An infrastructure for women’s human rights

Imagine a world where there were enough refuge spaces for women and children escaping domestic violence.  Where these refuges were situated all around the country – in all types of places – so that women could go to the right type of place for their needs.

  • Not too close – first and foremost you need safety
  • Not too familiar – the abuser might try and track you down
  • Not too far – so that you don’t feel that you have been forced into exile
  • Not too strange – the kind of place where you can start again

Imagine a world where you could escape if you needed to – and therefore also knew that you could try and stay put (using legal protection and services’ support if necessary) if you wanted to…. because there would always be a safety net if that didn’t work.

Imagine a support system that gave top priority to your rights and needs – that was there to serve you.

A basic infrastructure that you have a fundamental right to access – when and where you need it.

Not the current fragmentation – where local areas can decide whether or not to provide services – and restrict the services they provide to local women and children.  Where you have to keep on proving that you really need help, and prove where you have come from – as if you are asking for some special favour rather than simply your rights…

If we really believe that “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms[1] then every state should ensure that women can easily access their right to escape violence.  Every state should provide a comprehensive, fully-functioning infrastructure for women’s human rights.




[1] UN General Assembly. 1993. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women: General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993. United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/a48r104.htm

Is it ‘some’ or ‘many’?

The Government’s consultation[1] about the accommodation needs of domestic abuse survivors provides a welcome focus on women’s and children’s needs in terms of support and refuge.  But in its proposal to place a statutory duty on only local (rather than national) government, it appears confused about the scale of the issue of relocation due to domestic abuse.

In the main part of the consultation document there is some acknowledgement of the needs of those who move across borders to access support:

“We recognise that in some cases, an appropriate response to supporting a victim and their children will be to help them move to another local area to access services and rebuild their lives.” [p22]

And the suggested Statutory Duty on local authorities would require them to:

“Assess the need and demand for accommodation-based support for all victims and their children, including those who require cross-border support.” [p17]

But this reminder has disappeared by the overview summary two pages later, which only says:

“Assess the need and demand for accommodation-based support for all victims and their children” [p19]

This makes the needs and rights of tens of thousands of women and children who cross local authority boundaries appear a bit of an afterthought.

And yet, in the Annex of “Priorities for Domestic Abuse Services” there is repeated recognition that:

“many victims of domestic abuse need to flee from their local area to access services and stay safe.” [p42]

And that local authorities are expected to commission services that:

 “Meet the needs of victims from within and outside the local area, recognising that many victims move from their local area to be safe.” [p43]

So – is it a marginal issue affecting some individuals; or does it affect many?

Of course, it affects many – tens of thousands – and this consultation (which ends on 2nd August 2019) is an important opportunity to wake up to that fact; and ensure that women and children who relocate across boundaries due to domestic abuse do not continue to disappear through the gaps in policy, service provision and rights.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/support-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse-in-safe-accommodation

Are you local?

Because specialist services on domestic abuse, and housing rights and provision, are devolved by the UK Government, there is no consistent response across the country.  There are different responses between the UK nations, and between local authorities – even within the same region.

On top of everything else you have to face if you relocate to escape a violence partner, you have to find out what it means to have left your local area and journeyed somewhere else.

Statutory services in your new area will ask – Are you local?

– and, if you are not, then you may find yourself or your children at the back of the queue for services – or even not eligible at all.

This is particularly the case if you need homelessness help – if you want to try and go to social housing.  By law, local authorities have to determine if you have a “Local Connection”, and – if not – whether you have a good enough reason for now being in their area and seeking help.

Tens of thousands of women and children are forced to relocate due to domestic abuse – and many cross local authority boundaries and seek help in an unknown place.  But this means that they often have no “Local Connection” – the lack of connection is often vital for them to feel and be safe.  However, the research in this project has shown that most local authorities have a similar number of women and children leaving as the number who arrive to seek help[1] – so the authorities are not unfairly affected.  They are only helping women and children to the same extent as their women and children are being helped elsewhere.

So it’s good to see the Scottish Government consulting[2] on easing the “Local Connection” legislation, recognising that “Choice may lead to better outcomes than a strict interpretation of the legislative test.”  They see the importance for resettlement if people who have been forced to move from their local area are able to go to their kind of place to start again: that “People experiencing homelessness are best placed to make the judgement as to the geographical area which best meets these needs.”


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2015. “Forced Migration in the United Kingdom: Women’s Journeys to Escape Domestic Violence.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40 (3): 307–320. doi:10.1111/tran.12085.

[2] https://www.gov.scot/publications/consultation-local-connection-intentionality-provisions-homelessness-legislation/

More than just safety

Women’s refuges were first developed in the 1970s as part of a wider feminist movement.  They were set up to help women and children by providing a roof over their heads when they needed to escape male violence.  So, a safe place to stay was central over forty years ago – and is still vital today[1].

