Last week, it was revealed in the Autumn Statement that £40million of local government funding will be going towards domestic abuse services. Women's Aid is thrilled. Following months of campaigning, we now look forward to working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to identify how this can be invested most effectively.
So what must ministers do? They must hold local councils to account for how they spend the money. Accountability is critical. There are lots of ways councils could be held to account. A commissioner, a taskforce, an ombudsperson: all of these have been suggested. These are all fine - as long as the government also ensures that local councils follow our list of five key priorities for the funding too.
1. Find out what women need, and do it
Sounds obvious, but currently the organisations working closely with women to understand what long-term recovery looks like to them, and how to work with them in order to get there, are the very ones most likely to be cut. These are, of course, specialist domestic abuse services.
It's time that the whole system - right across our public services - responds to domestic abuse in a way that treats every interaction with a survivor as an opportunity to help. At the moment, obstacles are often put the woman's way: she's not believed, she is blamed, decisions about her life are made without her involvement. It is essential to move towards earlier identification of domestic abuse and earlier help. This will never happen unless there are opportunities in communities for women to disclose safely and confidently.
2. Make sure no woman is turned away from a refuge
At the time of writing we still, just about, have a national network of specialist refuges. These services are a lifesaving safe haven. Unless local councils are compelled to preserve them, they will continue to go for cheap alternatives - or nothing at all. The government has invested twice in picking up the pieces after local cuts. This new money is a fantastic opportunity to change the funding system so the government doesn't have to step in yet again.
Women's Aid has campaigned long and hard to ensure that the vital role that refuges play is understood, most recently partnering with The Sun for the 'Give Me Shelter' campaign. You can read more about our campaigning for refuges here.
3. Make sure abused women from black and minority ethnic communities can get help
Domestic abuse services can't be "one size fits all". The barriers women already face to seeking help are huge. They literally fear for their lives, and we have a responsibility to remove as many barriers as we can. By a barrier, I mean that a woman may feel that only someone who is part of her culture can understand the danger she faces from all sides. Or, she may feel that only another woman will hear, believe and understand her experience quickly enough to know what to do to immediately make her safe.
To do this, we must step away from the ideology of gender-neutrality or a mindset that because it's complex for local commissioners to deal with small, specialist organisations, it's too complex for women themselves. In reality, when specialist BME services lose their funding, women still seek their support and protection. Maintaining a specialist response is not ideological; it is a response to need.
4. Don't compound children's suffering
One in seven children and young people under the age of 18 will have lived with domestic abuse at some point in their childhood. Many are directly abused themselves, and all are profoundly affected. They need specialist therapeutic support. Their mothers, whose parenting confidence and skill will often have been shattered by the abuse, need support as parents.
They do not need to be blamed for the impact of the abuse on their children. Telling a woman that her children will be taken into care if she doesn't leave the abuser doesn't make her go. It makes her hide the abuse and mistrust professionals, and keeps her and her children in danger. Many women stay because they have been told, in no uncertain terms, that their children will be harmed if they try to leave with them. What would you do?
5. Understand trauma
Many women recovering from domestic abuse have been tortured, physically and mentally, for years. I will never forget the words of one survivor who said, "He destroyed me from the inside out". She described years of abuse which escalated from control and isolation to increasingly severe physical and sexual assaults.
The current preoccupation with "managing risk" doesn't enable a woman like that to regain her resilience, to survive and thrive. But specialist services - both community-based and in refuges - know how to do it. They know how to reduce women's future dependence on services, and how to help them avoid being victimised again. Let them do this. Empower them to do this. Listen to their expertise, and support them as they help women and children move on from the terrible, dark legacy of domestic abuse.Suggest a correction