The Guardian’s front page story yesterday made depressing reading on every score. The impacts of the coalition government’s austerity package have tended to fall disproportionately and viciously upon the most vulnerable, those least able to fend for themselves and kick up a fuss. Few acts look more callous and heartless than turning one’s back on victims of domestic abuse in order to square the annual balance sheet.
Within the sorry litany of bad news, perhaps the most depressing spectacle was witnessing advocates for one group of abuse victims throw another group of abuse victims to the wolves. I refer of course to the journalist Sandra Laville and interviewees from women’s organisations attributing their dire situation to the need to provide services to male victims too.
Specialist safe houses for women and children – which were forged out of the feminist movement in the 1970s – are being forced to shut by some local authorities because they do not take in male victims.
The change in focus has been devastating for the Haven in Coventry, a charity which has run the city’s women’s refuges for 43 years, but is fighting for survival after its service was decommissioned by the council in favour of self-contained accommodation units and new accommodation for male victims.
The Wolverhampton Haven, which has run the refuges for 41 years, is having its funding from the city cut by £300,000 and – as it struggles to maintain services – has been forced to reserve some of its places for men, even though it has had no male referrals to the accommodation so far.
Horley called for an urgent review of the commissioning process across the country and criticised the focus on male victims as deeply flawed.
“The vast majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women,” she said. “Of those who experience four or more incidents … 89% are women.”
If I may borrow a line from Sandra Horley, the focus on male victims is indeed deeply flawed. Let’s begin with some perspective. Last night I contacted Mankind Initiative, the only national charity that specifically represents male victims of domestic abuse. They obviously need to know about availability of services around the country.
As of this morning, there are a grand total of 58 refuge places around the country that can be used by men. Only 13 of those are specifically reserved for men, the others can be (and usually are) taken up by women. By contrast there are around 4,000 refuge beds for adult women, 7,000 that can be used by women and/or children. The total number available for men is actually slightly lower than it was five years ago. Another way of thinking about this is that even if it were still true that women are 89% of those victimised six times or more (a statistic from 2001, by the way), men would represent one in nine of those victimised repeatedly, two in five of those subjected to incidents of severe violence, and are able to access fewer than one in 100 available refuge beds. To blame the shortage of facilities for women on the availability of services for men is not just misleading, it is downright perverse.
A casual reading of the Guardian’s piece would lead one to believe that charities are being forced to provide services for men which are then not being used. There is not a shred of evidence that this is true.
The specific example given is Wolverhampton Haven which is being ‘forced to reserve some of its places for men, even though it has had no male referrals to the accommodation so far.’ Wolverhampton Haven has not had any referrals so far because it has not offered any services to men so far. If one looks at their website, it clearly says at the top and bottom of every page that they offer services to women and children.
I contacted Wolverhampton Council, who told me:
Wolverhampton City Council has a contract in place to support both female and male victims of domestic violence. We don’t specify the number of each gender that should be supported – the service is expected to respond according to demand.”
The new contract was negotiated with the Haven last December. The charity has yet to initiate any services for men, has yet to advertise any services for men, and is showing no apparent readiness as yet to accept referrals of male victims.
Meanwhile down the road in Coventry, the Haven is “fighting for survival after its service was decommissioned by the council in favour of self-contained accommodation units and new accommodation for male victims.”
What has happened in Coventry is that the council has increased their budget to support victims of domestic violence by £250,000 per year, a rise of around 25%. That’s right, a rise. The contract has indeed been lost by Haven but the (unnamed) body that is taking it on is offering increased refuge provision from 40 units to 54 – an increase of 33% in beds. I don’t know what proportion of those will be taken up by men, but I would bet my house that they will account for fewer than 14 of them.
Last night I spent some time online, imagining I was a male victim of domestic abuse in Wolverhampton or Coventry and looking for local help. I found nothing. Literally nothing. At some point in the future, I hope I will be able to repeat the exercise and discover that yes, there is an organisation that is willing and able to help, whether with outreach and support, counselling and advice or, at the most desperate last resort, a bed for the night. As someone who has worked, advocated and volunteered for male victims, I refuse to be made to feel guilty about that.
The cuts being imposed upon the domestic abuse support sector, as a whole, are savage and shocking. Responsibility lies squarely with the coalition government and their austerity policies, despite being delegated to unfortunate local authorities. The only decent, human response must be for everyone who genuinely cares about and cares for victims of abuse to stand as one, oppose cuts, support victims and fight our corner. I wholeheartedly agree with Polly Neate of Women’s Aid that the domestic violence strategy (and its funding) should be national and co-ordinated, and so too should the sector. To see women’s groups exploiting the current austerity cuts to exercise their longstanding resentment about provision of (even the most paltry and inadequate) services to male victims is a gruesome and ignominious spectacle.