Too many survivors of domestic and sexual violence are being failed by systems meant to help them, a national commission warns today [February 27].

"We are calling for enquiry about domestic and sexual abuse to be standard practice across all publicly funded services, with proper pathways into appropriate support that takes into account the trauma they have experienced."

Cuts to many of the public services women rely on have left their options increasingly limited. Often they will present at mental health or addiction services rather than domestic violence – and too often the signs of abuse go unrecognised.

Breaking Down The Barriers highlights devastating consequences for women and their families unable to get the support they need. Time and again the signs of abuse are not picked up by professionals, the report says, with women "bounced around or even turned away from services". Mothers are particularly let down, with the fear of losing their children preventing them from accessing help.

The report is based on evidence submitted to the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage, chaired by former government minister Baroness Hilary Armstrong, and established by charities AVA (Against Violence and Abuse) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.

The Commissioners, made up of experts from sectors including health, law and violence against women and girls, have written a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May demanding a Secretary of State for Women and Equalities is appointed to drive forward change.

The Commission, funded by the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, looked into the experiences of the most disadvantaged women who have experienced violence and abuse, and for whom chronic poverty and a punitive benefits system often compounds their problems.

Trauma 'legacy'

Without support, many go on to develop mental health problems or use drugs and alcohol to cope with trauma and abuse.

“It is a damning indictment of the system in this country that the legacy of sexual violence and domestic abuse is mental ill health, substance use, homelessness or a criminal record," said Baroness Armstrong: 

“We need action and leadership on this issue so that future generations of survivors get the support they deserve.

“That is why we are calling on the Prime Minister to live up to her promise to fight against burning injustices and take immediate action to improve the national response to women experiencing violence and multiple disadvantage.”  

Recent figures show domestic abuse costs the UK £66bn every year. The Commission wants its findings taken into account as the government’s recently announced Domestic Abuse Bill makes its way through Parliament.

The report also recommends that local authorities take the lead in ensuring local agencies and support services work together better to help women.

  • See also: Childhood sexual abuse and mental health: there are many more like Whitney

Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive of Agenda, said: "Too many opportunities to help women struggling with trauma are missed, often because the signs of abuse are not picked up or even asked about."

"Women are then left to cope with legacy of trauma on their own with devastating consequences for them and their families."

"We are calling for enquiry about domestic and sexual abuse to be standard practice across all publicly funded services, with proper pathways into appropriate support that takes into account the trauma they have experienced."

Donna Covey CBE, Chief Executive of AVA, said: “Far too many women are enduring terrifying and damaging experiences. They survive not because of public policy and practice, but in spite of it."

“The findings of the Commission provide evidence of the failure to support women and its unforgivable cost, not only to them but also to wider society.

“This report offers an opportunity for those in power to make a lasting positive difference for the survivors of abuse. We hope they listen, not only to the Commission, but vitally to women with lived experience, who must now play a central role in policy-making and service delivery.”

One in 20 women, equivalent to 1.2 million women in England, have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence throughout their lives. More than half have a common mental health disorder, one in three has an alcohol problem and one in five has been homeless.

Naima Khan, a peer researcher for the Commission, says: “A deeper understanding of trauma is needed and particularly how it causes mental health and other issues. This must change so women can rebuild their lives after abuse.”

The report also found that some groups of women face even greater barriers to support, including Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER), LGBT women, disabled women and those living in rural areas.

A full list of recommendations is available in the report. They include:

  • A Secretary of State for Women and Equalities must be appointed to drive positive change across departments and improve the national response to women experiencing violence and multiple disadvantage.
  • Local authorities must take the lead in ensuring that local systems work for the most disadvantaged women, by co-ordinating and encouraging local bodies to work together better.
  • Enquiry about domestic and sexual violence should be standard practice across publicly-funded services, with clear pathways into appropriate trauma-informed support.
  • Alternatives must be found to the current care system, which fails to support mothers and rushes to institutionalise children.
  • Steps must be taken to ensure the needs of marginalised groups of women are met and that vital specialist women’s organisations are given the support they need to survive and thrive.
  • Women with lived experience need to be valued and prioritised as a positive, transformational part of the paid workforce in services.

The report is being launched at an event in Westminster today with speakers including Home Office minister Victoria Atkins MP and Yvette Cooper MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

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