Patrick Stewart, The Guardian, 5 February 2012
Women who live in fear are being abandoned by the government, whose cuts are devastating charities like Refuge
I grew up in a home darkened by domestic violence - which I wrote about two years ago. My father was an angry and unhappy man who was not able to control his emotions, or his hands. I witnessed violence against my mother and felt powerless to stop it. When Refuge, the national domestic violence charity, asked me to become a patron, I accepted without hesitation. I accepted for my mother. As a child, there was little I could do to help her. But now I can give support and encouragement to women who live in the same sort of fear that she did.
Forty years ago Refuge opened the world's first safe house for abused women and children in Chiswick, west London. Since then it has grown to become the country's largest provider of domestic violence services. On any given day its services support more than 1,600 women and children. Refuge, and other women's charities in the UK, are vibrant, innovative and resilient. But they are being stretched to breaking point. I was shocked to read a new report, by the Trust for London and Northern Rock Foundation, whichhighlights how cuts are crippling vital services such as women's refuges. Local authority funding has been slashed by 31%, and Refuge has shouldered cuts to 50% of its contracts. On an average day last year 230 women were turned away from refuges because there was simply not enough space for them.
The impact of these cuts will be devastating. The financial footing of women's charities has been shaky for many years; now it is in real danger of slipping into the abyss. Let me be quite clear about what is at stake here. Without services such as refuges, more women and children will be trapped in violent relationships. Domestic violence rarely peters out. On the contrary, abuse tends to escalate over time. If they can't get help - preferably at the earliest opportunity - their stories may well have the most tragic of conclusions.
Last year I met an incredibly brave woman called Sharon de Souza. In 2008 Sharon's daughter Cassie was brutally murdered by Cassie's former partner in front of their two small children. At the time of her death, Cassie was trying to flee to a refuge. Sadly, her story is not an isolated one. Domestic violence kills two women every single week in England and Wales. If we don't preserve vital escape routes for victims, this number - already horrifically high - will only rise.
My mother had no escape route. There were no refuges she could run to; no helplines to call; no advocates to speak out for her. No one came to help, even though everyone knew what was happening behind our closed doors. The small houses in our road were close together, and every Monday morning I walked to school with a bowed head, praying that I wouldn't run into a neighbour who had heard the weekend's rows. The police, when they were called, were little help. I remember hearing them say things like "She must have provoked him", or "Well, Mrs Stewart, it takes two to make a fight". They had no idea. My mother did nothing to provoke the violence she endured - even if she had, violence is an unacceptable way of dealing with conflict.
Enormous progress has been made since then. Brick by brick, year by year, pioneering organisations like Refuge have built up a broad network of services that respond to the needs of victims sensitively and creatively - albeit on a shoestring budget. Alongside refuges there are specialist services for black and minority ethnic women, staffed by experts in complex issues such as honour-based violence and forced marriage. Independent domestic violence advocates working out of police stations and courts act as the eyes and ears for women going through the legal system, ensuring that they get the protection they deserve. Women who choose not to go to a refuge can be visited by community outreach workers - in their homes, on park benches, at community centres or libraries. Refuge even helps to find temporary foster places for animals, since they understand that women are often reluctant to flee abuse for fear of what will happen to the family pet.
We cannot risk losing this hard-won network of life-changing and life-saving services. We cannot stand by and watch as short-sighted budget decisions chip away at these services, cut by painful cut. Besides the obvious risk to human life, it is false economics. Domestic violence takes a heavy toll on the public purse, ringing up almost £16bn a year in health, legal, medical and housing costs. Pulling the rug from under the services that prevent this crime and support its victims will only inflate costs further down the line.
Refuge - along with other women's charities - is facing its toughest year to date. The gradual erosion of statutory funding has made Refuge even more reliant on voluntary income, but fundraising is an uphill battle. Domestic violence is still shrouded in myth, and too few people truly grasp its prevalence in this country. More money is given to the Donkey Sanctuary than to the UK's two largest domestic violence charities.
It saddens me beyond description that women and children experiencing domestic violence today are being left to deal with fear and abuse on their own - just as my mother was, more than 60 years ago. The government says that its ambition is "nothing less than ending violence against women and girls", but there is nothing ambitious about its relentless demolition of a sector that protects the most vulnerable members of our society.