The closure of Eaves charity is the tip of the iceberg in the crisis for women’s services
In February 2011, Denise Marshall, head of the leading women's refuge charity Eaves, gave back her OBE. It had been an honour to receive it for services to disadvantaged women, she said, but it had been "keeping her awake at night". She could not in all good conscience keep it when she knew she was no longer able to provide a good service to women suffering from domestic abuse and sex trafficking, and had been forced to turn many away due to government cuts to her funding. She warned that things would get worse. She had just been asked by the Ministry of Justice to reapply for funding for a new project - but with a 75% cut in the money spent on each victim.
Reading her words now in 2015 is heartbreaking. Not just because since then the women's movement has lost Marshall, who died earlier this year, but because it is clear that no-one in any power listened to her. This month Eaves closed.
It was not the only women's charity affected by the cuts. Between 2010 and 2014 the number of specialist refuge services decreased from 187 to 155. According to the latest Women’s Aid annual survey, a third of referrals to refuges in 2013–14 were turned away because there was simply no space. This is against a backdrop of vicious cuts to all the other services and welfare women who use those refuges depend upon.
Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants provided vital emergency funds to those in need, often including those fleeing domestic violence, to allow them to buy necessities whilst they got themselves back on their feet and recovered. They were scrapped in 2013. The housing fund which allowed vulnerable groups, including those in women's refuges, to live independently, had its ring fence removed, meaning (again according to Women’s Aid) spending has been cut by 45% between 2010 and 2015. The localism agenda means women fleeing to another area are often denied support by the councils they approach.
Of the funding available, the quality of services it provides is at risk. Rape support surfaces have had £11.5 million of government investment since 2010. But competitive tendering means that smaller, experienced, specialist providers lose out on this money to large, generic providers. Some Rape Assault Referral Centres are now run by famous bastion of quality G4S. A similar picture is being drawn in domestic violence centres: between April and July 2014, 10 specialist domestic violence services across England lost funding. All but one lost to a non-specialist service provider.
To make clear what this means for "disadvantaged" women, I'll spell it out. It means women being mentally abused, beaten up, burned, raped, and repeatedly locked up by their partners have no way to escape them. It means victims of sexual assault cannot access services, and when they can, those treating them are without experience or specialist knowledge. It means undoubtedly that some women have lost their lives. It means that those who need help the most are having it denied to them.
Victims of austerity and victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault have something in common - aside from of course hugely overlapping in the world’s most depressing Venn diagram. Both sets of people are told they deserve it. They suffer nasty rhetoric that places the blame for what they suffer on their shoulders. At the heart of all austerity cuts is that Victorian, controlling moralising dished out to all those who are seen to step outside their place.
We are told austerity is the only way to run society in a stable way. The government often uses veiled threats to remind us what will happen if other economic models are even glanced at. In September last year, Osborne said he was “acutely aware” that his cuts were falling on “people who don’t have very much money”, but that there was no other way. Without austerity, he said, “Britain will go back to crisis”. But the women now left with nowhere to go, or extra hurdles to climb before reclaiming their lives from abusers and attackers are already in crisis, and they will never leave it for as long as austerity is continued. There is nothing very stable about their lives, or about a society which is too financially terrified to help the most vulnerable.