Friday 10 February 2012

Checking the blind spot - Examining violence against women

This is a guest post by Vera Baird. Vera is a member of the Fabian Society Executive Committee and Chair of the new Labour Commission on Women's Safety, commissioned by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.

Yvette Cooper described this Government, whose first budget took 70% of its cuts from women and 30% from men, as having “a blind spot” about women. She seems to be right when one considers, not only economics, but also plans such as the deletion of 17,000 rape suspects from the DNA database, as it becomes ever clearer to police that rape is often a serial offence.

Women’s organisations now fear that cumulatively, the Coalition’s policy, legislation and cuts are having a worrying impact on those services that work to protect women. We have found from our visits so far that these concerns are being backed up by facts from the frontline and illustrated by the experiences of the individuals we meet.

Last week Professor Sylvia Walby, UNESCO Chair in Gender Research at Lancaster, published a report showing the “dramatic and uneven” impact of a national reduction of 31% in funding for local gender violence services last year. Smaller organizations have suffered on average 70% cuts, whilst those receiving over £100,000 lost 29%.

Consequently, Women’s Aid have reported that up to 230 women fleeing domestic violence were turned away because of a lack of accommodation on a typical day in 2011. Eaves, which also provides refuges, has been forced to advise woman on how to minimise risk while sleeping on the streets or at Occupy camps.

Research by the Women’s Institute shows that women will be disproportionately harmed by cuts to legal aid, while Rights of Women demonstrate that 49% of current service users would not be eligible at all under the new rules, despite Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke repeating that such women will still get legal help. Violent men will not get legal aid either and, by handling their own cases at court, will get a state-sponsored opportunity to abuse their victim further by cross-examining them face to face.

A poll from training specialists, CAADA shows that, in 2011, 2 of the 8 major providers of Independent Domestic Violence Advisers, who are widely credited with saving lives, faced cuts of 100%. 3 lost 40% and 2 more will lose a quarter. IMKAAN, with six specialist refuges for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic women, is being forced to close two and reduce capacity in two more.

In Coventry, there is a 30% loss of floating support for survivors of violence. Cuts to housing benefit mean that a single woman under 35 who flees domestic abuse will only get the rent for a room in a shared property. A correspondent to our website says, “The Suzie Project in my home town has lost its funding, so we’ve had to end our group. Cutting funding to projects which support survivors of rape leave people like me feeling all alone.”

In one East Midlands ward, police identified domestic violence perpetrators and knocked on their doors on the nights when they were typically violent, to reassure their partners and deter these men. This preventive policing measure stopped because of officer shortages. Professor Walby found that 78% of perpetrator programmes had cut the numbers of clients they could assist.

Half of councils who responded to a Labour Party survey in November were reducing their street lighting to save cash. Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles calls this “sensible,” while, on the other hand, the Police Federation said “the lighter an area is, the safer it is.”

Lighting cuts affect everyone in our communities, but Netta e mailed our website to say that it is women who are often left feeling more insecure:

“Cuts to street lighting – imposed by Suffolk Country Council - are happening here in Ipswich. Female friends … tell me [and I can confirm from having looked at a few] that it is quite scary. If you don't have a car, can't afford taxis and are used to walking around your own town in safety, it does make quite a difference having this "curfew" imposed.”

A national non-political women’s group told us that violence is the pre-occupation of its website traffic and women say that, as resources are cut back, they would not know how to leave a violent home if they needed to do. Professor Walby writes: “These cuts to provision are expected to lead to increases in this violence.” 

Half way through the Commission’s inquiry, we are beginning to understand her fears.

Professor Walby’s report, Measuring the impact of cuts in public expenditure on the provision of services to prevent violence against women and girls (February 2012), can be found here.

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