This Christmas thousands of women and children will wake up in a refuge. But government plans mean those refuge doors could all be closed in 2018. Many of us see the festive period as a chance to spend quality time with our favourite people. But for thousands of people, it will only offer more of what they endure all year round: domestic violence and abuse.
Claire* and her eight-year-old daughter are two of the more than 6,000 women and children being supported by domestic violence charity Refuge this Christmas. It will be the second Christmas they spend in a refuge while they wait for permanent accommodation.
When they fled to a women’s refuge 18 months ago, Claire left a note for the husband who’d abused her for 23 years: “I’m really, really sorry, please don’t be angry with me. I just can’t take any more of the control and abuse. We will be ok, we’re in a safe place – please don’t try and find me.”
Reaching for apologies has become instinctive for Claire. It’s the way she’d placate her husband so his relentless gaslighting wouldn’t turn into violence. It didn’t always work; Claire, who is disabled, would be tipped from her wheelchair or rammed into walls. “It was designed to humiliate and make me not want to go out.”
“We’d spend Christmas walking on eggshells because he would always lose it over something – the presents, the Christmas dinner – he’d shout and throw things,” she says.
Claire’s ex-husband enjoyed declaring whole areas of the house out of bounds for her and stopping the children from opening their presents. The Christmas period would be all-but devoid of her own friends and family because he was so volatile and controlling. People would feel unwelcome and stopped visiting. Relationships fell away.
At this time of year, services for women like Claire are still vital, but Refuge, the largest UK provider of emergency domestic violence services, receives fewer visits to its website and fewer calls to the national domestic violence helpline, run with Women’s Aid, around Christmas than at other times of the year.
That is because it can be very difficult for a woman experiencing domestic violence to access support during the festive period, according to Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge. “It tends to be a period when an abusive partner may be spending more time at home and monitoring her behaviour more closely than ever,” she says.
In November, it emerged that the government planned to remove refuges and other forms of short-term supported housing from the welfare system. It’s hard to overstate how catastrophic that will be for thousands of women and children.
On average, housing benefit makes up 53% of refuge funding and, with no obligation on local authorities to fund refuges, is the last remaining guaranteed source of income. “Without access to adequate refuge provision, women experiencing domestic violence will be faced with a stark choice: flee to live rough on the streets with their children or remain with their abuser and risk further violence – or worse,” says Horley. “Over the past few years local councils, which have seen their budgets eroded, are increasingly turning to cheaper hostel-style accommodation to provide emergency housing support.” This generic provision can be dangerous, with abused women often having to share a living space with drug users and recent prison leavers, she adds.
The proposed changes could lead to every refuge in the country closing its doors by Christmas 2018, says Sisters Uncut activist Aliya Peters. The government also plans new legislation to tackle domestic violence and abuse, but its proposed bill will be worthless, says Peters, unless it gives survivors what they need: funding for services, benefits and social housing.
In the run-up to Christmas, with these threats hanging over women’s heads, the Guardian’s public leaders network will focus on domestic abuse and what is being done by the professionals on the frontline. We will hear from housing professionals and the police, as well as the women fighting to save domestic abuse services from complete devastation.
Claire considers herself one of the lucky ones – she knows there will be lots of women who no longer have that chance to escape. “We are both really looking forward to Christmas this year – there will be no arguing, no fighting. My daughter can open her presents and just be happy again.”
Credit: The Guardian