Shelter from the storm

Shelter from the storm
Katie Ghose, Chief executive of charity Women's Aid, recalls the history of women's refuges with a reminder of just how vital a service these shelters provide to women escaping domestic abuse

This year marks the centenary of the first British women securing the right to vote. We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years. From landmark legal changes, such as the Sex Discrimination Act, through to last year’s global #MeToo movement, women have campaigned hard and won significant battles for women’s rights. Yet the fight for women’s equality is far from over. 

Last year, an estimated 1.2 million women experienced domestic abuse. On average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales, while one in ten of all crimes recorded by the police are now related to domestic abuse, painting a truly shocking picture of the persistent threat hanging over so many women. 

These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg as domestic abuse continues to be a hidden crime, with many victims never building up the courage to report to the police. Our mission at Women’s Aid is to ensure that every survivor receives the help she needs when and where she needs it. 

Our movement started almost fifty years ago, when women around the country, fed up with the apathy from the government and the lack of public awareness about violence against women, decided to take matters into their own hands. These women took extraordinary direct action. They started to take in women trying to flee abusive relationships into their own homes, risking their own lives to offer shelter to women who were being hunted down by violent and abusive partners, with a shelter in Chiswick set up by Erin Pizzey in 1971 becoming the first modern domestic violence shelter. And so the UK’s first women’s refuges were born. 

The courageous activism of these women burst into a movement that would forever change the ways we view and respond to domestic abuse. 

In 1974, our national charity, Women’s Aid, was formed to represent these local services and campaign for those in power to take action against domestic abuse. Since then we have been at the forefront of transforming the national response. We provide survivors with the support they need, improve legal protections and raise public awareness of domestic abuse, as well as the sexism and women’s inequality that is both a cause and a consequence of such abuse, across the whole of society.  

Our campaigning is informed by survivors’ experiences and their voices are at the heart of everything we do. We worked with survivor and campaigner Claire Throssell to make the family courts safer for women and their children; together, we have changed guidance for judges to help ensure children’s safety is at the heart of all child contact decisions. After survivor Mehala Osborne was unable to register to vote while living in refuge without jeopardising her safety, we campaigned alongside her to make it easier for survivors to register to vote anonymously. In this centenary year, our Right to Vote campaign will mean more survivors can vote in safety, ensuring victims of domestic abuse are not silenced by the gendered violence they have encountered.  

Protecting refuges through our SOS campaign is an urgent priority. The future of these life-saving services is currently under threat as a result of planned funding changes. The government is proposing to remove refuges’ last secure form of funding – housing benefit – and devolve this funding to local authorities to ‘fund services that meet the needs of their local areas’. Yet over two thirds of women escape to a refuge outside of their local area. Refuges are an emergency service – they have to operate as a national network to be there for every survivor who needs them. These funding changes will leave our refuges faced with the awful reality of either turning more women and children away or closing their doors forever. 

Over 170,000 people signed our petition calling on Theresa May to halt these dangerous funding changes. We were joined at Downing Street by our patron Dame Julie Walters, our Survivor Ambassadors and a cross-party group of MPs, including the Green Party’s Co-leader Caroline Lucas MP, to deliver the petition to government. We have been overwhelmed by the response to our campaign. Domestic abuse is often hidden behind closed doors, but the future of women’s refuges is clearly an issue that the public cares deeply about. 

Our next step is to ensure that the government’s landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill will deliver real change for survivors and their children. To achieve this, the government must first commit to working with us to find a long-term and sustainable funding model, so that refuges can operate as a national network. Second, the government must make tackling domestic abuse everyone’s business, reaching beyond the criminal justice system to housing, education, health, immigration and the welfare system, to ensure all women can escape in the knowledge that the state will do everything it can to keep them and their children safe.