with survivors, specialist services, statutory agencies and all political parties to transform the response and ensure this new law gives every survivor the help she needs, when and where she needs it.
Katie Ghose is chief executive of Women’s Aid.
This piece was commissioned by guest editor Diane Abbott.