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Miriam Lawson

Housing is the heart of recovery for survivors of violence against women

Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It’s one of the most pervasive social injustices we face, in the UK and around the world. Domestic violence affects almost one in three women aged 16-59 in England and Wales and sweeps away the safety and security normally associated with home.

This was only exacerbated by the impacts of Covid-19, which saw a dramatic increase in the instances of abuse as well as making it harder to detect. But even as lockdown measures eased, domestic abuse related crimes continued to increase year-on-year, making plain the need for solutions that are comprehensive and sustainable.

In April 2021, the landmark Domestic Abuse Act passed, seeming to signal a new commitment to ending this injustice. Meanwhile, the public tragedies of the recent, high-profile murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have kept violence against women in the headlines and on the political agenda. Despite this, there remains a gulf between policy commitments and real, practical protections for women.

The Act introduced new protections for survivors and new criminal offences for perpetrators, as well as defining domestic abuse in law for the first time. Amongst its welcome measures is a guarantee that survivors will be in priority need for housing and can retain a social housing tenancy if they need to escape an abuser. These are important interventions; access to housing has been identified as more important than increasing criminalisation in reducing rates of domestic violence, as discussed by the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance’s contribution to our Locked Out anthology.

Yet the Act does not go far enough. It fails to guarantee equal protection for migrant women without recourse to public funds – despite the ceaseless efforts of groups like Latin American Women’s Aid. And despite a new general duty for local authorities to provide “accommodation-based support for survivors of domestic abuse and their children”, we need to see social housing options dedicated solely to survivors of abuse. Indeed, with recent government data that showed domestic violence was responsible for a staggering one in six of new homelessness cases in England between April and June, the case is clear.

Many women from minoritised communities, with complex needs, or with an older male child find it difficult to access mainstream refuges. Our Rhea project provides quality, temporary housing and tailored support to women escaping domestic abuse. The project, in partnership with Southwark Council and Solace Women’s Aid, has helped its participants recover from trauma, gain independence, and regain their ability to ‘hope and dream’ for the future.

For women escaping sexual exploitation, long-term accommodation and support options are severely lacking. Where available, many such spaces don’t offer the right support for a woman to find or maintain links to education, employment, or training, or to gain the skills necessary for an independent life. This kind of support is more than an add-on; without suitable housing and support, women are forced to choose between returning to exploitation or facing homelessness.

This cycle of homelessness and exploitation is broken by our Amari project, also in partnership with Solace Women’s Aid. The project offers women who’ve been sexually exploited the safety and security of suitable housing. As with Rhea, emotional and practical support allows them to recover from trauma and gain independence. The impact has been life-changing, with one tenant saying, “they gave me a lifeline, this flat that I am in, I have never ever felt so contented in my life.”

Hosting schemes – where members of the public open their doors to someone in need – are often used to house young people or migrants. Increasingly, they’re being used to accommodate survivors of domestic violence and modern slavery. We commissioned Hosting Her, a report investigating the use of host housing schemes for these vulnerable women. It finds that hosting can expand the often limited options available to women as the housing crisis deepens. For women without recourse to public funds, it is often the only option.

The report calls for hosting schemes to be developed in partnership with women’s services, finding wide variation in hosting schemes and the level of security checks and support offered. Crucially, it warns that “widening out voluntary hosting schemes risks letting the government and local authorities ‘off the hook’ from providing sustainable and appropriate housing solutions for all women”, as well as echoing the call for more social and affordable housing to be built.

We’ve recently partnered with Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of domestic violence refuge spaces. We’ll be supporting the charity to investigate a best practice model for dispersed refuge spaces, a solution for women who find accessing mainstream refuge spaces difficult, such as those with disabilities or older male children. The single-occupancy housing and network of support provided by dispersed refuge models offer women both the support available in a communal refuge and the specialist support catering to their specific needs, closing one of the gaps in the Domestic Abuse Act’s accommodation provision.

Despite the growing political attention illustrated by the Act, it’s clear more must be done to tackle violence against women and girls. As we look to widen the scope of our work with new partners like Refuge, we’ll continue to empower frontline organisations supporting women and girls to find housing-based solutions to this devastating injustice and champion our learnings to effect real, national change

So, as we reflect on this global day to eliminate violence against women, it’s important to remember the home: so often the site of violence but also the key to recovery. Violence against women and girls remains one of the core social injustices we seek to tackle. While there is much more to be done, we’re immensely proud to have made a difference in the lives of women impacted by violence and abuse.  

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