Labour must act to protect violence against women services.

The disproportionate impact of the recession and spending decisions on women has been well documented. Labour has done much to bring this to light, including through a gender audit commissioned by Yvette Cooper. The number of women seeking work is at an all time high and set to rise as public sector cuts get under way. Particular groups of women and regions are also being affected disproportionately. A Unison survey in February 2012 found black women constituted five per cent of the workforce but 23 per cent of redundancies in one London council. The north-east has been hardest hit, with charities facing increasing demand for services at the same time as falling income and 23 per cent of the voluntary and community sector predicted to close by February 2013. This pattern is particularly acute when it comes to violence against women. A report last year found domestic violence has increased 17 per cent over the recession. Despite increasing need, funding for services where women can take refuge has been drastically cut by 31 per cent between 2010-11 and 2011-12 and 95 per cent of women’s groups face funding cuts this year.

The development of the welfare state and realisation of gender equality are inextricably linked to Labour. In government, Labour made tackling violence against women and girls a priority and instituted partnerships with councils and housing services to support survivors and created specialist police units, domestic violence courts and prosecutors. Such developments now need to be protected and progressed, not dismantled. Labour is no longer in government but, as of the 2011 election, Labour has almost 5,700 councillors and controls 20 per cent of the councils across the country. Councils have cut violence against women funding by an average of £44,914 each each since 2009. Over the next few months, councils have to decide another round of spending cuts for the 2013-14 budget. Violence against women service provision has already been cut to the bone. It is not an area that should be cut further.

These services literally save lives. They work with some of the most vulnerable women and children who on a daily basis experience forced marriage, domestic and sexual violence, female genital mutilation, rape, ‘honour’-based violence and dowry-related abuse. These services, refuges, shelters, immigration and asylum advice centres constitute the very foundation of any hope for equality between women and men. Even before the recession, what was in place was barely enough to scratch the surface of what was really needed.

Violence against women services should not be seen as a luxury for the times of economic growth but essential priority for all times. Their closure is a travesty that puts women’s lives at risk. There is nothing in place to replace them. What else will come to the aid of women experiencing violence and abuse or of women fleeing threats of persecution trying to find asylum in this country?

Women’s Aid alone on a typical day in 2011 turned away 320 women and their children from refuges because there was no space. The perfect storm of increasing rates of violence and decreasing service provision means increasing numbers of women are left with no other alternative but to return to partners and families to face further abuse and, in some cases, death. The rate of women killed by a male partner or ex-partner has been steady at two women every week in the UK for years but for the first quarter of 2012, this increased to above three women killed per week.

Others have written about One Nation Labour and feminism. One Nation must have the position of women very much at its heart. It particularly needs to include the estimated 45 per cent of women in the UK who have experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. It needs to ensure no woman continues to face violence and abuse due to lack of state action. As Stella Creasy says, ‘unless you make this a priority these services get cut. This is why we need a step-change on how we treat violence against women.”

All Labour councillors can and indeed must act to prioritise funding for violence against women services.

This was first published on Progress Online in November 2012..