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  A feminist ethos of mutual self-help has sometimes been replaced by a more social service ethos of professional staff helping ‘service users’.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.

Changing journeys into journeyscapes

All too often, beyond the original escape, women’s domestic violence journeys continue to be fragmented and disorientating over both time and space.  Women have little control over their mobility – where they go, how long they stay in temporary accommodation, whether they have to keep on moving.

This can be contrasted with the concept of a functional scale for domestic violence journeys – “journeyscapes” – whereby women and children travel as far as they need to escape the abuse, but are not forced any further due to administrative boundaries or services.  A society which thinks and responds more coherently in terms of policy, services and rights could journeyscape women’s experiences and help them re-establish control over their sense and reality of home.

See:   Changing journeys into journeyscapes

Pulling up the drawbridge

In housing law in England it has long been recognised that to escape domestic violence you may need to leave home, and travel quite a distance – including across local authority boundaries.  Access to social housing would usually require a ‘local connection’ to that local authority – like a moat created between each council area.  However, an exception exists for individuals who are unable to remain safely in their own local authority – like a drawbridge extended across these moats – creating a route to safety.  So women escaping domestic violence are able to apply to a local authority where they have no ‘local connection’.

 

But these drawbridges are being pulled up in all kinds of ways – cutting off escape routes for women and children.

 

Sometimes, a housing officer in a local authority will not tell women that they can apply for social housing.  Other times, they will refer someone in crisis to a refuge in another area, and not explain that this temporary accommodation does not necessarily fix their location in the longer term.  Refuges may be required by funders to prioritise local women, and even keep a room empty rather than provide accommodation to a non-local woman needing to escape abuse.  Sometimes women give up a secure tenancy knowing it will never be safe for them to return… but no-one tells them that they might be able to use that tenancy for a transfer or reciprocal arrangement to another local authority where they would be safe.

 

As these drawbridges are closed to women who need to relocate to another area, their escape journeys are made more fragmented – more risky, costly and disruptive – by law, policy and practice.  Law, policy and practice which could be changed….

 

For more details on how women’s domestic violence journeys are made more fragmented by policy and practice see:

 

Journal of Gender-Based Violence
Segmented journeys, fragmented lives: women’s forced migration to escape domestic violence

 

which is free to access during August 2017.

Moving – and Moving On

The metaphor of ‘moving on’ is more often used in policy and practice responses to domestic violence than thinking about the actual journeys of women and children moving all around the country.

 

Women often experience their literal journeys as unsettling and disorientating; and therefore feel that they will not really know where they are going with their lives until they can stop literally going places.

 

“I was just feeling like – you still don’t know where you are going, what you are doing, you know.  I was just – until before I was like – I don’t know what I’m doing; you know you feel embarrassed sometimes – moving all your stuff, you know; and with children and all that.  It was like – oh, what am I doing, what am I doing?  Where am I going?  It’s not easy.  You don’t know really – it’s only like that I left but I don’t know where I’m going.”

[Julien Rosa – age 24 with 3 and 7 year old boys]

 

They feel that they need to stop moving, to be able to get their lives back on course.

 

“In a way I feel quite drained and really tired; I can’t wait to just get in to a new place and just sit – not physically, but mentally.  To be able to just –[sigh]- it’s done; and just wake up and be all like – this is it – I’m going, I’m moving – not just plodding, plodding, plodding.”      

[Louise – age 28, with 7 year old girl]

 

All the moving means that women feel stuck – that their lives have been put on hold.

 

“I just think – where would I be now if I hadn’t moved – where would I be?  Because I’ve moved so many times – years have had to be put on hold because of it – and I didn’t want to start life this late.  Like going to college and things like that – it should have been done a long time ago.”

[Jenny – age 21, with a 3 year old girl]

 

It is when they finally become more settled that they feel they are able to start ‘moving on’.

 

“I’ve just been so lucky really – really have.  It’s just that – after years of hell – all of a sudden I’m in this place – and I don’t mean the flat – I mean this wonderful place; and it just feels amazing.  And I just think – feeling like that – helps you then to move on with other things as well.”

[Helen – age 52 with 3 adult children]