WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS CONTENT, INCLUDING DESCRIPTIONS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, THAT MAY UPSET THE READER
A group right at the heart of a vital public service has told The Canary that “women will die” if any more funding is cut. And its story, and that of the people who use the service, stands as a testament to the damaging effects of austerity. But also a council which the group says has “betrayed” them.
A vital service
South Yorkshire Women’s Aid (SYWA) in Doncaster offers support, advice and therapy for survivors of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, and their children. But SYWA has struggled to keep its doors open, due to, it says, the Labour-led local authority’s unwillingness to fund it properly.
The centre, originally Doncaster Women’s Aid, closed for the first time in March 2016 due to lack of funding. But after a sustained campaign, the council awarded it a £30,000 grant and the doors reopened as SYWA in January 2017. However, this money is only enough to keep it open until December. And after that, the council says there is no more funding available.
So, SYWA is having to crowdfund for its future, which you can donate to here. The Canary spoke to Amy Cousens and Louise Harrison from SYWA. And they said, in no uncertain terms, that “women will die” if the service has to close.
SYWA is the only independent, specialist domestic violence service in Doncaster, and the only women’s aid centre in South Yorkshire. While it was shut in 2016, there were 6,623 cases of domestic abuse recorded in Doncaster alone. And every month in the town, 189 children are at risk, or victims of, domestic abuse. It’s these figures which Cousens and Harrison say show the need for SYWA to remain open:
South Yorkshire has some of the highest rates of DV [domestic violence] in England. We know that women remain trapped in abuse if there is nowhere for them to go and no support for them to rebuild their lives. On average two women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner, a further nine attempt suicide to escape abuse, with three a week being successful. The death toll, therefore, stands at five women a week dying from DV in the UK. Yet the services that are needed to give emergency refuge and, like our service, help women rebuild their lives, are being demolished.
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Where’s the money gone?
In 2014, the government gave a £3.1m grant to Doncaster council for its ‘Growing Futures’ [pdf] programme. Run by Doncaster Children’s Trust, its aim is to help children, parents and families affected by domestic violence to “quickly find the support they need to stay safe and move on together – for good”. And a government review into the multi-agency project found [pdf p8] that since it launched in September 2015 it had:
…supported a total of 102 families. This equates to a total of 440 family members, including 232 CYP [children and young people], 102 victims, 90 perpetrators, and 16 other family members.
But, in contrast, SYWA has had over 100 referrals to its service since just March of this year. Yet the council did not include it in the Growing Futures project. Also, as official figures show, there are at least 2,310 repeat victims of domestic violence in Doncaster. So, it would seem that the council’s approach is not going far enough to tackle the issue.
A concerning approach to domestic violence
Cousens and Harrison believe, though, that there is a deeper problem with the Growing Futures project. They told The Canary:
Growing Futures’ is to support DV victims, their children and the perpetrators. But Doncaster Council is commissioning services which are generic, to provide what was supposed to be specialist women’s refuges and supportive community services like SYWA.
And they are critical of Doncaster Council’s approach:
Doncaster Council has opted to only include relatively general services in its DV plan, ones that equate the same necessity to supporting perpetrators of DV as it does to the victims. We believe that £1m of the £3.1m government award was handed to services that support DV perpetrators. Women who are in, or fleeing, DV need the trust and support of other women. All the experience of specialist women’s services over the past 40 years teaches us this. Services that don’t provide that will not provide the support women need to piece their lives back together.
The Canary spoke to Doncaster Cabinet Member for Communities and the Voluntary Sector, Councillor Chris McGuinness; you can read his full response here. He said that the council did indeed provide a “one-off start up grant of £30,000” to SYWA. He said that this money was provided:
…with a view to the organisation applying for new funds and generating operating revenue in order to become financially sustainable… the Council made clear the need for [SYWA] to plan their future funding strategy, where required, and ensure the independent sustainability of any associated projects. Throughout the process the Council was clear that it was providing SYWA with a fixed term grant and that the organisation should not expect further grant funding for these reasons.
Since 2010, Doncaster Council has already been forced to cut more than £200m from its annual revenue budget and like other councils faces further significant funding cuts in the coming years.
