Women's Lives Matter protest. Photo: John Fuller. All rights reserved.
“The Tories cut, we bleed,” said Joyce Sheppard, 68, an active member of the Women’s Lives Matter campaign in Doncaster, a former coal mining town in South Yorkshire, in the north of England.
The Women’s Lives Matter campaign is a movement across South Yorkshire which originated in Doncaster in 2016, after the closure of the town’s Women’s Aid domestic violence service, one of many organisations that have been impacted by government funding cuts.
Sheppard is no stranger to grassroots activism; during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, she joined the Women Against Pit Closures campaign. I spoke to her in February 2018, a year after Prime Minister Theresa May released her draft domestic abuse bill, which is still yet to be passed – the consultation period runs until 31 May 2018.
In the UK, domestic violence accounts for two deaths a week, on average. But the closure of domestic violence refuges has not received significant coverage in the national let alone international press. Sheppard accuses those in power of failing to listen to the concerns and voices of local women in places like Doncaster.
“Talk is cheap, isn’t it?” she said. “You can wear your suffragette rosette and have your picture taken but what are you actually doing for the women’s rights movement?”
“You can wear your suffragette rosette and have your picture taken but what are you actually doing for the women’s rights movement?”
As home secretary, May helped to pass the ‘coercive control, domestic violence protection orders and disclosure scheme’ which permits individuals to ask the police if their partner has a history of abuse. In February 2017, she described tackling domestic violence as “something I have always attached a personal importance to.”
May’s draft bill last year came with a pledge to protect and support survivors and recognise the lifelong impacts that such violence can have on women and children. The government has also promised £100 million of dedicated funding until 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls.
But Sheppard accused the government making such promises as “political fabrications to win votes.” She said: “It’s a year on and we still have seen no evidence [of increased funding] – in fact we have seen the opposite with [service] closures.”
“It’s an outrage,” Sheppard told me, adding: “We know that men and middle class women are victims of domestic violence too but it is proven that it is harder for poorer people to escape domestic violence and now where are they going to go?”
“The Tories are making it more and more difficult to get housing benefits; teachers aren’t equipped to deal with children who are witnessing or being victims themselves of domestic violence; the NHS isn’t equipped to deal with the financial consequences of treating the victims, not to mention the cost of mental health support.”
“It is harder for poorer people to escape domestic violence and now where are they going to go?”
Women’s Aid was founded in 1974 ‘to end domestic abuse against women and children.’ Among other things, the national charity runs a 24-hour domestic violence helpline and provides services in refuges. A report from the charity says there were 11,113 cases of domestic violence against women in the UK in 2016-2017.
Doncaster Women’s Aid was set up in 1976, funded by Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC). In 2013, this funding ended amid cuts to local authority spending from the central government. Three years of relying completely on lottery funding followed, but more organisations became reliant on this route and the money soon ran out.
In April 2016, women took to the streets of Doncaster in protest and the Women’s Lives Matter campaign began. At first, it seemed successful: in January 2017, DMBC granted £30,000 in funding to South Yorkshire Women’s Aid (SYWA). But when this money dried up, local Labour Councillor Chris McGuinness said no more funding was available – despite revelations in the press that DMBC had £97.3 million in usable cash reserves.
After two years of relentless campaigning, activists say that the voices and concerns of the Women’s Lives Matter campaign are still being sidelined. From the closure of Doncaster Women’s Aid in March 2016 to the opening of SYWA in January 2017, there were more than 6,600 reported incidents of domestic violence in Doncaster alone.
According to Councillor McGuinness, central government decisions – not those of the local authority – were to blame for the closure of Doncaster Women's Aid, and the subsequent lack of funding for SYWA. Sheppard isn’t satisfied with this response; she says that McGuinness cannot simply “wash his hands... and say ‘Oh well, sorry no available money to spend on this – case closed.’”
“Women and children are going to die... it isn't good enough to say 'no funding available.'”
“Women and children are going to die,” Sheppard told me, adding: “In 2017 the people of Doncaster voted Labour in – the seemingly more ‘caring’ political party so they can campaign on our behalf. Our previous campaign was a success because we were visible and noisy. It isn’t good enough to say 'no funding available.'”
Women who have protested in Doncaster have also been “quashed or discredited using intimidation tactics,” Sheppard claimed, referring to the case of domestic violence worker and campaigner Louise Harrison, who activists say was retaliated against and threatened with losing her job amid her participation in protests against cuts.
Sheppard attributed this response to women’s activism to Doncaster’s “heavy industrial background and the breadwinner/homemaker model [that] is still prevalent in the minds of archaic men and the social structures of our town.”
The Women’s Lives Matter campaign, Sheppard continued, has shown “the very real danger our victims are in without Women’s Aid. 100 years since women won the vote and look: we are still campaigning for equality. This silencing of women has to be stopped.”
Despite the obstacles, she and her allies are not giving up; their crusade to save the lives of women in Doncaster, and across the UK, continues.
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