Lauren White highlights the urgent need for well-funded refuges and specialist services and describes the building blocks for a safer society
Two women a week in the UK are murdered at the hands of a partner or ex-partner – a statistic that hasn’t changed for over a decade. Two women a week.
Include other male family members and the number of women murdered in any given week is likely to increase. It’s a huge public health problem; if it was a medical epidemic killing women at this rate, everyone would know and want to join the fight against it.
Yet despite this onslaught, the Government, instead of acting to protect women, launched a large-scale attack: cutting funding to vital services and putting women’s lives at risk. Just a few weeks ago, the specialist women’s charity, Eaves, closed. Other speciality women’s charities are being forced to use reserve funds for day-to-day functioning, just to survive. Rape Crisis services have no funding secured after March next year.
32 refuges closed between 2010 and 2014 due to a lack of funding. The most drastic cuts have been to services providing vital support for LGBTQ+ and BAME people. The number of women with no recourse to public funds who can’t access refuges, or justice, is unknown. More services are under threat, with blame being passed between central and local government and no responsibility or accountability being taken. All the while, women are dying.
Vast swathes of women who enter the criminal justice system (CJS) are survivors of domestic violence. 53% of women in prison have suffered some form of abuse during childhood and 46% of women in prison have been victims/are survivors of domestic violence. There is something fundamentally wrong in a system which sees crucial, life-saving services cut brutally at the same time as funnelling vast numbers of vulnerable people into the CJS.
I’ve been lucky to meet and sometimes organise with the feminist direct-action group, Sisters Uncut, who formed via consensus in November 2014 to fight government cuts to domestic violence services and wider austerity measures. This includes things such as cuts to legal aid, which are making it harder for women to flee or even attempt access to justice and security. A ‘Feministo’ sets out demands; the vision clearly being of a world where all women (trans, non-binary, intersex, cis) live free from the threat of male violence – that’s what the community fight to build.
It’s made me really think about what is essential for building a society where all women are safe from male violence. As an obvious, but important, starting point, there MUST be enough refuge spaces for all women and children fleeing violence. Funding needs to be ring-fenced at a national level, and there needs to be more – not less – services. This includes:
- Specialist BAME refuges – particularly given the intersections with the CJS, where young black women are more likely to be criminalised for their behaviour than young white women
- Specialist services for women affected by the CJS, and more refuges where actively using and recovering substance users can live safely, with support to address their substance use
- Drop-in services for street homeless women, to reach the most socially excluded and vulnerable women in our society
- Specialist service provision for trans women, who are subjected to violence at a disproportional rate and who are often excluded from accessing services
- Wider LGBTQ+ service provision
- Accessible service provision for all women with a disability, and adequate follow-on support, especially for those for whom the perpetrator is also their carer
- All women being offered a Young Women’s Advocate / ISVA / IDVA support, to help build protective factors and a stable home life
- Access to legal aid.
Beyond this, we need to:
- Recognise the link between life trauma and mental health problems; the CJS should not be used as an alternative to treatment and treatment should include holistic approaches and psychological therapies, not just medicalisation. Services also need to be bureaucracy free – for example, no punishments for missed appointments
- Extend this recognition to drug use, acknowledging that domestic and sexual violence are huge triggers, and so women only rehabs with a focus on how the experiences interact are hugely important
- Provide wet and dry houses which are women only, where refuges aren’t appropriate. This should include the allowance of drug use, no forced abstinence and support to keep children wherever possible
- Provide girl only Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), to ensure vulnerable young women can remain in education safely, away from perpetrators who are most commonly around the same age and in the same PRU
- Have more access to housing, more safe housing, more affordable housing, more semi-independent housing for women bridging the transitional gap between custody, rehab, refuges and living independently
- Break the State’s reliance on persecution, victim-blaming narratives and brutalising cuts. Sending vulnerable women to prison for theft or substance use is not an outcome any argument can win, from love to economics
- Build the movement to accept the premise of the CJS as unsound – who believes that temporarily locking violent men away, with other violent men, is going to end this sustained attack against women? – and provide alternatives.
The list isn’t exhaustive. There is more we need to do. Teach girls they are important, that their voices, their thoughts, their bodies, matter. Teach young people about respect and consent. Link our struggles, and our successes, with our sisters and brothers around the world in the fight against misogyny, racism, incarceration and neo-capitalism.
In meetings, during actions, and, whenever the mood calls for it, Sisters Uncut loudly chant the words of activist Assata Shakur. It seems fitting to repeat them here:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains
Lauren White is a professional fundraiser, feminist campaigner and volunteer with a specialist women-led charity. Sisters Uncut are an intersectional feminist organisation taking direct-action for domestic violence services.
As part of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies' Justice Matters initiative we are inviting submissions to the 'I would build...' series. We want people to tell us their ideas and thoughts on how to build alternatives and transform society so that criminal justice institutions as they currently exist are no longer necessary. Email us with your ideas.