"It's not an exaggeration to say that women will die as a result of these cuts," warns Women's Aid chief executive Polly Neate. "Because if going to a shelter is a woman's only option to get out of a violent situation—and if the shelter she would have gone to is closed—then she can't flee; she can't escape. It might sound melodramatic, but there's no doubt about it."
Neate is discussing the impact of the British government's proposed cuts to welfare benefits: cuts that Women's Aid warns will decimate the already over-stretched UK domestic refuge network.
According to new research from the charity, 67 percent of domestic abuse refuges in England will close if proposed changes to the government's social security system go ahead. Meanwhile, 87 percent of refuges that do stay afloat will have to drastically reduce the services they offer vulnerable women and children—no mean feat, given the existing pressures on the overburdened domestic refuge network in the UK. Nearly a quarter of British refuges have closed since 2010, and a third of all referrals to refuges are turned away. According to Women's Aid, two women a week are killed in England or Wales by current or former partners.
British domestic violence shelters are currently supported by two main sources of funding. The first comes from local authorities' specialist supported housing funds, which are intended to help vulnerable groups. The second—the lion's share of the funding—comes from housing benefit (the money paid by the government towards people on low incomes or unemployment benefits to help them with their rent). The British government plans to cap the second revenue stream—housing benefit—from 2018. For some refuges, this would amount to a 90 percent drop in funding.
"We're already in the situation where women in need are being turned away from refuges, so we're not starting off from a strong position by any means," Neate explains. And cutting back on domestic violence services will actually cost the government more money in the long-term. "Refuges save the government money, year-in, year-out. They prevent children from having to be taken into state care, and every domestic homicide costs in the region of £1 million in police and court costs."
Today's stark warning from Women's Aid comes as London's Metropolitan Police release figures showing a dramatic increase in violent domestic abuse in the capital. The Evening Standard reports that domestic abusers were responsible for 25 murders and over 1,600 rapes in the last year, out of a total of nearly 60,000 offences involving violent domestic abuse in London. Although police partially attribute the rise to changes in how crimes are recorded, researchers have found that domestic violence is still widely under-reported as a criminal offence—meaning many more women could be affected than we currently know.
Broadly asked the Department for Work and Pensions—which will be responsible for instituting the sweeping cuts—whether they'd considered the impact on domestic violence service provision. They emphasized that a review was currently ongoing into the possible impact of the cuts.
"We fully support the valuable work carried out by domestic abuse refuges and other supported accommodation providers," said a spokesperson. "That is why we deferred this measure for this sector while we conduct a review to ensure it is sustainable in the long term. We will continue working with providers to ensure the right protections are in place and will set out our plans in the autumn."
Meanwhile, pioneering direct action campaigners Sisters Uncut vow that they won't "stand by" and watch as Britain's domestic refuge network is eviscerated.
"Refuges have already faced devastating cuts by this government. As a result, 2 in 3 survivors who seek help from a refuge are turned away and left trapped in abusive relationships," says spokesperson Emily Fields. "Sisters Uncut won't stand by whilst the government puts women's lives on the line to save money."