Our domestic violence refuges were already at crisis point before David Cameron was handed back the keys to Downing Street. So when I think of what further damage these invaluable services will suffer by 2020, it sends shivers down my spine.
In the UK, two women die at the hands of a violent partner or former partner every week. Yet in the first two years of this parliament, the Tory-led coalition cut funding for the domestic and sexual violence sector by 31 per cent, and the number of specialist refuge centres for women suffering domestic abuse fell from 187 to 155.
As a result, nearly a third of referrals to women’s refuges in 2013-2014 were turned away because of lack of space – including many children. Sandra Horley, chief executive of the charity Refuge, commented last year that cuts mean that “women experiencing domestic violence will be faced with a stark choice: flee to live rough on the streets or remain with their abuser and risk further violence or even worse.”
Domestic violence campaigners were tentatively hopeful before 7 May. After a notable absence from the coalition parties’ manifestos in 2010, violence against women and girls was on the pre-election political agendas of most mainstream parties (minus UKIP) as never before. Public awareness raising campaigns to tackle FGM, for example, had helped push such debates into public consciousness.
But now the spending plans for the next parliament come into sharp focus, don’t expect the Conservative’s lip service to improving domestic violence provision to give way to anything more tangible in their second term. Time and time again, the Home Secretary Theresa May has refused to ring-fence funding nationally for women's refuges. Just before this year’s election, the Conservatives stated they will “work with local authorities, the NHS and Police and Crime commissioners to ensure a secure future for specialist FGM and forced marriage units, refuges and rape crisis centres”. But without any mention of reversing their swingeing cuts to valuable services, this will feel like too little, too late. We need a separate fund for domestic violence services if we are to save them from meltdown.
The issues affecting provision for survivors of domestic violence run three-fold. First, the money. As well as dealing with funding cuts, without a national network and national funding, local refuges are forced to compete for ever-dwindling pots of funding from local authorities. Accommodation provided by housing associations is often favoured by councils in this highly competitive tendering process – but this rarely provides the specialist, therapeutic support that survivors of domestic violence need.
Second, housing. Survivors of domestic violence should be given priority when they apply for social housing – but this is not always the case. Moreover, the Tories’ extreme plan to cut £12bn from social security means they will increase the cruel – and electorally unpopular – bedroom tax. It’s entirely unacceptable that panic rooms installed for the safety of long-term survivors of violent ex-partners are currently classified as a ‘spare room’ by this government.
Third, legal aid. One of the outcomes of Cameron’s slashing of our legal aid provision in this country – a service once admired by the rest of the world – is that victims of domestic violence must meet strict evidential eligibility requirements before they can claim a legal aid. But how, exactly, does one provide material ‘evidence’ of psychological abuse from a partner over a sustained period, and behind closed doors?
My prediction for women’s public services over the next five years straddles both pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the spirit. The Office of Budget Responsibility has described the profile of the £30bn planned cuts in this five-year parliament as a public spending “rollercoaster ride”. We know that austerity measures will continue to have a grave impact upon women’s services as they face a ‘triple jeopardy’ of cuts to jobs, benefits, and vital services.
But there are reasons to believe that positive change is still possible. Up and down the country, a new wave of social movements such as Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters and Focus E15 is gaining strength with increasing momentum. And as the second term of austerity sets in, these organisations will continue to raise public awareness through direct action, organising links with sympathetic organisations, politicians, and individuals in order to gather a critical mass calling for greater compassion in Britain’s public spending decisions.
In the days before the general election, placards at Sisters Uncut’s direct action in central London peppered with slogans like “They cut, we bleed” drove home not only the gendered impact of austerity, but the lack of representation of women’s interests at a party political level. While this remains the case, the streets, community meetings, and social media will be the forums where political organisation and action takes place. As Lucy Strange, one member, said at the Sisters Uncut protest: “Women are underrepresented in parliament – this is women standing together to take political action.”
In closing specialist safe houses first forged in the 1970s women’s liberation movement, this government is effectively turning the clock back on decades of feminist progress. But the proud tradition of public protest we’ve seen in recent months in response is more than equal to this particularly pernicious brand of time-machine politics.
Words Anya Pearson and photographs courtesy of Sisters Uncut
Anya Pearson is assistant editor at the Fabian Society and co-editor of Compass and Fabian pamphlet 'Riding the New Wave: Feminism and the Labour Party' with Rosie Rogers. Alongside this she is a member of feminist group Sisters Uncut working to protect domestic violence services through direct action.
Find her on Twitter: @AnyaRPearson