There is no doubt that domestic violence and sexual abuse have moved up the public and political agenda. The government has recently published a Domestic Abuse Bill, and the #MeToo movement has put sexual harassment and abuse in the spotlight on an international stage.
But we remain in the early days of our understanding about the legacy of domestic and sexual violence – the lingering trauma caused by abuse and violation that can blight the rest of women’s lives.
I have been chairing a National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage, established by the charities AVA (against Violence and Abuse) and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, where we have been examining the situation of the most disadvantaged survivors of abuse.
These are women for whom violence is part of the fabric of their lives: one in 20 women, equivalent to 1.2 million in England, have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both children and then again as adults.
Without support, they can develop mental health problems or turn to drugs and alcohol to cope, which can precipitate a downward spiral. Chronic poverty and a punitive benefits system often compounds their problems – one in five has been homeless.
As part of the Commission, women with experience of these issues told me how difficult it was for them to get help, of all the missed opportunities when they had been desperate and no-one listened, of all the times they were forced to go back home to danger and violence.
It is a damning indictment of the system in this country that for so many the legacy of sexual violence and domestic abuse is mental ill health, substance use, homelessness or a criminal record, not to mention thousands of children taken into care.
Surely this is one of the burning injustices Theresa May promised to fight against when she became Prime Minister?
The government’s proposed Domestic Abuse Bill is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough.
That is why we are calling on the Prime Minister to take immediate action. Brexit is not the only issue requiring her attention right now and we risk abandoning future generations of survivors to lives of hardship and misery without it.
That means making the Women & Equalities minister – a post currently held by Penny Mordaunt MP, who juggles that with her cabinet brief on international development – a Secretary of State role in its own right to truly drive through change.
But we cannot place the onus entirely on national government: this is a systemic issue at every level.
As part of this Commission, we have heard examples of good practice but also of appalling practice, outlined in our report Breaking Down the Barriers published today.
We heard about a GP who sent a letter to a woman’s former home, where her abuser lived, with details about the refuge she had been placed in.
This is one stark example of the danger women can be put in, but the wider system serves to keep them in similarly abusive situations all the time.
With cuts to many of the public services 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.
The question is sometimes left unasked – even by those for whom it should be an essential part of their job – and even if it is, appropriate support is far from guaranteed. That is why we are calling for enquiry about domestic and sexual violence to be standard practice across publicly-funded services, with clear pathways into appropriate trauma-informed support.
Women often find themselves bounced around or even turned away from services because they either do not meet or go far beyond the thresholds for support. Women facing addiction can be turned away from mental health services, and women with more complex needs find overstretched refuges unable to take them.
Mothers are particularly let down, with the fear of losing their children preventing them from accessing help, and so they carry on trying their best until they reach crisis.
Local authorities must take the lead in ensuring that local systems work for the most disadvantaged women, by co-ordinating and encouraging local bodies and services to work together better so that women aren’t left to ping from service to service. And alternatives must be found to the current care system, which fails to support mothers and rushes to institutionalise children.
Some groups of women face even greater barriers to support, including Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER) women and disabled women. 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.
So while we have made slow but steady progress in our understanding of women’s experiences of domestic abuse and sexual violence, there is so much further to go in terms of understanding and addressing the long-term impact.
Yes, these are public issues that are now discussed in parliament and on soap operas, but we are still not doing enough practically to support the real women behind the storylines and statistics.
It was a privilege as Chair of the Commission to listen to these women’s stories and understand what help and support would have worked best for them. It does not make sense – on a human level and on a policy level – to ignore what they tell us and abandon them to lives of horrific violence and disadvantage.
Their insights must be heeded, not just by the support worker at their local service but at the highest echelons of government, so that we see action that means they can finally rebuild their lives.
Baroness Hilary Armstrong is chair of the National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage.