Trapped: women fleeing violence in the UK

The raft of cuts affecting the women's sector, and election promises made by Labour and the Conservatives not to increase public spending, represent the biggest threat to domestic violence services and to women’s lives.

Dawn Foster
9 February 2015

Credit: Flickr/Ben McAdam

In the run up to the 2015 UK general election, the topics most discussed by the main parties have so far been the economy and immigration, the latter driven by a surge in support for the anti-immigration and anti-EU UK Independence Party. Disappointingly little attention has been paid to the problem of violence against women and girls, especially since the UK Home Office project one in three women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary called for domestic violence to be treated as a specific crime, and said Labour would introduce new standards for police, and all bodies dealing with domestic violence. The Prime Minister David Cameron meanwhile promised to “look into” the current legislation around domestic violence. But both parties holding the balance have promised no public spending increases, which represent the biggest threat to domestic violence services and women’s lives. Smaller parties have also said little, prior to publishing their manifestos. The Liberal Democrats’ pre-election manifesto failed to mention domestic violence, while UKIP’s elected European representatives have voted against combating violence against women, while the Green Party only mention domestic violence as part of their policy on reducing the number of women in prison.

Those working in domestic violence services in the UK warn that changes in legislation and definitions alone can do little to stem the burgeoning crisis in the sector. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid warned that services were “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living. 

The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services, and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.

At one refuge in London, run by Hestia housing association, the service manager Louise Dickerson says: “It's really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all time high. With so much pressure on councils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security: most private housing offers tenancy agreement of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility.

Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. A lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, this puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains: “They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It's very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.”

Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provides payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24%. For the women affected, the extent to which they’ve been hit isn’t an afterthought, it’s ideological. The rhetoric around benefits in the UK, changing slowly for decades, has now ramped up to a poisonous invective around “scroungers”, and a false idea, promoted by government, that too many people treat claiming social support from the state is a “lifestyle choice”. This atmosphere, promoted by the media, but also politicians - shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves promised Labour would be tougher on benefits than the Conservatives - isolates vulnerable people, while making councils reticent about awarding emergency funds to desperate people.

One young British woman, speaking anonymously at the refuge, said there was a disconnect between how the police treated domestic violence, and the level help available once women left. ”There’s such a big discrepancy, I remember when I first reported abuse to the police, I got a bit scared and wanted to back down and told them I didn't want to follow it up any more. But the police rang me five times a day, and said they couldn't drop it until they saw me in person to make sure I wasn't being blackmailed to drop the claim,” she explains. “They said it was such a serious offence. So it's amazing how the police know it's something major, but that's where it stops. There's nothing else afterwards. I'm here, I'm being looked after, but what about the hundreds of other women who can't get in? Who are still being strangled, raped and tortured? There's no way to move people on from here, and it makes no sense. If the police know this, then how come the government don’t?”

Speaking to women in the refuge, the atmosphere is not one of resignation or fear, but anger. Fleeing violence and danger, they’ve encountered only more hardship when trying to leave the refuge that has offered them respite and support. What should be a stepping stone, instead feels like limbo. Seated in a circle on sofas in the refuge’s communal space, they swap stories over cups of tea. One woman was told to “go back to Togo” by a council employee despite living in the UK since 1998. When she returned the following day a different employee sexually propositioned her. 

A young woman who moved to London from India, then fled her abusive husband says in tears "For one week, I ate nothing but water, because I was sick of begging for money. I didn't tell anyone, I saved the money I'd have spent on food. Then I had chest pains. I wonder why I was born, why I came to this country and married that man, and slowly I feel like less of a person. You think it's better to die than live like this.” The women’s problems intersect, and they each tell angry tales of failing to get the most basic support. Some have children, of whom a number are disabled. A lot of the women are experiencing severe mental and physical health problems. Most have experienced racism when dealing with gatekeepers of public services. A couple of the women are subject to the no recourse to public funds rule, due to their immigration status, so are even more vulnerable financially. 

A point raised over and over again is how women are expected to support themselves, when everyone in the room has countless tales of battling councils to get tiny sums of money. “We’ll see more deaths, we’ll see more women having to go into prostitution,” one survivor says, echoing many concerns over what happens to migrant women when they’re regarded as second class citizens by the state. For the women affected, it’s clear they’re bearing the brunt of an economic crash and subsequent ideological austerity that’s completely beyond their control. But as women forced to flee, then live in fear and secrecy while hoping to start a new life, they’re almost completely silenced.

In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, Home Secretary Theresa May told the audience both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said. The drop in both funding and numbers of domestic violence refuges implies that is not the case. But domestic violence is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.

This is the second in a series of articles by Dawn Foster in the run up to the general election in the UK, May 2015





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