Emmeline Pankhurst once observed, "As a river cannot flow higher than its source, so a society cannot be judged higher than the way it treats its women." If the pioneering suffragette were alive today, she would find Britain a perplexing and saddening place.
A century has passed since she, and many others, fought so valiantly for women's rights. In this time we have put men on the Moon, invented wonder drugs to cure disease, and probed the depths of the ocean. Yet we still cannot guarantee the safety of women and children in their own homes.
Of course, domestic violence affects men as well, and Refuge, our domestic-abuse charity, does run a small number of services for male victims. Nobody should have to live in fear, regardless of their gender.
But the vast majority of violent incidents are perpetrated by men against women. Two women are killed every week in England and Wales by current or former partners. Over the course of this Christmas appeal, which will run for six issues, 12 more women will escape domestic violence – in the worst way possible. Two women, every week. And the death toll has stayed at this level for over a decade. Why are women dying in such numbers in a "civilised" society?
One answer lies in the systemic failure of some state agencies. Last month, I spent a day with the uncle of Sabina Akhtar, a young mother stabbed to death by her husband in 2008, despite repeatedly calling the police for help. At the inquest into Sabina's death, we listened as the coroner described a catalogue of errors made by Greater Manchester Police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service. He concluded that all three agencies had made "serious and significant failings" which "possibly" contributed to her death.
Sabina's case is not an isolated one. A string of investigations by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into police handling of domestic violence has exposed repeated failings in the most basic of duties: responding to 999 calls; assessing the risk to the victim; arresting and charging violent men. But the police are just a microcosm of a wider society that refuses to recognise domestic violence as a serious crime.
Refuge opened the world's first refuge in Chiswick, west London, in 1971. That first house was cramped and filthy. But women flocked to our doors in their hundreds because, for the first time, they had somewhere safe to go. Back then, domestic violence was seen as a private issue, to be dealt with behind closed doors.
Since then, attitudes have changed – thanks to Refuge's tireless campaigning. Domestic violence has ascended the political agenda and legislation has been passed to protect abused women and children.
That first Chiswick house has also grown. Refuge now runs a national network of services which supports 2,000 women and children on any given day. We also run services for black and minority ethnic women, providing expert support in complex issues such as forced marriage and "honour"-based violence. Children – two-thirds of our refuge residents – are given help to overcome the trauma of witnessing or experiencing violence. Our independent advocates in courts and police stations are the "eyes and ears" of women who make the brave decision to take abusers to court. And our new Gaia Centre runs an innovative service for teenage girls at risk of gang-related violence and sexual abuse in Lambeth, south London.
So things have changed. But in many ways, they have not. Our refuges are still full to bursting. It breaks my heart that we cannot offer a bed space to every single woman and child who needs one.
The race for funding is also just as desperate as it was in the early days. Austerity cuts are eroding the network of services which keep abused women and children safe. Next March, our culturally specific refuge in Derby will close, due to budget cuts. It has been a haven for South Asian families fleeing honour-based violence and forced marriage. Many more services stand on the brink of collapse.
Stripping back services which save lives is false economics. Domestic violence rings up £16bn each year in health, medical, legal and housing costs. This figure will soar if we do not preserve vital services which address domestic violence and protect its victims.
Without Refuge's escape routes, women will face a stark choice: stay with their partner and risk being killed; or flee with their children to sleep rough on the streets. This is why we need your support. A donation from you this Christmas could help to sustain Refuge's vital work. It could help to keep us afloat, so that we can continue to protect the most vulnerable members of our society – women like Sabina. It could help us to expand our network of services, so that we can reach even more women and children in need. Put quite simply – your support could help us save lives.
Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, is author of 'Power and Control: Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers' (Vermilion)
The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal is for the national domestic violence charity Refuge. To make a donation visit: http://refuge.org.uk/independent-on-sunday-appeal/
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