Women's Aid has launched a major campaign to push for a national system of funding for specialist domestic violence refuges - urgently, before they disappear as a result of cuts and misguided decisions by local funders. But it's important to put these life-saving services in context, and understand the severe and complex needs of survivors of domestic violence - and the fact that only a system of services which puts those needs at the centre can hope to support women and children to lasting recovery.
I'm often asked, is it all about refuges? Well, no, it is all about empowerment. This is why.
The current trend for identifying those victims who are most at risk, with a focus on supporting victims during the criminal justice process, misses opportunities to support both earlier help and long term recovery.
When a woman has experienced terror, control and violence at the hands of her intimate partner, her immediate need may be a safe physical location, a legal remedy to prevent contact, or security measures on her property. These things can save her life, but further responses are needed if the woman is to recover, rather than just be removed from immediate risk.
Domestic violence is intimate, intrusive, and affects every aspect of a woman's life. Recovery is rarely immediate, and support needs can last several years, if not a lifetime in some cases. The initial work of getting back to being able to live independently and safely can take months.
The impact on children and their relationship with their mother can be devastating too. Children often feel ambiguous about their mother: they may still love the abusive parent, or they may have been taught to view her as weak, stupid, irritating or accept whatever qualities in her the abuser claimed to be angered by. They may blame her for not protecting herself or them (blame which is often reinforced by family members and even professionals), or for removing them from the lifestyle, home, and family structure they are used to. They may be recovering from abuse themselves. For children to learn to trust, and mothers to parent confidently after domestic violence is a long-term project and one which often requires specialist support.
Domestic violence often damages women's life skills - yet when they escape they are thrust into a situation where practical skills that would be beyond most of us are required. While a woman is picking herself up emotionally and often coping with very distressed children, she may also have to deal with finding housing, claiming benefits, starting work or changing jobs, finding new schools for children and helping them settle, coping with the complexities of the perpetrator's trial, obtaining civil remedies to protect herself through the courts, or dealing with family proceedings relating to the children. She may be handling and managing her own money for the first time in years, sometimes in her life, if the perpetrator has limited her access to funds, and at a time when she is likely to be in financial difficulties. No wonder women often need advocacy and advice.
Longer term, women who have experienced domestic violence are very likely to suffer from mental health problems, either pre-existing or caused by the abuse. Around seven in 10 women using domestic violence support services report mental health support needs. Physical and sexual forms of domestic violence can cause long-term physical impacts, leaving many women with illnesses and disabilities to cope with, as well as creating a disadvantage in the job market, limiting housing options, and creating medical needs which must also be addressed and which may have been neglected for years.
If we continue to starve of funds the service which are expert at identifying each of these needs and ensuring they are met, those needs don't go away. Eventually, and all too often, they will mean a woman, and perhaps her children as well, will present as homeless, physically or mentally ill, unable to work, unable to attend school, using drugs or alcohol. Domestic violence is the second most common cause of homelessness in women. Estimates of the number of women prisoners who have experienced domestic violence vary, but are as high as 80%.
Specialist domestic violence services focus on meeting all of a woman's needs: reducing the risk to her while providing the other support she needs to live an independent life. This needs-led approach encourages women to come forward for help because it opens up the prospect of life after recovery, while a risk-based approach, focused on the criminal justice system, opens up the terrifying prospect of life without support. And we wonder why women don't leave.
So, no, it's not all about refuges. Refuges are at particular risk in the current climate of funding cuts and localism, which is why we launched our SOS campaign calling for a national funding solution for the nationwide network of refuges. Refuges are essential for the minority of women who need them. They are the intensive care units of domestic violence support: there is no other option for those women to be safe and recover. But empowerment is more than that intensive care. Empowerment is not jargon, a cuddly concept without much meaning. On the contrary, it is the only way to break cycles, rebuild lives, and provide help which prevents unimaginable suffering and even greater need later on.