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WE Will Work Every Day to Rebuild the Structures of Our Society Until Gender Inequality Has Been Removed From Them

05/01/2016 18:13 | Updated 06 January 2016

Early in December, I visited a house on a suburban street in south London.

Inside the little living room, a Christmas tree stood in the corner. Children were curled up on the sofa watching CBeebies on a television that was garlanded in tinsel. I was offered tea and sandwiches and mince pies. It all seemed very festive.

Except it wasn't. I was at a domestic violence and abuse refuge, run by Housing for Women, and I was there to talk to women who had been beaten up, and who had been badly let down.

Hannah was married to a violent and abusive man for 15 years. Her son was taken away from her 18 months ago. She'd been living in the refuge for seven months. On the day I met Hannah she was two days away from her next visit to Adam, who is now nine. She had waited two months since her last two-hour supervised visit with him.

Reports of domestic violence stand now at record levels, according to new police figures. But Hannah is not just another statistic. Her suffering is real. She has suffered at the hands of an abusive partner, and her story must stand out and be told.

And the reality is, Hannah's story has worsened since she decided to leave her abuser - which meant also leaving her home and her financial security. She took her son Adam with her, travelling to Ireland where she found a house and safety. But, now a 'flight risk', she was pursued by police who took her son into protective care on his eighth birthday, returning him to London.

Since then, Hannah has fought to get Adam back. Back in England, she has no home and no money - grounds for her son to be kept in care. She has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, the result of years of abuse and her separation from Adam - and grounds for her son to be kept in care. She has a disability that prevents her sometimes from carrying out day-to-day tasks, although it has never interfered with her ability to be a mother. This, too, is grounds for her son to be kept in care.

Hannah has also been told that staying with her ex-husband for so many years is another of the reasons her son is being kept from her. She has been told that the joint visitations she initially had to endure in order to see her son at all are evidence of her story being suspect, and a reason for her son being kept from her. She has been warned that comforting Adam, who has become a sad and withdrawn little boy, with promises of them being reunited is, too, a reason for her son to be kept from her.

And because Hannah does not have an addiction and is not involved in sex work, she has been told it is 'difficult to see a process of rehabilitation' for her.

Sounds unbelievable, doesn't it?

But Hannah's story is not unusual, according to Jakki Moxham, Chief Executive of Housing for Women, a charity and housing association that has been providing homes for London's women for 80 years.

"It's a common theme - women are punished by the system for being in violent relationships," she told me. "There is a pervasive idea that it is the woman's fault for not leaving sooner, and when she does leave she often loses her home and financial security to her abuser."

"The ones who leave are very strong. It's very hard to leave."

Michelle was encouraged to leave her husband by her midwife, who had spotted the signs of abuse. She was four months pregnant. The first night that she left, she had to sleep on the street because she had nowhere to go. Offered help by a good samaritan, she slept on the sofa of a total stranger every night for more than a month until Housing for Women were able to step in.

"We used to have more emergency places," Jakki explained. "It's never been so hard to find suitable housing. Cuts to legal aid and to benefits, changes to immigration rules and rising rents are all impacting on our ability to help women who suffer violence and abuse."

Michelle, whose beautiful baby girl is now nine months old, used to be frightened to go out in the dark. After nine months in the refuge, she is no longer afraid.

Lucy isn't quite there yet. She's only been in the refuge for a month, and the trauma of her experience is visible. Lucy was married to her abuser for 12 years, and didn't know if leaving was the right thing to do, because she was so frightened that she would be found, and punished.

Lucy told me that she felt very stupid. She didn't know how to break the cycle she was in. She lost all her confidence. She had nowhere to go.

And she said she didn't even feel good enough to leave. Then she said softly, and apologetically, that she wasn't able to talk about it more than that yet.

In 2016 my job will take me to many more places like the house in south London where Lucy and Hannah and Michelle live. I want to make sure that women like Lucy and Hannah and Michelle know they are good enough to leave - and will be safe if they do so.

I want to make sure that fewer women ever have to feel what Lucy and Hannah and Michelle have felt.

The Women's Equality Party (WE) has set out a clear set of plans to tackle domestic violence and abuse. We would recycle the Married Couples Tax Allowance, which benefits only a small group of people, into a fund to help vulnerable families. This fund, worth £800million by 2019/20, would enable us to restore legal aid for all cases involving domestic violence. It would enable us to extend services and support so that those escaping violence and abuse are cared for and are safe. And alongside that we would tackle the court system so that the woman's needs are at the heart of it and judges and jurors better understand the circumstances of cases involving such abuse.
WE want to challenge and change the culture in which such abuse occurs. This violence, overwhelmingly carried out by men against women, results from gender inequality. It is a stain on our society.

I will keep telling the stories of women like Lucy and Hannah and Michelle. I will keep working every day to rebuild the structures of our society until gender inequality has been removed from them. Only then will my job be done.

Sophie Walker is the leader of the Women's Equality Party

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