by Eleri Butler, Chief Executive at Welsh Women’s Aid
Not everyone knows we have our very own Valentine’s Day in Wales. St Dwynwen, Wales’ patron saint of lovers, is commemorated on 25 January each year, when people across Wales are encouraged to celebrate their loving, caring partnerships.
Even less people probably know that, behind the story of St Dwynwen taught to children, folklore has it that as a young woman Dwynwen risked rape and forced marriage by her lover and father, and prayed for good wishes: to be safe from her lover, free from marriage, and for others to be happy in love.
Similarly, behind the chocolates and flowers exchanged on St Dwynwen’s day, most people may not know about the frightening reality many women live with behind closed doors. The fact is that for thousands of women across Wales, they live in relationships dictated by fear, coercive control and abuse – physical, sexual, psychological and financial – at the hands of their partner. Last year in Wales, over 10,000 adults and nearly 4,000 children and young people received support and help from refuges and community-based domestic abuse services.
Relationships that may begin with gifts, flowers and romance can deteriorate gradually into emotional abuse, threats, criticism, isolation from family and friends, and limiting personal freedom. Sexual and physical violence may follow, it may not. Although the frequency and severity of abuse can vary, what remains constant in domestic abuse is that abusers aim to control their partner’s every move, as part of a systematic and deliberate pattern of power and control over them.
Much of this abusive behaviour by perpetrators is criminal, and coercive control is also now punishable by up to 5 years in prison. The reality, however, is that many who experience domestic abuse do not report this to the police or other public services, for fear of being disbelieved, blamed or judged. Many rightly fear they or their family will be killed if they seek help, and leaving abusive relationships can be fraught with danger for women: across England and Wales, an average two women each week are killed by their partner or ex-partner.
Many people may not know that there is help available. In Wales, Welsh Women’s Aid runs the national Live Fear Free Helpline, funded by Welsh Government. This provides 24-hour confidential support, a listening ear and practical assistance all year round, for anyone – male or female – who is experiencing or affected by sexual violence or domestic abuse in Wales.
We also support a national network of local independent specialist services providing refuges and community-based support services for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and other forms of violence against women, including forced marriage, ‘honour-based’ violence and female genital mutilation. Local services can be contacted directly or by calling the Live Fear Free Helpline (0808 80 10 800) and help is available in Welsh, English and other community languages.
What most people also may not know is that demand on these services is rising as crimes of violence against women have increased over the last few years. In the UK it is estimated that up to 3 million women experience violence each year, although you wouldn’t know it from official statistics. Recent research by Professor Sylvia Walby, of Lancaster University has challenged official reports by the UK government on violent crime, by drawing attention to the fact that the Crime Survey of England and Wales caps the number of crimes to five that one victim can report to it.
This cap is imposed, it seems, because ‘high-frequency victims’ – such as women experiencing domestic abuse – would skew the results. By removing this cap, researchers found an increase in crimes of violence against women over the past few years. This increase coincides with cuts to public services and austerity measures. Violence against women is directly related to inequality between men and women, and as inequality increases, so does violence.
By excluding women’s experiences of repetitive violence by the same or multiple perpetrators from official statistics, women who suffer violence and abuse are silenced first by their abusers and again by the systems designed to understand their needs and protect them. Silencing or distorting women’s experiences of abuse – from St Dwynwen through to present day survivors – presents a gross distortion of the reality of many women’s lives, which leads to a cycle of unmet needs and continuing abuse.
That levels of domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women are higher than official data suggests, also has worrying implications for levels of investment into provision, protection and support across the country.
In Wales, we are pleased the Welsh Government introduced the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act in 2015. Earlier this month, all the remaining provisions of this new law were enacted. This includes a duty on Local Authorities and Health Boards in Wales to jointly prepare strategies to meet local needs and to prevent violence against women in all they do.
You would be forgiven for assuming, therefore, that the funding for specialist services to provide lifesaving support for survivors of abuse would be secure. Yet in reality, many of these services simply do not know if they have funding yet, from local councils, from April. Those that do know have been told by local councils to make cuts to their service of 20% or more, which for some services may be the difference between survival and closure.
This is despite an increase in demand for help and support across the country. Last year, we know of at least 284 women who couldn’t get into refuges in Wales because there was no space when they needed help. Already in the first six months of this year, 161 women in Wales were turned away by refuges because there was no space available when they needed help.
We do not want women in Wales to have to return to the measures taken by Dwynwen, who could only rely on good wishes to help protect her from male violence.
So on St Dwynwen’s Day this year, think about what’s happening behind closed doors in you street. Spare a thought for the thousands of women and children across Wales who are living with abuse and who are struggling for their very survival. And ask your local council why they aren’t making sure there is sufficient funding available for local domestic abuse and sexual violence services to meet the needs of all those who contact them for help and support. Because if they aren’t securing this funding, how much closer are we, really, to making sure that everyone in Wales who needs protection and support can get the help they need.
To speak in confidence to a trained support worker about sexual violence or domestic abuse, day or night, every day of the year, call the Live fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800 (Welsh and English). Support the work of Welsh Women’s Aid and our campaign in Wales to Save Refuges to Save Lives by emailing [email protected]. You can also follow us @WelshWomensAid or Facebook .
First appeared in The Western Mail, Monday 25 January 2016