Blog: The government’s Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy

 
Refuge’s director of communications and external relations, Lisa King, on the government’s Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy.

Last week, the country started to fully open again, after a challenging 16 months. Refuge knows first-hand just how difficult the pandemic has been for so many across the world – not least for women living with an abusive partner. For many women experiencing domestic abuse, this won’t have been their ‘first lockdown’, with abusers routinely using isolation as a form of control – cutting women off from their networks, preventing them from working, tracking their locations, restricting their access to cash. These are all forms of abuse that Refuge sees every day, and we are acutely aware of the impacts of lockdown on the women we support.  

But as restrictions continue to loosen, and with domestic abuse never higher on the public or political agenda, we have a new opportunity to really challenge the response to domestic abuse and hold the government’s feet to the fire, making sure they deliver on their public commitments to do more for women and girls.  

The VAWG strategy 

Just last week, the government unveiled its long-awaited Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy – what the government intends to do in order to respond to and ultimately prevent VAWG. Refuge welcomes the ambition to increase support for survivors, hold perpetrators to account, and ultimately reduce the violence and abuse women experience. However, we can’t help but feel that an opportunity to act boldly is being missed – with minimal funding commitments and some glaring omissions 

Domestic abuse is a form of VAWG – so why have separate strategies? 

Despite all VAWG specialist organisations calling for otherwise, the government has continued with its plans to produce a separate Domestic Abuse Strategy. This separation could spell disaster for ensuring a cohesive response to domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls, leading to a piece-meal approach, with reduced impact.  

Domestic abuse is gendered in its nature – it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men and overwhelmingly experienced by women. It is therefore entirely unsurprising that domestic abuse and other forms of VAWG are intimately and inextricably connected.

It is common for women to initially seek support from Refuge for what appears to be a ‘straight-forward’ case of domestic abuse, but then also disclose that they have experienced domestic and sexual servitude, forced marriage, or stalking once our frontline staff have gained their trust. By introducing two separate strategies, there is a risk that the root causes of these crimes – gender inequality – will be obscured, and the response siloed. One single, integrated strategy is needed to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse. Failure to do so risks fragmenting the response to VAWG and will result in ineffective strategies which are not rooted in the experiences of women.  

Where is the money? 

One of the major problems faced by frontline organisations across the sector is funding.

Refuge has experienced significant cuts in recent years across a range of our services, with frontline services too often finding themselves on a funding cliff-edge. Long-term, sustainable, ringfenced funding is urgently needed to ensure specialist services are able to provide the support survivors need. What this strategy lacks are commitments to providing anything close to what we know is required to ensure that survivors have access to the full range of services they and their children need. Women’s Aid estimates that £393 million is needed for domestic abuse services alone. Without this, the sticking plaster approach bumps organisations from one funding crisis to the other and does little to ensure staff retention or longer-term planning.

The commitment in the VAWG strategy to provide additional funding for ‘by and for’ specialist support services this year and to fund a new rape and sexual assault helpline is of course a move in the right direction – but the amount of money provided is far from adequate and is yet another example of short-term funding, which simply doesn’t guarantee the long-term provision of life-saving services.  

VAWG is a crime – so why aren’t abusers being brought to justice?  

Ensuring improvements in the way the police and the criminal justice system respond to domestic abuse and VAWG should be a priority. Too often, promises are made but very little is delivered. Confidence in the criminal justice system and the police to protect women and ensure they have access to justice is staggeringly low. Is this any surprise when rape convictions are at an all-time low and when we know that police officers are a third less likely to be convicted of domestic abuse than the general public?

Official statistics on domestic abuse and rape show that not only are prosecutions and convictions are continuing to drop, but that rape survivors are being left in limbo for almost five months while they wait for the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) to decide whether or not to charge the perpetrator. Women are being left in limbo and are often fearful for their safety.  

So, while the announcement of a ‘top cop’ policing lead for VAWG is welcome as a first step, we remain sceptical about whether this will actually translate into an increase in protection for the women who need it. At the very least, this post should be accompanied by VAWG becoming a national strategic priority, to ensure the police are held accountable. We have also welcomed amendments to the pre-charge bail system, reversing changes made in 2017 which resulted in a huge drop in the use of bail, meaning perpetrators of domestic abuse were free to continue the abuse with no legal limits whatsoever. Yet too often the criminal justice system focuses on survivors’ ‘credibility’ when they report domestic abuse, rather than on investigating and prosecuting perpetrators.

Refuge calls for wholesale reform across the criminal justice system, which must include a significant investment in cultural change within the police and other criminal justice agencies  to ensure women are better protected and able to access the justice and support they need.  

Leading the way internationally? 

Next year also marks a decade since the UK signed the Istanbul Convention, yet disappointingly the government has failed to ratify it, despite the repeatedly stating their ambition to ‘drive forward a strong agenda on women’s rights, both domestically and internationally’. We must hold the government to its commitment to ratify the convention in the strategy – and urge them to do so as soon as possible.

Central to this ratification process is ensuring that migrant women, so often locked out of accessing specialist support, have equality of access to protection. Insecure immigration status should never be a barrier to accessing support and safety, but the government has continued to fail to ensure all women in this country can access safety and support. The government needs to extend equal protection to migrant women as part of ratifying Istanbul. 

As the largest specialist provider of services for survivors of domestic abuse in the country, it is incumbent on Refuge to work positively to identify where policies fall short, but also to be on hand to help improve them, to ensure future legislation is well informed, has input from survivors, and that it really puts an emphasis on delivery, rather than on rhetoric. We are disappointed with the missed opportunities in the VAWG strategy, and urge the government to demonstrate its commitment to ending violence against women and girls in forthcoming legislation. The Online Safety Bill, the Domestic Abuse strategy, the implementation of both the VAWG strategy and the Domestic Abuse Act should serve as real tests of intention.

The government has a chance to make history – we hope they take it and will encourage them to do so at every turn.  

For all media/communications queries, please contact press@refuge.org.uk.