Nestled away in an anonymous part of suburban Norwich, there is a haven for women forced to leave their home due to domestic abuse. You wouldn’t know if you walked past it, but this shelter has saved the livelihoods of women from all corners of the country.
Leeway is an East Anglian organisation, and has been providing women a safe place to escape from domestic violence for nearly 40 years. Women and their children come from all over the country to Norfolk’s shelters; sometimes a lack of bed space forces them to journey from afar, but more often the women request to be as far away from their attacker as possible. “Domestic abuse” is one of those things that tends not to be discussed openly, with many assuming it is the sort of issue that affects only a “certain type” of person. In fact, domestic abuse is something which transcends class, age, race and gender boundaries. One in four women will suffer from it at some point in their lives. In Norfolk alone, there are approximately 10,000 reports of domestic violence a year.
Keeping this haven safe is a tough job. Women who enter have to obey rules to preserve their safety, and CCTV, panic buttons and locked doors feature throughout the refuge. As the staff explain, it is impossible to make it completely secure, but they feel it is more sensible to blend in with the environment outside than to make a big deal out of their presence through excess security measures. Today, Leeway works closely with the police, but it hasn’t always been that way. Back at the organisation’s birth in the 1970s, the police turned a blind eye to domestic violence, generally viewing it as the husband’s right to hit his wife and children. These days, Leeway and Norfolk Constabulary have an interdependent relationship.
There are 12 flats in the refuge: the rooms are spacious, airy and clean, offering the women much-needed privacy and comfort. The refuge is sparcely but comfortably furnished, with a communal lounge and a pleasant garden. There is also a flat specially designed for disabled women and children; Leeway is proud that it can offer a service that is so desperately needed by the sizeable amount of disabled women and children in this country whom endure domestic violence. The staff I spoke to are sympathetic to the plight of male victims of domestic abuse, but the shelter itself is a defiantly female domain. As one care worker tells me, “men don’t usually need to flee their home.”
Time spent at the refuge varies from woman to woman. Some stay a few nights; some, a few years. Often women have to wait for housing to become available. Others want to move to a shelter closer to their friends or family. Many women return to the perpetrator. The staff at the shelter are warm and non-judgemental, though there’s a sadness in the eyes of the carer who tells me about a woman who keenly returned to her partner after a few months with Leeway, only to be back in the shelter a few days later.
The legal system for domestic abuse cases seems to be improving, but it still has a long way to go. Leeway supports its women by assigning them court-based workers and recommending good advocacy services. However, as most domestic violence cases avoid a prison sentence, some perpetrators seem to continually get away with it, and still many women end up withdrawing their sentences because they’re frightened of the repercussions.
The women aren’t angry, but seem bemused at the way their service is put under so much strain. It seems mad that a man arrested for domestic violence will be released the same evening and sent home, forcing his partner and children to move to a refuge for shelter. In Norfolk there is a Sanctuary Scheme, which helps women to equip their home with security measures to ensure they do not feel threatened. However, with the council hard-pressed for funds during this economic downturn, schemes such as this one are painfully neglected.
Norfolk suffers for a culture of taboo, especially in rural communities. “There’s such a stigma attached. People think they know each other so well, and something like domestic violence couldn’t possibly happen in their village,” the staff explain. This lack of understanding is tackled by Leeway through their work in the community, which aims to shake off the stigma attached to dealing with domestic violence. What is clear, is that domestic abuse can happen to anyone in any strata of society. The refuge itself tends to cater more for women at the lower end of the economic spectrum, purely for the reason that women receiving benefits can stay at the shelter entirely for free. Leeway, however, offers support to any person suffering from domestic violence, including men. There are also two refuges for male victims in the UK.
Unfortunately, Leeway is often dismissed by businessmen looking to make a donation to a local charity. Domestic violence is still a taboo, and wilfully misunderstood. The question most often asked is why the women do not leave. It shows a massive lack of cultural awareness; often women simply can’t leave. Furthermore, it is hopelessly naive for any person to assume that domestic violence simply isn’t happening in their social circle.
On National Women’s Day this year, David Cameron announced that stopping violence against women is a priority for the government, stating: “Violence against women is an iceberg under the surface of society … every day millions around the world live in fear.” Unfortunately, domestic abuse goes on unchallenged each day. Hopefully one day shelters like the one provided by Leeway will no longer be needed, but until then, women can sleep a little bit safer in the knowledge that there is a support network out there which truly cares.
If you need help or support you can contact Leeway on 0300 561 0077, or visit their website.