Austerity and domestic violence: mapping the damage

Austerity has taken its toll on domestic violence provisions, in a fracturing that cuts across institutions, sectors and lives in the UK

Over the last two years, the argument that the austerity measures introduced by the Coalition government have not been ‘neutral’ has become a truism – the position has been put forward, through various lenses and numerous examples, that the cuts have been ‘ideological’, targeting the sectors and constituencies which are least invested in by the Tory vision.   As these arguments develop, the difficulty has been in pinpointing how the different austerity measures and deterioration of social provisions negatively interact.  In the case of domestic violence provisions, it has come through a variety of avenues: cuts to police and the criminal justice system, cuts to charities working on domestic violence that are funded by local government and wider cuts that structurally contribute to the rise of domestic violence and deterioration in provisions for those affected by domestic violence, predominantly women and children. 

It has long been held that domestic violence tends to increase during difficult periods for societies, in wars and in recessions.  What is becoming increasingly evident, as the austerity measures continue to bite, is how the strain of the recession on women -- the disproportionate number of public sector job losses being just one example – has combined with both additional strains that are contributing factors to an increase in domestic violence and – simultaneously – a concerning shrinking of the services available to those experiencing domestic violence.

It has becoming increasingly evident that part of the inequality of the austerity measures was its function as a gender-backlash, eroding the progress of the past forty years, from the disproportionately female job-losses in the public sector cuts, to cuts to services women are more likely to require.  Single mothers are the demographic most hit by benefit cuts – the Fawcett Society and Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated last year that single women will lose an average of almost 5% of their annual income by 2015 as a result of changes in taxes and benefits.  This has been compounded in domestic violence situations by the abolition of the Social Fund, which was used as an emergency payment from benefit offices to support those in ‘dire need’.  Meanwhile, this year saw female unemployment rise to a 25 year high.  This loss of economic and social status and mobility has clear consequences for domestic violence, as the difficulty of leaving a violent partner is clearly significantly complicated by financial limitations. 

The impact of austerity on domestic violence and loss of social and economic autonomy for women has already been noted in other crisis-affected countries, notably Greece and Spain.  In Britain, evidence is mounting that the economic crisis and austerity measures are severely setting back efforts to tackle domestic violence.

The first issue is the organisations that deal directly with domestic violence.  In Britain, most domestic violence services are provided by charities, albeit funded by local government.  A study by the University of Worcester of 37 organisations found 40% of the organisations had lost staff and 28% had lost funding since the austerity measures began.  The domestic violence charity Refuge warned earlier this year that it could face closure, as CEO Sandra Horley said that, in nearly three decades of working for Refuge, “I have never been so worried about our future” while the charity Solace Woman’s Aid has reportedly lost 30% of their funding in the last year.   As shelters and domestic violence charities shrink or close, those affected by domestic violence are turned away, often forced to return to an abusive situation.  There are reports that hundreds of people are being turned away from domestic violence shelters every day.  Moreover, the impact of cuts in the wider sphere of organisations that touch upon issues related to or intersecting with domestic violence, from cuts to refugee services and services for ethnic minority women, have dried up access points for many experiencing abuse.

The cuts to shelters and domestic violence organisations are the obvious manifestations of the government cuts.  The toll of austerity measures across the board of social provisions and services creates a wider haze in which dealing with and preventing domestic violence becomes more and more difficult.  One obvious impending impact will be the changes to housing benefits from 2013, including the proposal to make under-25s ineligible for housing benefits.  Single women comprise 50% of housing benefit recipients and the expected rise in evictions that will result from this will exacerbate fraught domestic violence situations and likely lead to people staying in abusive situations as securing housing becomes increasingly difficult.  

Cuts in the criminal justice system mean avenues for addressing domestic violence are withering away.  Dozens of special domestic violence courts are expected to close over the next three years.  Similarly, the estimated 20% budget cut to the police will impact on the sector’s ability to maintain its Domestic Abuse Officers and independent Domestic Violence advisers.

The gutting of the National Health Service under the guise of austerity has been one of the most pitiless decimations of a country’s social goods, and its continued corrosion weighs heavily on those affected by the realities of domestic violence. As Southhall Black Sisters noted earlier this year in response to proposed closure of emergency services at Ealing  hospital: “in our day to day casework, we make constant use of the A&E services at Ealing hospital as a referral point for women who have been subject to physical and other forms of abuse. Without this service, extremely vulnerable women will not be able to report their experiences of abuse or receive emergency treatment. This will have enormous impact on their ability to exercise their rights or obtain police or court protection which is dependent on quality and timely evidence.”  Evidence emerged over the summer that the austerity cuts are already having a negative impact on other aspects of women’s health, not least maternal care; the continued corrosion of the health system leaves those affected by domestic violence more vulnerable both in terms of adequate access to treatment in the immediate aftermath of violence and in terms of follow-up care as they rebuild their lives.

Between the cuts and set-backs faced by shelters and domestic violence charities, combined with the impact of austerity cuts from housing to criminal justice to health, the systems in place to, in various ways, address and prevent domestic violence are rapidly evaporating.  Simultaneously, continued high levels of unemployment, precarious employment, and fewer benefits mean those experiencing domestic violence are less able to escape violent partners due to often crippling financial constraints.  There is also a third element to this picture, which is a tricky knot to untie but nonetheless concerning – the concept of ‘recession domestic violence’, meaning the recession and austerity period has in itself lead to an increase of violence in the domestic sphere; which is not to excuse violence as a product of circumstance, but to recognise that the strains of job losses, debts and austerity difficulties will exacerbate tensions in relationships and families. 

The issue of domestic violence is highly complex and requires multiple actors and facilities to fully disentangle and enable healthy relationships.  What is becoming clear, as the damage of the recession and the austerity cuts acquire firmer contours, is that the impact of job losses and benefits, alone, presented another serious obstacle for those suffering domestic abuse and trying to leave violent situations – the cuts to domestic violence charities and shelters, in addition to the wider cuts in criminal justice and health have severely exacerbated the situation.  It is time for the government to address this as a priority, and, in turn, recognise how the violence of austerity has already warped too many lives.

This article was first published December 19th 2012. It is republished here as part of 50.50's series of articles during 16 Days: activism against gender violence

About the author

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie