Comment: Domestic violence victims at risk from spending cuts

By Georgina Newman

Chants, whistles, drums, slogans, flags, placards – this was the scene in central London in March as nearly 500,000 activists pounded the streets in response to public spending cuts.

Supporters of domestic violence charities were among those who marched. The cuts mean that many of these organisations face the threat of closure, despite the figures that show a vital need for them.

Statistics show that one in four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives and that every year there are 13m separate incidents of physical violence against women . It is important to acknowledge that men and children can also be victims of domestic violence – but it is women who are affected to the greatest extent, as they account for 83 per cent of all cases.

Part of the work of domestic violence charities is to raise awareness and change attitudes in a society that at times seems to vilify the female victim.

Domestic violence is the highest form of homicide in the UK: two women every week are killed by their partner or former partner, which accounts for 40 per cent of all female homicide victims. Yet once cases of domestic violence homicide enter the court system, they often lead to a reduced sentence if it can be claimed that murder was committed by the man as a result of provocation by the woman. This is a warped definition of justice.

Social attitudes can be insidious, and more far-reaching than we think they are. This can be seen in the case of Raoul Moat, whose actions yielded extensive support on social-networking sites such as Facebook. The Raoul Moat Appreciation Page contained entries claiming that his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart “deserved” her gun-shot because she had apparently been unfaithful.

March against the cuts. Picture by Claire French

Equally disturbing was the number of Facebook groups supporting Moat, heralding him as “A True Soldier”, and yet his crime was that of a domestic violence homicide. There seems to be an entire subculture who believes that a woman belongs to a man, and that if she defects, he is at liberty to do whatever he wants.

It is in cases such as these, where the full relevance and importance of domestic violence charities is brought to light, and this is why the cuts are going to be so damaging.

Brighton-based domestic violence charity Rise (Refuge, Information, Support, and Education) has had its funding withdrawn.  Any savings made by this can only be superficial, given that the total cost to the city of domestic violence is £132m a year – most of which is spent in healthcare costs, housing and social services, and legal employment costs.

Naomi Bos, a spokesperson for fundraising at Rise, says: “The key to cutting these costs is preventative education and intervention – areas it is nigh impossible to get funded. We are only going to turn things around with domestic violence if we really invest in support and education – teaching young people about domestic abuse is a proven effective way to stop the violence.”

Rise has developed and delivered domestic violence information in schools. It has also financed a course called Break4Change which helps young people to alter their violent behaviour. With no money left to support the former programme, and with future funding in jeopardy for the latter, two successful campaigns are at risk of being quashed.

Justification for government funding cuts is that voluntary services can sustain themselves independently, through finance provided by private funding. Though Rise has generated money through community fundraising and a sponsored annual run.

“Domestic violence has never been a popular cause.”Naomi Bos (Rise)

Left without financial support, Rise  may not be able to sustain its contribution to welfare – a contribution which the words of one service user makes it clear is invaluable.

The woman, who did not want to be named, says: “I was a business woman. I was confident, independent, and outgoing and he knocked it all out of me.

“I am going to be like that again. I have started counselling to re-build my confidence and my life. I will work again and I will make a better life for me and my kids. It won’t be easy but I know with the help I am getting here, that I will make it. I am not on my own anymore.”

Yet several employment posts are under threat at Rise, including the position of counsellor (government funded for 18.5 hours a week). Funding has been withdrawn at a time when the counselling service is oversubscribed – prior to March, the waiting list was 20 people.

Counselling is an important tool for recovery, yet it has proved difficult to fund.  The post of Helpline worker is also under threat, as the budget can no longer fund the role in the year ahead. Since April, there has only been one  helpline worker  even though this creates enough work to keep at least three people busy full time.

Gail Gray, chief executive officer of Rise, says: “Rise services are already under-resourced and under-funded, and our funding is fragile from year to year. Brighton and Hove City Council has done its level best to protect the voluntary sector from the impact of the cuts, but the fact is they have less money to spend.”

Mrs Gray has also expressed concern over cuts to the police. Police receive a call a minute for assistance at a domestic abuse incident – around 1,300 calls a day. She says: “Cuts in police funding could impact on their ability to respond to domestic violence, which could increase murders. Cuts in benefits could impact on a woman’s ability to leave her situation as it would affect her ability to work.”

Mrs Gray’s latter point, relates to the cuts in benefits, which accompany the Welfare Reform Bill. These exacerbate the issue ensuring that, for many mothers with young children, leaving a violent relationship will no longer be a viable financial option.

There is little legal protection for women should they leave their partners.  Legal aid is not readily available, without which, many women are not be able to protect their financial interests when they separate from a partner.

The fundamental concept of any justice system, which aspires to equality of opportunity, is that everyone should be able to exercise their human rights. However, it is the most vulnerable individuals in our society who are least able to secure justice without legal intervention.

Denise Marshall, chief executive of Eaves, which helps female victims of violence, returned the OBE she had been awarded for this work in protest at the cuts she believes will prevent her organisation from supplying adequate support to those who need it.

She told The Guardian: “To be told that we are all in this together and must make cuts like everyone else isn’t right, because we didn’t have enough money to begin with.”

If domestic violence charities were never given ample financial provision to provide a sufficient service, society cannot believe that women have achieved equality when it indicates there is no pressing issue to address.

Karen Moore, policy director for The Women’s Resource Centre, has highlighted the significance of these organisations. She says: “They deal with the most complex issues of our time…but these issues are not popular in terms of funding priorities, regardless of the devastating impact they have on our society.”

Local authorities are struggling with cuts, but they need to re-examine priorities to ensure that the needs of victims are met. If domestic violence charities are closed, then those women who would otherwise appeal to them are left isolated, incapable of exploiting the most precious asset available to them – their human rights.

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