"It Saved My Life" – Domestic Abuse Survivors On Why Women's Refuges Must Stay Open

It’s 1994 and Charlotte Kneer is 23 years old when she meets who she thinks is the man of her dreams.
Nine months later and they are both guests at a wedding when he starts to get verbally aggressive towards her. "I tried to leave because he was really drunk…I needed to get my bag which was in a car down a path away from everybody. I started walking and the next thing I know he punched me in the back of the head. Then he was on top of me and punching me, and as soon as it had started he was gone." The next day he turned up at her flat in a state. "He was crying his eyes out, and so upset and devastated, and… I felt sorry for him. I let him in, and I guess that was the defining moment really, because from his point of view that was the signal that I was going to accept what he’d done."
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After that the violence got worse, but she didn’t tell anyone because she couldn’t face leaving him. "I just couldn’t," she says adamantly. "I thought he would kill me [if I left]. I couldn’t see a way out, and there was still a part of me that hoped that maybe things would get better." Charlotte married him, and describes how on the day of their wedding she cried in the toilets: "I didn’t want to be marrying him but I couldn’t get out of it."
Fast-forward to 2018 and the sky over Surrey is grey and heavy with rain when I meet Charlotte at the women’s refuge she runs. She’s chatty and warm, despite being stressed about moving house. As the CEO of Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge (RBWA), it’s not organising removals that’s worrying her, but the reason behind her move: her ex-husband is due to be released after four years behind bars and three years on probation, so she thinks the safest thing to do is to move somewhere new. He pleaded guilty to everything, including the domestic abuse of two other women.
Charlotte’s journey is a remarkable one, yet domestic violence is sadly something which many experience, the majority being women. According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.2 million women suffered domestic abuse last year, and on average two women every week were killed by their partner or ex-partner between 2014 and 2017.
I’m given a tour of RBWA; it’s light and spacious with artwork by the residents on the walls – one painting depicts a blazing phoenix with the words "Risen from the ashes" next to it. All the residents have heartbreaking stories to tell, yet are smiling and friendly. It’s far removed from the image of a refuge that initially springs to mind.
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Artwork at RBWA
At the refuge they help 45 women and 60 children on average per year. It is life-saving work. Yet refuges up and down the country have been falling like dominos as a result of cuts to funding. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that over three-quarters of councils have reduced their spending on women’s refuges since 2010. And it could get even worse. In October last year, the government revealed plans to remove refuges from the welfare system; this means that from April 2020, refuges will no longer receive housing benefit, which Charlotte says makes up about 40% of their income. "We have three income streams, the first and only stable stream for us is housing benefit." Money from the local authority makes up 30% of their income, but she says this always has a "big question mark over it" as councils don’t have to fund refuges because the women aren’t local. "So what the government is doing with our one stable income stream – housing benefit – is taking that out of the benefit system and giving that money to local authorities to distribute." She says it is "doubling our risk with the local authority", particularly because "it isn’t specifically ring-fenced for women's refuges, it's ring-fenced for short-term supported housing like drug and alcohol hostels". Women's refuges do come under the umbrella of short-term supported housing, but there is no onus on local authorities to fund them.
A statement from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government revealed that they are planning to carry out a new burdens assessment to ensure that local authorities are properly funded to cope with the enhanced role. They added that "this means no refuge should worry about closing or have any doubts over our commitment to ensure a sustainable funding model for them."
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But Charlotte can’t help but worry. She says: "I’ve never done a job where you can’t plan sustainably year to year because it’s just so uncertain, and this is just the latest in a long line of things that we are fighting… It just feels never-ending." A survey by Women’s Aid found that the proposed funding changes would force 39% of refuges to close and 13% of services would have to reduce the number of bed spaces available. This would result in 4,000 more women and children being turned away (200 women and children were turned away from refuges on one day in 2017).
It is hoped that the new Domestic Abuse Bill will bring much-needed change. The consultation was launched on International Women’s Day and the bill will start going through parliament at the end of this year. The proposals range from tougher sentencing for perpetrators to increased protection for victims, and the consultation gathered views from experts in the field as well as survivors to discuss how to allocate the £20 million in funding announced last year.
At the time of the interview, Charlotte and her team were preparing for a visit from Theresa May’s special advisor as part of the consultation period. What does she hope the bill will address? "Critically there needs to be a national funding solution and there needs to be a duty on local authorities to provide refuge spaces. What’s the point of the rest of the bill if the services can no longer be in existence? What’s the point of helping other women come forward if you’re actually eradicating the services that can help them?"
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It is something Sisters Uncut, a direct action group against cuts to refuges, has been fighting for since 2014. The group, which is made up of survivors and domestic abuse service workers, is best known for its protests, such as storming the red carpet at the 2018 BAFTAs. Their aim was to raise awareness of how the Domestic Abuse Bill could negatively impact survivors of domestic abuse. Grace*, a member who took part in the protest, is particularly worried about people who are undocumented. "If anyone is homeless they run the risk of being deported or imprisoned for reporting abuse." It is something she feels strongly about – when she was experiencing domestic abuse she didn’t have a legal address, so she never reported it.
The Labour MP Jess Phillips is a member of the Women and Equalities Select Committee and previously worked for Women’s Aid, so is a fervent supporter of domestic abuse services. She thinks the Domestic Abuse Bill is a positive thing, but she doesn't want it to only focus on the criminal justice system. "The places that really need attention are housing, health and education, and I worry that will be done in regulation, not even legislation, and won’t be made into law. With the closure of refuges and the worrying lack of specialist support available, we can write brilliant laws but it makes absolutely no difference if there aren’t resources." What would she do if she was writing the bill? "I would make sure that there is a statutory number of refuge beds per head of the population."
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Playroom at RBWA
At RBWA I meet Sara*, a softly spoken 36-year-old mother who came to the UK as a tourist from Asia in November 2015 but fell in love and got pregnant while here. Her ex-partner applied for her visa and then the abuse began. As she was new to the country, she had no idea that refuges existed, and then when she found out about them, it was harder for her to get a place at a refuge as she had no recourse to public funds because her visa application was still going through the Home Office. She says that finally getting into a refuge was "the most beautiful thing to happen to me in the UK." She describes the Reigate and Banstead refuge as being like a family. "It’s really vital to know that there are things like this, that we have support that we can turn to and run to. It saved my life."
Five out of the seven members of staff at the refuge are survivors of domestic abuse. Emma Armstrong, the services manager, is testament to the healing power of refuges; after suffering emotional, physical and sexual abuse for six and a half years, plus two years of abuse from the perpetrator’s friends and family, she is now helping other survivors. Her ex-partner used the threat of suicide to control her and, when she did eventually leave him, he hanged himself in their flat. When she came to work at the refuge she knew it would either make her or break her. "It made me," she says proudly. "I’ve gone from being a victim to a survivor. I now view it very differently to how I did five years ago; what was I perceiving as love? It wasn’t, it was just fear." She smiles, and adds: "He’s not the one that’s in control anymore. I am." Emma says that she’s in a better position now to help the residents at the refuge. "I’ve been there and I’ve come out the other side, so I like to show them that there is hope at the end of the tunnel."
Support Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge here.
*Some names have been changed
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