But women’s refuges provide more than just safety.  The refuge movement also had the goals of challenging male violence and changing women’s position in society; as well as helping individual women.  It’s important to remember these roots, and a project on the early history of refuges in the East of England and in East London has been interviewing the pioneers of the 1970s to provide an oral history archive of women’s experiences[2]

Refuges in the UK have developed and changed over the decades, and refuges on a range of different models have been set up around the world.  There have been positive and negative changes; such as improvements in the quality of accommodation, but also constraints on length of stay.  Many refuges in the UK were originally run by volunteers – often women who themselves had experienced domestic abuse in the past – and have seen increases and decreases in funding for paid workers over the years.  A feminist ethos of mutual self-help has sometimes been replaced by a more social service ethos of professional staff helping ‘service users’. 

So there are many different ways of running a refuge, and a recent article as part of this journeyscapes research highlights how the practices of workers and residents help create a dynamic space for so much more than safety[3].

It is important both to remember the history, and to take the insights forward to face the current threats to women’s refuges.


[1] To find a place in a refuge call the free: National Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 2000 247 (24 hours)

[2] https://www.youcantbeatawoman.co.uk/

[3] Janet C. Bowstead (2019): Spaces of safety and more-than-safety in women’s refuges in England, Gender, Place & Culture, https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1541871

Do we need another law?

Governments often find it easier to pass another law which claims to tackle a complex issue, rather than implement the laws that are already in place.  And rather than develop and sustain the services and social infrastructure that are needed to make a real difference.

It looks like this is happening again in the UK.  In February 2017 the UK Government – Theresa May herself – claimed “I believe that the plans I have announced today have the potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence and abuse”[1].

In March 2018 Theresa May pledged to “bring forward new legislation as part of my longstanding commitment to end domestic abuse”[2].

But the proposed Bill focuses yet again on the criminal justice system, with new definitions and the possibility of longer sentences for convicted perpetrators.  It doesn’t focus on developing a society that prevents abuse and supports survivors.  Many women who experience abuse go nowhere near the criminal justice system – often these are the tens of thousands of women (and children) who relocate every year in the UK.

If the Government wants to change the options and life chances of these women and children, it needs to ensure sustained funding for the specialist services all around the country that enable woman and children to rebuild their lives after abuse.  We do not need a new law for that – we need everything from lessons on healthy relationships in schools, to refuges all around the country for women to escape to, to holistic and timely practical and emotional support.

This would need effective action[3] by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, by the Department for Education, by the Department of Health and Social Care, by the Department for Work and Pensions – not a new law.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/17/theresa-may-domestic-violence-abuse-act-laws-consultation

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/08/theresa-may-domestic-violence-bill-women

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/24/brexit-theresa-may-domestic-abuse-bill-universal-credit

As far as you need – as near as you can

How far do women need to go to escape domestic violence?

Well, the question is not about the woman…  it’s about the abuser.

For a life that is free from abuse – for a life where you can be yourself – women shouldn’t have to go anywhere at all.  They should be able to stay put.

However, this is often not possible – if the abuser doesn’t change his behaviour, and if nothing is done to make him change.  So tens of thousands of women and children have to relocate to escape abuse.

A new start in a new area can be really positive.  But it can also be really difficult.

So it’s an important principle that women should be able to go as far as they need – but not be forced any further – and stay as near as they can – but not live in fear.

Evidence[1] about women and children who go to services shows that just under half relocate within their local authority.

But just over half go further.

So, rather than thinking just about local authorities providing services, we need to widen our thinking – to a regional approach.

Over 80% of women stay within their region – around 90% for some regions of England.

So let’s think more about regions in planning and providing services.

[1] Analysis of data from Supporting People Programme of housing-related support services.  Department for Communities and Local Government and University of St Andrews, Centre for Housing Research (2012) Supporting People Client Records and Outcomes, 2003/04-2010/11: Special Licence Access [computer file]. Colchester, Essex, UK Data Archive [distributor]. Available from: <http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7020-1>

 

 

What about housing associations?

The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill received Royal Assent on 10th May 2018, and so is now an Act of Parliament.  Politicians of all parties welcomed the new law, saying it will “protect lifetime tenants who have to flee their home” (Heather Wheeler, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government) and “do a large amount of good for many domestic abuse victims across the country” (Melanie Onn, Great Grimsby, Labour).  The debate in Parliament talked about removing a key barrier that prevents domestic abuse victims from leaving their perpetrator[1].

If so, that is to be welcomed.

But it is also important to know that various details and concerns have been left until the guidance is published.

One significant amendment that was not passed was about new housing association tenancies.  Many women experiencing domestic abuse will move to a housing association property – including in areas where all the social housing is housing association and not council housing.

However, the Government limited the Act to local authorities, and said “housing associations will continue to have the freedom, which they have now, to offer lifetime tenancies wherever they consider it appropriate” (Heather Wheeler).

Some housing associations are developing good practice.  For example, Gentoo, a housing association that provides over 29,000 homes in North East England, has recently produced a report showing how good practice by housing associations on domestic abuse makes financial as well as moral sense[2].  But others are not so good.

So, what about housing associations?  – we’ll have to wait and see…  The Government has left it that “We expect housing associations to take very seriously their responsibilities for people fleeing domestic violence and abuse” (Heather Wheeler).

