Refuges across in England and Wales are being shut down as money for domestic violence services are cut and the national network of specialist safe houses is under threat.
The threat comes from the competitive tendering process being adopted by local authorities. According to refuge workers this process is weighted towards larger housing associations and businesses, money is being channeled to preventative work, and for some councils is directed away from specialist refuges for women, because they do not take in men (although 89% of violence is directed at women, by men). Another issue is that time limits being put on length on stay.
Specialist refuges that take in victims of violence in forced marriages and of female genital mutilation have been particularly affected. And in Sheffield, the Ashiana refuge for black and minority ethnic women victims has shut after 30 years.
Local authorities are not obliged to put domestic violence services out to tender, yet under the pressure of overall budget cuts that is what is happening.
According to Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, “There are areas where there aren’t any refuges, other areas are specifying beds must be for local women only and some areas are commissioning so-called refuges which are not refuges.”
Women may increasingly find it much more difficult to get away from violent partners.
If no refuge is available and next to impossible to find alternative social housing, where do you go? Private accommodation? The rents and deposits are extortionate. Sleeping rough on the streets may be the only option for you and possibly your children.
Specialist refuge workers and refuges are important because they can support women to understand what they have been through, to stay safe, access health services, legal advocacy and provide immigration advice.
These cuts have been affecting refuges for some time. According to one refuge worker, in one day alone in 2013, 155 women with 103 children were turned away from the first refuge they approached.
A Guardian investigation (3 August 2014) found that refuges have closed, or are under threat of closure, in Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Devon, Dorset, Sheffield, Nottingham, Somerset, Leeds, Leicestershire and Coventry. Coventry and Wolverhampton were places where a new focus on providing accommodation for male victims had led to cuts for women’s refuges.
The preventative measure that is being promoted is the government’s domestic violence protection orders. The orders exclude an alleged perpetrator from the women’s home for between 48 hours and 28 days and are seen as a way of keeping a victim in her own home; but many domestic abuse workers are sceptical of their overall effectiveness.
Cheshire West and Chester council says it is “modernising old fashioned” services. It plans to replace the refuges with a “hub” offering eight places, and four units in the community for male and female victims. Access to women from outside the area has been capped at 20%, and the period of time families can stay limited to 12 weeks.
Behind the talk of “modernisation” and concern for all victims, and not just women who have been hurt and abused by men (an issue which should be tackled, but not at the expense of women!) lies a grubby drive to save money.
One of Gloucestershire county council accommodation options includes “temporary accommodation with friends and family”! Which is like telling victims, look after yourself!
•A new campaign has been set up in London to fight these cuts. Sisters Uncut can be found here: www.facebook.com/sistersuncut