by Beth Kitson, Research and Policy Analyst at PBE

At the heart of all relationships is trust. Having faith that another person, be that a friend, partner, relative or colleague, is honest and will not harm you cannot be underestimated. The same is true of our relationships with institutions, including government and public services, such as the NHS and the police. But for so many women and girls in the UK, trust remains out of reach. As high rates of violence against women and girls (VAWG) persist, despite recent attempts by policymakers, feelings of trust continue to decline. But if policymakers are serious about tackling VAWG, it is time that they start trusting those already providing services for survivors, collecting data for analysis, and advocating for prevention. It is time for women and girls’ organisations to be trusted as collaborators in efforts to end all forms of gendered violence.  

The accurate detection and measurement of VAWG is vital to tackling what has been often referred to as the invisible or silent epidemic. But the existing data is also evidence that the current strategy is not working. In the wake of the Domestic Abuse Act coming into force in 2021, over 1.4 million women experienced domestic violence in the year ending March 2023 alone. Other estimates suggest a woman or girl experiences some form of gendered abuse every 30 seconds. In fact, VAWG has remained so pervasive that the government declared it a national threat, equal to organised crime, terrorism and child sexual abuse, last year. Given this declaration is based on data relating to reported incidences of assault and abuse alone, the true scale of VAWG is unknown. 

The lack of data on VAWG is itself an indicator of the lack of trust women have in institutions and systems to tackle it. Fearing stigma, shame and a lack of sensitivity, many women, particularly those from marginalised communities, do not feel safe to report their experiences. Survivors responding to a recent survey said that their “mental health has worsened as a direct result of what the police did, or failed to do” and they felt “deep regret for having trusted the police. Some even said that their experience with the police was more traumatising than the assault itself. As Baroness Casey concluded in her review of the Metropolitan Police last year, the Met’s VAWG strategy “rings hollow” with “poor support for victims” leaving women and children behind. 

If policymakers are serious about tackling VAWG, they must look to the subsector of charities focused on women and girls - the small and specialist organisations which are run by and for women, typically within the local communities they serve. A coalition of over 70 charitable organisations recently came together to publish a manifesto for ending VAWG, setting out their expert recommendations for moving on from current “sticking plaster” efforts. The manifesto, agreed by more than 70 national and local organisations dedicated to ending VAWG, focuses on the work of specialist charities and their unique ability “to meet the needs of all women and girls, and the intersecting forms of oppression they face”.  

Charities providing these specialist services can meet the differing needs of women from a variety of backgrounds who have faced abuse, at every step of their individual journey. The decision to report violence or to leave an abusive environment is no easy task and support must take on different forms, sensitive to the time and context of the abuse. It may include legal advice for a woman as they are preparing to leave, or emergency accommodation for when they have made that step. In England alone, there are 237 refuges for women offering dedicated services for children and young people in recognition of the caring responsibilities of many victims. Other organisations, such as Oasis, specialise in longer-term support and training, helping women to not only recover, but to build the lives they want for themselves. These services recognise service users as whole individuals, deserving of the same rights and standards of wellbeing as others. In addressing VAWG, many specialist organisations also take an intersectional approach to their work, understanding that VAWG is linked to other forms of inequality.  

It is clear from both funding and partnership arrangements that many policymakers do not trust VAWG charities enough. The Domestic Abuse Act placed a statutory duty on local authorities to provide support for those experiencing abuse, through the supply of refuges and accommodation-based services. But this has seemingly led many councils to place less trust in the charity sector, preferring to provide in-house services instead, despite already being stretched. In many cases, when services have gone out for tender, concerns have been raised that contracts have been won by generalist accommodation providers, rather than the smaller, specialist organisations that have experience and knowledge of VAWG. In other instances, where funding has been awarded to specialist organisations, this has fallen short of the demand for their support. In 2022, a report by the government’s Domestic Abuse Commissioner found that less than half of domestic abuse survivors who wanted to access community-based services in England and Wales were able to do so, due to a lack of capacity 

Mutual trust between policymakers and charities should be at the heart of any attempt to tackle VAWG. In practice, this might mean sharing knowledge and funding, while understanding and respecting each other’s areas of expertise and overall objectives. Specialist charities are increasingly being supported with their data and research and, in turn, the charities’ insights are deepening the understanding and awareness of public bodies. For example, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is now able to supplement its general VAWG statistics, derived solely from crime data, with information provided by expert organisations. Specialist national charity Karma Nirvana provides insight and data about honour-based abuse to the ONS, while the Suzy Lamplugh Trust supports the ONS’s collection of information on stalking. This localised data is essential to identifying abuse and supporting survivors, which is central to national policy approaches to preventing VAWG.  

Just as the prevalence of VAWG is underestimated, the charities that are essential to its prevention are under-resourced. But working in partnership with VAWG charities has wide-reaching benefits. Research shows that for every £1 spent on tackling domestic abuse, there is an estimated £9 worth of savings to the public purse by alleviating pressure on public services, such as the police and NHS. Greater partnerships between charities and policymakers also provide benefits that cannot be quantified. Researchers have found that the signposting of information and referrals to support services by police officers makes a significant difference in survivors’ trust in the police 

Violence against women and girls is a national threat requiring a coordinated responsea relationship. This relationship must include multiple institutions, working at a national and local level, and include short-term action and long-term goals. Evidence-led interventions provided by specialist charitable organisations embedded in their communities are vital in this relationship. Trust must run through this relationship, ensuring that the security and wellbeing of women and girls is paramount. As one charity leader told Pro Bono Economics,  “Nothing else can follow if you don’t feel safe and trusted, and not judged.”