Sally Hayes

Women's refuges at risk

Sally Hayes

AT A TIME WHEN THERE HAS BEEN a public focus on the extent to which women face everything from sexual harassment to rape, intimidation and violence, there should be no doubt about the need to end violence against women and girls. But domestic violence and abuse services focused on women have had to fight against cuts and expectations of commissioners that they should be gender-neutral and deliver services for men.

Now the government is rushing to enact a Domestic Violence Bill, which could further undermine the rights of women to safe, effective support, as it ignores the specific gender inequalities which women face. Legislation which does not recognise women and girls specifically poses a real threat to the continued existence of women’s refuges and women-specific services.

The Domestic Violence Bill is a government attempt to meet its obligations to the Council of Europe for the UK under the Istanbul Convention alongside the modern slavery legislation and other sexual offences law. The Istanbul Convention is the first legally binding instrument which “creates a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women”. The UK is one of the only European countries that is not a signatory.

The Convention requires countries to recognise violence against women as discrimination and to criminalise a range of gender-based violence including domestic abuse. The UK government bill is focused on preventing domestic violence, protecting victims and prosecuting accused offenders. Importantly, it is gender-neutral and only relates to domestic abuse; it does not recognise the gross imbalance between violence against women and girls, as against men or transgender.

Domestic abuse and violence are not solely aimed against women. But it is about power and violence, and abuse of women and girls is extensive and endemic. And there is no comparison in terms of the proportion of domestic murders, suicide and self-harm caused to women by it, nor are many perpetrators of domestic abuse women, whoever the victim. Gender specific support by and for women works in ways no other support does. An open letter to Amber Rudd and David Lidington from End Violence Against Women and Girls (EVAW) has asked the government to broaden out the aims and content of the new bill (click here).

While many women’s organizations want to support the bill rather than risk having nothing on the statute books, most are backing it only if it recognises the particular focus on violence against women and girls. Women’s Aid organisations have also demanded it includes a specific assurance to fund refuges and support women fleeing violence with no recourse to public funds due to their residency status - currently this is a massive and inhumane barrier to safety for those women.

Labour Party activists should ensure that the Party commits to the Istanbul Convention in full in a future government, and supports the current bill only if it recognises gender inequalities and the need for women’s services. We need to stand by the work women activists have led over years to mainstream a framework internationally that recognises violence against women and girls. These gains and the women’s refuge movement in this country are hard won. They are at serious risk, and we must fight to protect them.