Dogma is destroying women’s safe havens Janice Turner in The Times 27.02.21

The original article is here.

The term “luxury beliefs” was coined in the US to describe opinions that confer status upon the holder at no personal cost. Calls to defund the police or legalise hard drugs seldom come from poor communities who fear lawlessness or mass addiction but from a privileged elite with lapel-badge views. Similarly, those who want to eliminate women-only refuges are unlikely to need one.

They won’t have to bundle up their kids and a few belongings quickly while their husband is out; squirrel away money (because if you use a cash machine en route he might trace you); travel to a distant town where you know no one but at least other women who’ve experienced the beatings, mind-games and fear are waiting. Nobody flees to these often difficult, overcrowded places if they have wealth, supportive family, the education and confidence to deploy the law.

It’s no shock in this bottled-up “stay at home” year that domestic violence has spiked: where last year four families vied for every refuge place, now it’s nine. But it is shocking that two women’s refuges have been defunded this month alone. Why? Because they aren’t sufficiently “gender neutral”.

Brighton council told the charity Rise that although its 25-year-old refuge and outreach service is trans-inclusive, indeed has pioneered services for local LGBT people, it is “much more accessible to women”. To include “both heterosexual and gay male survivors”, council services will go “non-gendered”, supplied by Stonewater, a vast housing association, and Victim Support. Meanwhile in North Lanarkshire, Monklands Women’s Aid lost council funding after 40 years in favour of a social justice charity that also helps men.

True, anyone can suffer domestic abuse and male victims may be underreported. But the statistics are unquestionable: every three days a British woman is killed by a man she knows intimately, yet so banal are these crimes that the Julies or Yasmins, strangled or stabbed by boyfriends or exes, just float by. Even Brighton council admitted, as it scrapped a women’s service, that 91 per cent of victims were female.

The refuge movement was born of 1970s feminist rage that if a husband beat his wife it was “just a domestic”, that if he killed her he’d “snapped” because she nagged. Male violence, they believed, came from patriarchal control: women were possessions of men. Escape was hard when husbands controlled family finances and dangerous, since a woman is most at risk of murder when she tries to leave. The first refuges were in run-down flats, often squats you’d never set foot in unless you feared for your life.

Later, formalised by the charities Refuge and Women’s Aid, these safe havens spread to every town, run mainly by survivors who best understood how to comfort and heal. Refuges are at secret addresses and men are not allowed inside. Not just because abusers will pull any trick to track down fleeing partners but because, after years of mental and physical abuse, many women have PTSD. To recover and regroup, they must feel safe from men.

Under the 2010 Equality Act, refuges were allowed to stay single-sex “as a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim”. This, overwhelmingly, is what victims want: an Equality and Human Rights Commission report found 95 per cent of refuge users said they preferred female-only spaces where they felt safe, supported and free to talk openly. Since many refuges are communal, with shared showers, those from ethnic minorities thought this vital.

Yet, whatever women want and need, many refuges are afraid to remain openly single-sex. They know activists make undercover phone calls to overwhelmed helplines to detect transphobia which they can deploy in social media attacks: refuge workers are reported to trustees for tweets supporting JK Rowling; landlords are pressed to evict women-only groups. Vancouver rape crisis centre was punished for remaining women-only by having a rat pinned to its door. “The constant threat hanging over you,” says a refuge CEO, “is like being in an abusive relationship.”

In a Lords debate this week, the former Labour minister Philip Hunt warned that “women’s sector organisations, especially those who are seeking to end violence against women and girls, fear loss of funding and commission”. Public bodies and local authorities heavily lobbied by Stonewall, which campaigns to abolish single-sex spaces, have adopted its equality criteria. Thus a refuge will lose marks in a tendering bid for prioritising women’s needs.

But, as Rise’s fate shows, even inclusivity won’t save you. Stonewall promotes “gender-neutral” services not because they’re fairer but because it denies that biological sex matters. Whereas women’s refuges expose the stark dynamic of male power. In this trans activists find misogynist male allies who, despite nine in ten violent crimes being committed by men, believe feminists exaggerate domestic abuse.

Moreover, cash-strapped councils may find a vast monolithic provider like Victim Support or a company like G4S not only ticks the Stonewall equality boxes and deals with all domestic violence victims but is cheaper. But who does this one-size-fits-all service help? Not men, whether straight or gay, or trans people, who have their own specific needs. Nor the overwhelming majority of victims: women.

The refuge movement has built up knowledge and expertise over decades. But this second-wave practical feminism, which begged money, set up hotlines, changed laws and walked many hard miles, is now prey to a vicious iconoclasm. Those whose idea of activism is hashtags and Twitter pile-ons don’t build their own services. They only smash things down. Even the places where women flee to save their own lives. Places they should be thankful they will probably never need.

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