Cousens and Harrison do not believe that the council can use austerity as an excuse. They said:
We know that Tory austerity is at the root of the reason our service is being cut. But local Labour councils are implementing this Tory austerity. We are pro-Corbyn; we know that his policies will improve the lives of working class women no end. But we strongly counter the local Labour council’s verdict that ‘their hands are tied’. Services cannot simply wait until a Corbyn-led Labour Party is elected. We need to challenge the cuts now and we implore, particularly those councillors who support Corbyn, to look for a ‘no cuts’ alternatives. We do not believe that there are no funds for our service and indeed all services that are vital in society.
Also, Doncaster Council currently have [pdf p6] £97.3m in ‘usable’ reserves, £62m of this for ‘general funds’. Cousens and Harrison claim that:
Doncaster Council say they cannot use these reserves, and that they are more of a ‘rainy day fund’. Well, the roof has caved in with rain water for DV victims in Doncaster.
But McGuinness was adamant that the Council was doing everything it could. He told The Canary:
Domestic violence is wholly unacceptable and can have a devastating impact on victims and their children. The Council will continue to prioritise these services within the resources available to it. However, as with all independent charities, SYWA must plan to exist without reliance on [council] funding… which unfortunately is simply not in a position to provide financial assistance to every organisation facing financial pressures. However, the Council will continue to offer support to these groups in order to help them to secure funding from the wide range of charitable trust funds in existence, and the potential for generating income through charitable activities.
Aside from the political arguments, though, we must also listen to, as a priority, the women and children who use services like SYWA.
One anonymous survivor who SYWA supported told The Canary her story. You can read her full testimony here. She was trapped in a highly abusive relationship. Her partner repeatedly assaulted her, both physically and psychologically, and repeatedly raped her, often with her children present. She told The Canary:
Once, he made me do an experiment with socks to see which ones were the best value for money. He said it was to help me learn about the ‘false economy’. So, he made me put one sock from Primark and one for one stock from Next, and walk 50,000 steps wearing a pedometer; up and down the stairs in my house – and I wasn’t allowed to stop. I knew if I’d have tried to even go to the toilet he would have screamed at me.
He had sex with me when he felt like it. If the children were at home he would force me, even if they were in the next room. He would force me if I was asleep. And he let himself into my house, very often drunk, and if he wanted to have sex with me then he simply did. He would push my face into the pillow so hard I sometimes thought I would die.
A “terrifying” thought
But, with the support of SYWA she broke free and is now rebuilding her life. And she said that the thought of the centre closing is “terrifying”:
I honestly believe that without SYWA… I would not be alive today. I’m completely devastated that the council seem to see this service as a useless, unnecessary drain on their budget. If anything, it saves them money in the long run by helping put an end to, and preventing, abuse in many cases, for many families.
And if SYWA isn’t there, then [women] are simply going to end up as the part of the statistics of the number of beaten [and murdered] women… How can that be right? How can that ever be the correct decision for someone, who’s charged with the care of their constituents, to make?
“Women will die”
It is women like this one that SYWA champions. But Cousens and Harrison believe that the situation for many is at breaking point. They told The Canary of one woman who, after SYWA closed for the first time, took her own life. And they say the victims and survivors they speak to are:
devastated by SYWA possible closure. And that is an understatement. They feel betrayed, and as though they are going through abuse again, because they are not being allowed to have a service.
And they issue a final, stark warning over the effect that central and local government cuts are having on women and children. As well as how the closure of SYWA could impact people:
It’s not dramatic to say women will die. As Polly Neate, the former CEO of Women’s Aid, said in an article: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that some women pay for these cuts with their lives’. It’s utterly heartbreaking. Yet the services that are needed to give emergency refuge and, like our service, help women rebuild their lives, are being demolished.
The true face of austerity
Tory-led austerity has created the situation SYWA faces. And it is made worse by a Labour-led council lacking the courage and will to stand up for those who need it. But it is also a microcosm of an on-going, ideological attack on specialised women’s services. As we witness with disabled people, migrants and people on benefits, politicians seem hell-bent on ‘othering’ subsections of society. Then using this as an excuse to push through austerity, and pass public services into private hands. But, as is often the case, it is those that can least afford it who bear the brunt of these attacks. And in Doncaster, it will be women and children; their lives blighted by heinous attacks, meted out by contemptible men.
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