The Women’s Aid Federations of the United Kingdom are the national umbrella bodies for the local domestic abuse services in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Registered as charities under U.K. law, the federations respectively coordinate and support four networks of local organizations (370 in England, 40 in Scotland, 35 in Wales, and 11 in Northern Ireland) that provide an extensive range of services to women and children experiencing domestic violence. They provide over 500 refuges, helplines, and community-based advocacy and outreach services across the United Kingdom.
The Women’s Aid Federations provide resources, services, training, and information to local domestic abuse organizations, to a wide range of statutory and voluntary agencies, and to the general public. They also play a key role in maintaining a national overview of law, policy, and practice and in coordinating responses to government, statutory agencies, and other national bodies in their respective countries within the United Kingdom.
Women’s Aid is the pioneer of the worldwide movement to end domestic abuse and part of a wider movement to end violence against women (VAW) and gender inequality. Its work is built on 35 years of campaigning and working in partnership with national and local governments, police, social services, health authorities, and voluntary organizations to promote the need for an integrated approach to prevent domestic violence and to protect abused women and children.
Aims And Mission
For 35 years, the Women’s Aid mission has been to lead in preventing and ending domestic and sexual violence and in advocating and ensuring the safety of abused women and children. There are three key aims to Women’s Aid strategy, encompassing protection, prevention, and provision:
- to improve the protection available to abused women and children by ensuring that their needs inform developments in law, policy, and practice;
- to work toward the prevention of domestic violence through public awareness and education; and
- to ensure the provision of high-quality services for abused women and children.
Women’s Aid grew out of the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first Women’s Aid groups were set up in response to women’s desperate need for a place to stay with their children where their violent partners could not find them. Those early refuges were run entirely on the voluntary labor of committed women, activists, and survivors together. Premises were often in poor condition and usually overcrowded, but they provided safety and support and enabled many of the women who used them to break away and start a new life free from abuse. From then on, Women’s Aid was and remains the key support agency for women and children experiencing domestic violence.
In 1974, the National Women’s Aid Federation was established by 35 local services, and by 1979, the four separate U.K. federations had been established. Since the 1970s, the federations have maintained strong cross-U.K. links through regular networking and meetings, parallel service developments, shared public awareness work, and campaigns (e.g., for legal protection, housing, and welfare rights). Campaigning by Women’s Aid put domestic violence on the public and legislative agendas in the United Kingdom from the early 1970s onward.
In the last 3 decades, Women’s Aid has campaigned systematically for improvements in criminal and civil law, family law, housing, health, education, and welfare services as well as for funding to continue to develop high-quality community-based refuge, outreach, and advocacy services to meet the needs of all victims and survivors. Current campaigns include the campaign for human rights protection for women with no recourse to public funds and the campaign for safe child contact when parents separate. Women’s Aid also works closely with other VAW organizations on sexual violence and gender equality issues.
Across the United Kingdom, Women’s Aid has also run local and national award-winning public awareness campaigns and worked in partnership with member services and other agencies to educate the public and to deliver an effective holistic multi-agency response.
Principles, Values, And Service Standards
Women’s Aid services across the United Kingdom are based on a common approach: to believe abused women and children and to make their safety a priority, to support and empower women to take control of their own lives, to recognize and care for the needs of children affected by domestic violence, and to ensure equality and antidiscrimination in all Women’s Aid’s work and services. Women’s Aid recognizes that any woman is at risk of domestic violence, regardless of race, ethnic or religious group, class, sexuality, disability, or lifestyle. Apart from the provision of emergency accommodation, the primary importance of Women’s Aid is to act as an independent advocate and service provider for women (outside the statutory sector). Other agencies can and do provide particular services, but Women’s Aid’s specific role is to be there for the women and children, to support them, and to help them define and articulate their needs. The guiding principle behind Women’s Aid’s independent advocacy role and services has been the understanding of the central importance of the perspective of abused women and children in the provision of support and services and in the development of strategies for change.
The principle of a women-only group—women helping women—has been shown to empower women who have been on the receiving end of male dominance and abuse. Women who have come to the point of approaching someone for help need above all to be listened to and to have their experiences and feelings taken seriously. Listening takes time, and many agencies are unable or unwilling to give sufficient time.
Women and children using Women’s Aid services, however, will receive support not only from staff and volunteers, but also from other women survivors in refuge houses or in support groups. This support will give them time and space to reflect on their own needs and will help them to overcome their isolation and the sense of shame that many women feel at being abused by a partner, ex-partner, or other family member. In time, it may enable them to move on to a life free from violence, provided that the appropriate services and legal protection are put in place.
Women’s Aid’s understanding for 35 years has been that domestic violence has to be seen within a social and structural context of unequal power relationships between women and men. Men in violent relationships characteristically abuse their partners and ex-partners in order to achieve control over them. Often very subtle signals can be extremely threatening; violence does not have to be overt to achieve its ends. The UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women now recognizes domestic violence as one of the ways in which women suffer discrimination. This is reinforced by economic, political, and legal structures both within our society and internationally. The Global Platform for Action, adopted by governments at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, now endorses this perspective.
However, although government and other research has shown repeatedly that women and children are the majority of victims of serious and ongoing domestic abuse (89%), there is of course a need to provide appropriate services for all victims, including men in heterosexual or same-sex relationships. Women’s Aid services refer all victims to relevant, safe, and separate provisions.
All Women’s Aid federations are committed to the development of quality services and a qualified workforce and are working in partnership to develop this through National Service Standards, National Occupational Standards, and accredited training. In England, Women’s Aid has now embodied core principles and values within draft National Domestic and Sexual Violence Service Standards, currently under consultation, as follows:
- Understanding domestic and sexual violence and its impact: Services demonstrate an appropriate and informed approach to service delivery, which recognizes the nature, prevalence, dynamics, and effects of domestic and sexual violence.
- Safety: Services ensure that all intervention prioritizes the safety of survivors and of staff.
- Diversity and equal access to services: Services respect the diversity of survivors and apply ant discriminatory practice to all aspects of their work; survivors are supported and assisted to access services on an equitable basis.
- Advocacy: Services provide both institutional and individual advocacy to support and promote the needs and rights of survivors.
- Empowerment and a survivor-centred approach: Services ensure that survivors are able to identify and express their needs and make decisions in a supportive and nonjudgmental environment; that survivors are treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity; and that they promote service-user involvement in the development and delivery of services.
- Confidentiality: Services respect and observe survivors’ rights of confidentiality and ensure that they are informed of situations in which that confidentiality may be limited.
- A coordinated community response: Services operate within a context of interagency cooperation, collaboration, and coordinated service delivery to ensure a culture of intolerance for domestic and sexual violence is developed in agencies, communities, and individuals.
- Responsibility for the violence and holding perpetrators accountable: Services operate within a culture based on the belief that perpetrators have sole responsibility for their violence.
- Accountability: Services are managed effectively so that survivors receive a quality service from appropriately skilled staff.
- Binney, V., Harkell, G., & Nixon, J. (1981). Leaving violent men: A study of refuges and housing for abused women. Bristol, UK: Women’s Aid Federation of England.
- Dobash, R. E., & Dobash, R. (1980). Violence against wives. London: Open Books.
- Dobash, R. E., & Dobash, R. (1992). Women, violence and social change. London: Routledge.
- Harwin, N., & Barron, J. (2001). Domestic violence and social policy: Perspectives from Women’s Aid. In J. Hanmer & C. Itzin (Eds.), Home truths about domestic violence: Feminist influences on policy and practice, a reader (pp. 205–228). London: Routledge.
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