On the evening of August 22nd in Gosforth there was a sold out screening of Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, with Q and A with the legendary lefty director afterward.
It was also the setting of the first public demonstration of Sisters Uncut Newcastle. A group of thirty or so women stood outside the venue dressed in black with flowers to lay. They delivered a eulogy and roll call for the 81 women killed this year by their male partners or ex-partners.
The most commonly used statistic for male on female domestic homicide is two a week. Karen Ingala Smith has, since 2012, fastidiously recorded the number of women in the UK murdered by men on her website Counting Dead Women. Among her arguments she laments how the murder of women is often individualised as an ‘isolated incident’ and the perpetrator absolved of accountability through gender neutral language, or victim blame.
It is in this context that the Sisters Uncut group has been set up. As with many Sisters Uncut groups, the birth of the Newcastle chapter resulted from necessity. As of September 2016, the Women’s Aid Refuge in Newcastle is closing, having provided a highly specialised women-led service for over 40 years. Changes to the way women’s services are procured meant that they had to submit a tender to continue their work. The procurement process meant they had to join with other local specialised women’s services and they were forced into a highly competitive marketplace dominated by profit driven housing providers.
Unsurprisingly a non-specialist social housing provider won the contract. As a result, they are now sub-contracting the support work to a care provider that has predominantly provided support for people who are homeless and coping with addiction. This raises a number of issues, at local, regional and national levels, where 40 years of experience and knowledge is ignored in favour of the most competitive tender bid. In a national context where all roads lead to austerity, it is self-evident how these changes can place a disproportionate burden upon women.
At a local level, this new provision involves a change of venue. Admittedly a purpose built new building does appear to be positive; women fleeing domestic violence are deserving of high quality facilities for themselves and their children. However, this venue is miles from the current service, where women have registered with doctors and their children have settled into schools. Not only will these women have to deal with the upheaval of moving their lives (again), details of the transition plan have not been released yet, so they have minimal ability to plan for the move.
At an employee level, the staff at the current refuge are yet to have the security of their jobs guaranteed, as there seems to be a question over the previously held belief that their contracts would be TUPE-d (TUPEs are discussed here) across to the new service provider. They already know that the specialist nature of the service job titles are being removed, (staff at the new service will be ‘Independent Living Workers’). These gender neutral job titles and the removal of specialist support hint at the more invidious consequences of closures and takeovers such as this. If the new service is a gender neutral service, run by non-specialised staff, based on a service tender grounded in competitive efficiency – the (unintentional?) priority for the service will be bodies in beds, and therefore the broadening of services. One can’t help but wonder where the very specific needs around safety and welfare of the local women sits within this list of priorities.
So for the Labour-led council that instigated the procurement process, what are the benefits? This is arguably an anti-feminist move, women led specialist services are invariably feminist in their delivery of service, the very act of recognising the need for such a service is itself a feminist one. Women led services have been at the front of demanding change and agitating against the disproportionate burden of austerity that befalls women. A cynic might suggest that a local authority, held to a massively depleted budget, might find it easier to work with an organisation that has a non-political and passive leadership. Certainly the de-professionalisation of the staff and the relocation of the centre would suggest that other interests (other than those of the local women) are at play.
It is suggested that the incidence of gendered domestic violence increases in a recession. This would imply that a region that is defined by high unemployment (and high hidden unemployment) may benefit from the continued provision of a specialist women’s refuge. Irrespective, this refuge as with many, hosted women from all over the UK, and sometimes further afield, as is necessitated by the safety concerns for the women in question. Austerity bites all over the country, as does men’s violence against women. There are concerns that these types of changeovers across the UK will limit applications for refuge to women from within local authority boundaries, undermining the ability of women to escape with enough distance from abusive partners.
These processes deliver a clear message of who is expendable in the name of austerity. It has been well documented on this blog and others how under the ideology of austerity, the poorest and most at risk in society are enduring sustained attacks on their economic security, physical safety and by consequence, future prospects.
There are still a number of questions remaining to be answered by Newcastle city Council, and at a national level, of the Conservative Government – Sisters Uncut Newcastle, and chapters across the country are going to be demanding answers.
About the Author: Jen Remnant is a PhD student, based at the Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University, studying the experiences of men and women with a diagnosis of cancer in North East England.