Already this week, two women will have died due to domestic violence. By the end of the week, there will have been five domestic violence-related deaths.
Women’s Aid reports that, in an average week, two women are murdered by a current or ex male partner and a further three women kill themselves to escape abuse. The effect of domestic violence on victims has been found to be similar to the psychological effect of kidnapping: a living nightmare. Around one in four women experiences this in their lifetime. Since austerity, domestic violence figures are rising.
This is not because perpetrators of domestic violence have suddenly become more violent. It is because austerity has trapped more and more women in abusive relationships.
As Theresa May continues to push through her domestic violence bill, the discussion being had by leading domestic violence practitioners has been centred around educational prevention methods and tougher policing. Improved funding for preventative measures, like education, is absolutely necessary. But often this discussion is used to distract from the central point: domestic violence victims urgently need access to sufficiently funded refuges and domestic violence services.
Theresa May posing as a feminist and pushing forward the domestic violence bill is smoke and mirrors after ten years of Tory-led austerity. Government cuts have devastated women’s and domestic violence services. Austerity has left victims incredibly vulnerable. Since 2010, around a quarter of the total funding for domestic violence services has been cut, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalists. This equates to some areas of the country having no refuge provision at all. Where do women fleeing violence go when there is nowhere for them? The single biggest reason for homelessness among women is domestic violence. We know women end up on the streets, in emergency rooms and, in all too many cases, dead.
The Women’s Lives Matter campaign started when Tory-led austerity cuts caused a 40-year-old specialist women’s domestic violence service, Doncaster Women’s Aid, to close in 2016. Doncaster is a town with some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the UK. Its Labour council had not been funding the service for a number of years. Instead, the service ran on a big Lotto grant.
The combination of a lack of local authority funds and unreliable charity funding meant that the service had no reliable source of income. This was devastating for service users.
Doncaster Women’s Aid often saw women who might have walked five miles to an appointment. These were women who couldn’t afford to get the bus to the next town or city. On top of this, many out-of-area services were already completely inundated. They were struggling to support women within their own postcode and simply didn’t have the resources to support women out of area.
Many women in Doncaster knew the consequences of this austerity blow. They set up the Women’s Lives Matter campaign and took to the streets to demand the council save the service. The campaign - made up of a staff member from Doncaster Women’s Aid, ex-service users, community campaigners and local women - held street stalls, protested and went to the press. The Socialist Party supported the campaign from the outset. Eventually, after eight months, the campaign forced the council to concede a meagre sum of £30,000 to set up a new Women’s Aid: South Yorkshire Women’s Aid (SYWA).
But disgustingly, seven months after SYWA was set up, Women’s Lives Matter had to go back to the streets again. The council said that, due to Tory cuts, it would not be funding the SYWA past the end of that year. Yet again, it meant the service faced closure. This time the right-wing Labour council went on the offensive against our campaign. We boldly rejected the councillors’ weak argument that their ‘hands were tied’ over budgets. We showed clearly that the council had the power to use its reserves - an emergency measure - to fund the service.
We also pointed out that Doncaster council was spending just £30,000 a year on the service. At the same time, it was hiring an adviser to the mayor with an advertised salary of £250,000. But the Labour council was completely unprepared to resist Tory cuts - willing to dutifully pass them on, even at the potential cost of women’s lives. Labour councillors viciously attacked our anti-austerity campaign, despite the fact that many of our members are also members of the Labour Party.
The Women’s Lives Matter campaign, despite suffering a defeat, has since spread to other areas of Yorkshire and, at its first national meeting on 8 December, attracted fighters from across the UK. A mood to fight fiercely for women’s lives came from this meeting, with a list of demands for the labour movement. These include but are not limited to:
Not one more cut to domestic violence services and refuges. Public funding for the services we need
No to all austerity - for councils to set budgets based on need
Stop and scrap Universal Credit, scrap the benefit cap and end the two-child limit. For a benefits system that meets, and collectivises, the needs of all ordinary people
Mass investment from the government into council housing - both building and regeneration. For rent control now
Free, flexible and democratically run, publicly funded childcare for all those who need and want to access it
The campaign also demands publicly funded social care to relieve the burden of care for women, a higher minimum wage and a fully funded national health service. The Women’s Lives Matter campaign intends for this to mark the beginning of a national campaign to save lifesaving domestic violence services. But, more than that, the demands reflect the need for an end to all austerity, because all these measures hit working-class women disproportionately and all make women more vulnerable to abuse. We call on trade unions to take up this struggle. These are our demands to the labour movement to keep women safe in the immediate sense.
But to truly free women from oppression and violence, much wider societal change, in the form of a socialist society, is what is needed. Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist fighter, was murdered 100 years ago this month for her heroic battle against the capitalist system. She said “women’s freedom is the sign of social freedom”. The Tories represent freedom only for their class, the capitalists, to exploit. Women, even rich women (though they suffer to a lesser extent), cannot have genuine freedom from the threat of violence under capitalism.
Theresa May has posed in a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. But her policies trap women in the home. Austerity helps sustain women’s secondary position in society. Modern capitalism has been pushed by women’s and trade union struggles to make legal changes in the direction of women’s equality. But this masks reality. Austerity works to cut women off from the public sphere. With no state-funded childcare, low pay, and a lack of affordable housing, women remain stuck in low-paid roles, struggling to support children on benefits and with vulnerable living situations.
In fact, one of the biggest reasons women often don’t leave abusive men is a real fear of being unable to live economically without their husband or partner. In turn, this lack of ability to be economically independent reinforces ideas about ‘a woman’s place’ in society. This is exactly the narrative at the root of domestic violence - the idea that women have particular roles within the family and the home, that they are essentially the possessions of men. This understanding of domestic violence is essential in our battle against it and for equality.
The acceptance of the necessity of austerity by the right-wing majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, as well as the vast majority of Labour councillors, absolutely cannot be tolerated. It shows a lack of willingness to upset their careers and put working-class women’s lives first. Women cannot simply sit tight and wait for a Corbyn-led government. Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies, if implemented, would no doubt improve the lives of working-class women no end. But Labour councils must act now to save domestic violence services - and Corbyn and McDonnell, as well as the trade union movement, should call on them to do so.
Corbyn should guarantee that any council prepared to do this - to refuse to implement cuts and instead use reserves and borrowing powers to save local services - would immediately have its funds restored upon the election of a Labour government. The Women’s Lives Matter campaign, supported by the Socialist Party, is calling for nothing short of an all-out offensive against austerity. This means fighting to kick the Tories out, to demand a general election and a Corbyn-led government.
But it also means building a movement primed to defend Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies and push further for gains for working-class people. Women’s Lives Matter is launching a national petition on top of calling for activists and trade unions in towns and cities to campaign for councils to sustainably fund local domestic violence services. This petition puts the demand to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, for him to stand up for women’s lives, use his position and stop Labour councils from carrying through Tory cuts.
For women who are victims of domestic violence, this demand is life or death. Labour councils implementing cuts are responsible for the women who are turned away from underfunded refuges. Women cannot wait, a mass campaign to save domestic violence services, and against all austerity, is what is needed to save women’s lives.