Sally Hall: Victims of domestic abuse need safe havens to escape to

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Despite advances in policing and a big shift in societal attitudes, domestic violence remains a big problem in the UK.

It’s still the case that an average of 2 women are killed every week by their partners or ex-partners.

A civilised, progressive society should be challenging the underlying attitudes that fuel domestic abuse.

We should be asking the big questions – what causes this violence? How can we work with perpetrators to change their behaviour? How can we best offer support to male victims of domestic violence too?

I don’t pretend to have any expertise whatsoever in this area.

I’m aware that debates about how best to tackle this issue need to account for the complexity of a phenomenon which can’t always be encompassed by narratives of ‘downtrodden wives’ and ‘monstrous husbands’.

According to the ManKind initiative, which offers a helpline for male victims of domestic violence and abuse, 40 per cent of those who are abused by a partner or ex are actually men.

We should take all cases of domestic violence seriously, whether the perpetrator is male or female. And there is no doubt that male victims should be properly supported too.

But the ‘40 per cent’ statistic has been disputed by national organisations such as Women’s Aid, which argues that many men who report themselves as victims have also been identified as perpetrators.

National Women’s Aid argues there is a difference between ‘situational couple violence’ – where a relationship is typically characterised by violence on both sides – and ‘coercive control’, where one partner uses violence and psychological cruelty systematically to bully and control the other over time.

In 89 per cent of cases where four or more incidents of abuse are reported to the police, the victim is female.

What’s more, the vast majority of fatalities due to domestic violence are also women. Sometimes, the only thing that can save a woman’s life (and often her children’s lives too) is a safe, protected space to flee to. In other words, a refuge.

But in a commissioning landscape that favours larger (cheaper) organisations over specialist services, where prevention is the focus, and parity of access is emphasised (to the detriment of equality of need?) women’s refuges are suffering.

Refuges have shut down, or been threatened with closure, all over the country – including in Leeds.

A new focus on providing accommodation for male victims has exacerbated funding cuts in some places.

Funding has been slashed in Wolverhampton by £300,000, while a requirement to offer space for male victims has been mandated. This has led to a reduction in capacity for female victims, despite the fact no men have accessed residential services so far.

In Leeds, refuge provision is now mainly delivered by the charity Stonham. Leeds Women’s Aid lost the contract in Leeds in 2012, after more than 35 years.

The charity is now part of a consortium delivering outreach services in the city, with a focus on ‘domestic violence advice’.

Of course services must be modernised to reflect the changing societies (and budgets?) which provide the context for their provision.

But in other places where the focus has shifted to community intervention, outcomes haven’t always been good.

Sandra Rudd, president of Chester Women’s Aid (whose refuges are also closing) has denounced the approach as ‘a complete waste of time’.

All I can say is – if I lived with a man who had already attacked me multiple times, I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in the preventative approach. I would want to know there was somewhere I could go to escape. And it frightens me to imagine what could happen if that place didn’t exist anymore.

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