Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick
Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick

A new report from the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage says too many survivors of domestic and sexual abuse in England and Wales are being failed by the system meant to help them. 

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of Heriot-Watt’s Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research  (I-SPHERE), was one of eight members of the commission, which was chaired by Baroness Hilary Armstrong, funded by the Lloyds TSB Foundation  and established by charities AVA (Against Violence and Abuse) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.

The commission’s report, Breaking Down the Barriers, 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. 

Without support, many go on to develop mental health problems or use drugs and alcohol to cope with trauma and abuse, which can be the start of a downward spiral. 

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

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.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick said: “Breaking Down the Barriers has a number of recommendations for the prime minister and the UK government. 

“I-SPHERE has been at the forefront of complex needs research since 2011 and, withour contribution, the commission has recognised the role that poverty plays in the experience of abuse. 

“The UK benefit system weakens the position of women who are already in a desperate situation, and our report has recommendations to tackle that issue.” 

Baroness Armstrong says: “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. 

“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.”  

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.”

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 coordinating 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.