Refuge offers lifeline for abused women Refuge back to highlight domestic abuse: Heather Mills reports on the rising scale of male violence in the home

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THE STATISTICS make uncomfortable reading. Men abusing their wives or partners accounts for one quarter of all violent crime. One in four of those women are battered during pregnancy, also putting at risk the unborn child.

The stories behind the statistics are even more disturbing. One husband took a hammer and chisel to his wife's face. She needed 250 stitches. Another poured petrol over his wife's head and set her alight, maiming her for life.

Another went to extreme lengths to discover where his partner had sought refuge. He lay in wait and attacked her in the road outside, smashing her nose and cracking her skull.

And the stories are not just of physical abuse. One man learning that his partner had won a university scholarship to study literature built a bonfire of her treasured collection of first editions. In doing so he sapped her will to further her education. Such accounts are not uncommon. Over 50,000 women a year seek help from the police in the London area alone.

It was in recognition of the scale and ferocity of domestic violence in society that yesterday brought together an unlikely alliance of the Princess of Wales, Ruby Wax, the comedienne, and Kiranjit Alhuwalia, who killed her husband after suffering 10 years of extreme violence. They were joined by judges, police, lawyers and others to celebrate the relaunch of the world's first refuge for battered women and their children.

Twenty-two years after Chiswick Family Rescue was founded by Erin Pizzey, it is now to be known simply as Refuge to reflect its wider role in research, lobbying for change in policy and law, its 24-hour national crisis line and provision of refuge for up to 50 women and 120 children in four homes.

The relaunch came on the eve of the publication of a report by the Home Affairs select committee of MPs, which is widely expected to recommend changes in the law governing domestic violence and better provision for those fleeing abuse.

The committee last examined domestic violence in 1975 and recommended the setting up of 800 refuges for women around the country.

Eighteen years on there are just 200 and for those at Refuge - held up as a model in the fight against domestic violence world-wide - it is a bitter irony that it is constantly fighting for survival. Lack of funds means that its nursery provision is currently under threat.

Yesterday, Sandra Horley, a social psychologist and director of Refuge, said: 'Domestic violence is a cancer that eats at the core of our society, our community and our family life. It touches many aspects of our lives. It lies at the root of many of our social problems.'

She called for a three-pronged attack - a co-ordinated policy within the criminal justice system of arrest and prosecution of all abusers; education and training programmes in school and the workplace; and better services and funding to help women and their families leave violence.

Refuge must wait until the publication of today's report to see if its demands have the backing of MPs.

(Photograph omitted)