Here’s a life-changing event that didn’t make the news. On an autumn evening in 1999, a 30-year-old woman and her two children, aged two and nine, approached the pale side door of a stone building.
Inside the door, the three stood in a partially-lit children’s room scattered with toys and bisected by a waist-high bright blue partition, where another woman – ash blonde and middle aged – welcomed them in and locked the door. She led the family into a small hallway, pointing out the payphone and the list of useful phone numbers pinned to the wall.
Following her, the woman – my mum – carried my sister up the stairs. I trailed behind, peering back over the white gloss bannister at the faces of at least three younger children who had come out to the hallway to get a look at their new housemates.
At the top of the stairs, the older woman showed us to a fairly large, light blue room at the front of the house. Three unmade single beds, almost touching, lined the three sides of the far end of the room. There was an old glass-fronted TV, a dark brown wardrobe, a small fridge, and an old armchair, where my mum would later spend whole nights dozing by the light of the TV, hooked up to her nebuliser because her asthma was bad again.
It wasn’t much, but for about two and a half months it was home. And we were safe, because at last we had made it to a women and children’s refuge, an anonymous building on an unremarkable street some way across the town.
The largest study of its kind has concluded that more than one in four women globally experience domestic violence before the age of 50. Since the beginning of the pandemic, domestic violence referrals in Britain soared, while visits to the national domestic abuse helpline website rose by 950%. Meanwhile, campaigners against the femicide epidemic are calling for the link between domestic abuse and suicide to be better acknowledged in national figures. More worrying still, the domestic violence charity Refuge is now raising concerns that abusers are making “smarter” use of personal mobile technology to control their partners beyond the home.
Between 2010 and 2018, local council funding for refuges was cut by around two-thirds, placing the onus for making up the shortfall on national campaigning charities such as Refuge and Women’s Aid and regional specialist charities like IDAS in Yorkshire. It’s an attack on women’s services that has never been reversed. Bracing for a “surge” of victims to come forward after the third national lockdown, Lisa King, of Refuge, called for a “long-term, sustainable funding package which enables frontline services to step away from the funding cliff-edge they so often find themselves on”.
The night we left, my mum packed up our old Ford Fiesta during a window when her partner wasn’t home. She told me to get my teddy and pick one toy to bring with us. Barely around the corner, she pulled up the car and turned to me, sat sobbing and confused amongst the bedding in the back, and said: “I can’t explain now, but you just have to trust me.” She in turn placed her trust into a telephone number written on a piece of paper which she called from her mobile.
“Hi there, we spoke before?” she said. “I’ve done it. Can we come now?”
People misunderstand that the point of refuges is essentially to enable women to put a door in the way of their abusive partners and a roof over their children’s heads. In reality, refuges are about much more than physical safety. They are places where women can more easily access council and third sector support, learn about education and housing options, and access befriending services. They are places where children can play together, where families can receive donated food if they need it, and where, upon leaving, women may themselves become volunteers to support other refuge users. Most significantly, they are places where women can meet each other to share their experiences, be understood, and support each other. Together, they form a network; an entire ecology of services, volunteers, buildings, options and peers all aligned, often imperfectly, with the sole purpose of helping women to make the life-changing decision to leave abusive partners.
Yet according to Women’s Aid, during 2019-20 57% of referrals to refuges were rejected, the primary reason being lack of space or capacity.
This single figure puts to shame the government’s recent initiatives around domestic abuse because it lays bare the systematic and deliberate defunding that has been committed over the course of the last decade. The proposal to remove the so-called ‘local connection test’ from the social housing allocation process, which has forced many women to stay in the locality of their abusers, was rightly welcomed. But the decision to place a statutory requirement on local councils to find shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse, while essential, passes the buck for a wilful failure to reverse and recompense refuge funding cuts and belies the continued denial of service faced by women who are turned away from the refuge system, as if refuges were merely doors and roofs.
A defining characteristic of refuges is that people walk past them everyday without ever knowing or wondering what they are. They are necessarily discreet. You will probably have walked or driven past one at some point without ever noticing it. They don’t stand out like fire stations or hospitals, even though for some people the support they provide is just as vital.
So when refuges are facing a “funding cliff-edge” or the threat of closure, you can’t point to them to tell people. You can’t tie balloons to the gates or hold a picket or stall outside. You can’t tie ribbons around them to raise awareness. You can only promise people they exist, and that they’re really important, and that their future is far from guaranteed. Successive Conservative governments used this fact to strip refuges of resources, and they continue to use it to dress up partial reforms to a dire situation of their making as altruism and generosity. The reality is that government inaction on restoring, compensating and expanding refuge funding, particularly now, is nothing short of state violence, and it continues to be perpetrated because unlike a storm or a war or a party in No. 10, a woman and her children being turned away from support or yet another avoidable female suicide will never make the news.
This International Women’s Day, you can donate to Women’s Aid here. The 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be reached free of charge on 0808 2000 247 or via their website.
Craig Gent is head of operations at Novara Media.