[1] https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/securetenanciesvictimsofdomesticabuse.html

[2] Safe Lives and Gentoo (2018) Safe at Home: The case for a response to domestic abuse by housing providers. Available from: http://www.safelives.org.uk/Safe_at_Home

 

Secure tenancies – a real possibility?

Women who have to leave home because of domestic violence face many losses.  Whether they move locally, or across the country, they often lose possessions – both practical things like furniture, cooker, washing machine, and personal things like photographs, favourite clothes, children’s drawings and toys.

They also lose their rights to services.  Sometimes because of different service provision around the country, other times because they have to start again at the bottom of waiting lists, or they have missed a crucial enrolment date in the new area.  Sometimes because they cannot find their way around the bureaucracy.

They may lose their housing rights.  If they have a secure housing tenancy that they have to leave, there is a real risk that they will end up with far less housing security in the new area.  They will have had to choose personal security over housing security.

They shouldn’t have to choose.

A Government Bill currently going through Parliament may start to address this problem.  The Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill had its latest committee debate on the 27th of March[1].  The Minister stated:

“Under the Bill, any local authority in England that has somebody presenting with domestic abuse issues must take on a secure tenancy if that person had a secure tenancy before. It cannot be plainer than that.”

Heather Wheeler (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government)

In the debate, other MPs highlighted the difficulties and implications of relocating:

“Still too often, we require the victim to put the pieces of her escape route together.”

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

“People do not necessarily leave a secure tenancy; sometimes they go to stay with a friend, sometimes they go to a refuge and sometimes they go to stay with their parents. In most housing law, that diminishes their rights.”

Sir Robert Syms (Poole) (Con)

“We are talking mostly about women who have spent months, years, sometimes decades making mental lists over and again about their route out.  Our main responsibility today is to remove all the barriers on that route out.”

Rosie Duffield (Canterbury) (Lab)

To follow the progress of this Bill, see https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/securetenanciesvictimsofdomesticabuse.html

[1] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmpublic/SecureTenancies/PBC_Combined_1-2_27_03_2018.pdf

Good news on London moves

The scheme in London that enables people at high risk of harm to relocate without losing security of housing tenure has been running for a year.  It’s a positive beginning to ensuring that – at a time of many other losses – women and children can gain their safety without losing their housing security.

Requests were made from almost every London Borough, and the majority of moves supported individuals and families fleeing domestic abuse.  Some received greater security of tenure than they had before, and almost all received the same security of tenure.  Safer London – which is funded by the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime to run the scheme – is committed to make sure that no-one feels under pressure to take a shorter or less secure tenancy, and will not take anyone off the list for refusing an unsuitable property.  Despite the pressures on social housing in London, the moves so far have taken an average of only 2 months to arrange.

This is good news.  As a Housing Professional quoted in the report says:

“Due to the reciprocal I was able to support the client to address her safety which was her priority. It was important that the client felt in control of where she wanted to relocate to which was in the area she was placed as she felt that her family, friends and network in the area would help her to move forward, free of further abuses.”

In terms of the project on this website – Women on the move: the journeyscapes of domestic violence – it is interesting to note that the scheme recognises the problems of administrative boundaries: constraining and confusing the journeys women and children need to make.  These boundaries often become barriers, so that women cannot make the journeys that work for them, and are forced to move further or nearer than they need; or to a place that is less suitable for them and their children to start again[1].

 

[1] To quote from the report: “One of the common themes that the team have found is that applicants, and the professionals supporting them, do not visualise London by borough. This has resulted in many people wishing to be moved to specific areas of a borough, or not having full knowledge of the areas that they have included in their request.” Page 15, Safer London. 2018. Pan London Housing Reciprocal Year 1 Report (Feb 2017 – Jan 2018). https://saferlondon.org.uk/pan-london-housing-reciprocal/.

Poverty and escaping violence

You often hear and read stereotypes and assumptions about the connections between poverty and domestic abuse.  Actual connections are harder to untangle…

 

Some of the (sometimes contradictory) claims made are that:

  • Women with fewer economic resources are more likely to be abused
  • Men with fewer economic resources are more likely to be violent
  • The difference in economic resources within the household is more important than actual resources – but this could work both ways:
    • greater equality between men and women means less violence
    • increasing equality for women leads to a backlash and more violence

 

Whatever the connections between poverty and experiencing abuse, there is the clearer claim that women need economic resources to be able to escape abuse and re-build a new life free from violence.

 

However, one of the difficulties is that leaving abuse is often so private that you are not going to be answering surveys about your income at the time.  And all the main social surveys – such as the Crime Survey of England and Wales – do not survey anyone in temporary accommodation: so women in refuges, Bed & Breakfast or staying with friends or family will not be surveyed.

 

And then there is the fact that women will usually have to give up their jobs, and their studies, to escape – and pay out money for travel, to replace clothes and possessions; and pay over the odds for all kinds of expenses in a new unfamiliar area.

 

So your economic situation before you leave is not the same as your economic situation on the move, or settling in a new area.

 

All in all, it’s difficult to untangle women’s experiences of poverty and domestic abuse – however, research by Jude Towers is working on this, and highlighting how crucial it is that women have access to their own money to be able to leave – and to be able to start again.