We have the opportunity to change how we tackle domestic violence by treating it as a public health epidemic, writes Jessica Asato
One of the great privileges of being a Labour candidate is the opportunity to get stuck in to local community organisations. In Norwich, the 4WomenCentre, a space for vulnerable women including those affected by domestic abuse, was one such venture run by three inspiring women – Rowena, Toni and Melanie. It was a vibrant, nurturing, healing environment for women who had often been to hell and back. I learned a lot about trauma and survivorship from the women who used services there which ranged from counselling through to arts therapy – helping to build shattered confidence, creating beauty out of broken lives.
As I understood more about the life-restoring services the centre provided I could not understand why it lived hand to mouth, not knowing whether the services provided would be there in six months. Each of the organisations operating from the centre were small, and though there was funding from statutory providers and a big housing association, it was short-term and relied on almost constant fundraising from those involved. The work itself was tough – everyone who works in domestic abuse knows that vicarious trauma is part of the job, but the constant struggle to try and convince commissioners of the value of the work provided and its success in survivors’ recovery seemed disproportionate.
As I worked out a plan if I won in 2015, I asked my shadow cabinet mentor how to write a plan for losing. He wisely suggested it should be the same. So as I had intended to raise domestic abuse from the backbenches, I decided to try and find a job in the sector once I had lost (and recovered from) the election. I had the good luck to find SafeLives, a national charity which uses data and evidence to make the case for increased resources for domestic abuse services, as well as showcasing the best practice in service provision so that small but perfectly formed local charities have greater clout with their commissioners.
Over the last two years my eyes have been opened to the prevalence of abuse. When I first started I was told to expect disclosures of abuse from friends and family. Naively I replied that none of my friends were victims – I would know, right? Wrong. Friends and acquaintances contacted me for advice, disclosing gaslighting, violent attacks, stalking and harassment. Two women a week die at the hands of their current or ex-partners and nearly two million people suffer from some form of domestic abuse each year. Somehow I, like many others, had managed to think that abuse happened to other people, not people I knew and loved.
This is why the opportunity of a once in a generation bill on domestic abuse due to be consulted on shortly has to be seized as a chance for cross-party working to make a serious shift in what is a public health epidemic. In particular there is a strong case for locating more specialist domestic abuse provision in health settings – only one in five victims of abuse call the police, many more will seek help from their GP or in hospital. But very few local authorities, police and crime commissioners or clinical commissioning groups commission domestic abuse services in primary or secondary care – the bill process could raise awareness of this much needed resource and strong leadership is needed from ministers in the department of health.
As the bill moves through parliament, however, I will be thinking of Toni who sadly passed away last year, as well as Rowena and Melanie. I wonder about how much they could have achieved for so many more women if they had more than a shoestring along with their big hearts
Jess Asato was parliamentary candidate for Norwich North in 2015 and works as the public affairs manager for SafeLives. She tweets at @Jessica_Asato
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