Celebration but no room for complacency
Just over three weeks ago we had our official launch of WOW!, our new women’s centre, funded by Big Lottery. It was a marvellous day, with many visitors coming to see what we have on offer. Our soup club made soup for all and a range of quiches, cupcakes and other delicious treats were produced in the centre by our members. We heard from four of those members just how important the centre has already become to them, how they feel welcome and valued and, perhaps most importantly of all, safe. We have created a safe place for all Women On the Wight, but particularly for those whose lives are full of challenges. I am talking about those who have experienced abuse, exploitation, homelessness, substance misuse, who have found themselves involved with the criminal justice system, who are care leavers, who have children in care. Sometimes women who are simply feeling lost and lonely.
Later in the day I had the privilege of speaking to one of our local Women’s Institute groups. They wanted to learn more about our domestic abuse work and the role of our new centre. When I had finished speaking (and those that know me well will tell you that can take a long time) a small but steady voice began to speak. The voice told us that whilst she had not been in an unequal relationship as an adult, she had witnessed her father’s behaviour to her mother. She described how her father had changed his work ‘patch’ to the immediate area around their rural Isle of Wight village so he could keep watch over his wife, that harsh words were used all of the time, how nothing was ever good enough for him and that her mother paid the price for this by being scolded, beaten and belittled. She spoke about her mother leaving for a week or two and how as a child in her early teens she was forced to take on the role of her mother whilst her father took to his bed with a bottle. Then she went on to describe a day in 1943 when she, by then a 14 year old girl, and her mother, gathered together as much as they could carry. They crept from their home to the nearest bus stop and hid behind a nearby barn to avoid being seen until the bus arrived. In those moments, as she described what had happened all those years ago, the fear was again visible on her face, the memories of fleeing as real today in 2017 as they were on that day more than seventy years ago. There were few options for them then and mercifully they were taken in by family members. Not everyone had that option then. Not everyone has that option now. That is why safe spaces in the form of refuges remain so important and why specialist women’s services must be preserved. It is true that men too are victims of domestic abuse and that it occurs within same sex relationships but it remains in essence a gendered issue; the majority of victims are women, the majority of perpetrators are men.
I am grateful we retain a refuge on the Island and that our community based services continue, albeit at a reduced level. Our reality is that we have experienced significant cuts in funding since 2010 although demand for services increases year on year. The pool of funds for which we can apply has reduced. Commissioning in other areas of the country has severely impacted specialist services like our own and forced many refuges to close. I am enormously grateful that we have been able to create a new service that takes our remit beyond domestic abuse in the form of WOW! but I am fearful for the future, particularly for our domestic abuse services.
The world has changed and those experiencing domestic abuse have more options now than existed in 1943 but the image of a terrified woman and child hiding behind a barn remains with me. May we never return to such a situation.