The head of a leading women’s refuge is handing back the OBE she received for services to disadvantaged women because she believes government cuts will leave her unable to provide proper support to vulnerable women.
Denise Marshall, chief executive of Eaves charity, which specialises in helping women who have been victims of violence and those who have been trafficked into prostitution, said the level of funding cuts to support organisations such as hers meant they would soon be unable to function properly.
National and local government funding decisions have hit women’s support services hard. Preliminary research by the national charity Women’s Aid shows that more than half of all domestic violence services still do not know whether they will have enough money to remain fully open after March.
Marshall told the Guardian: “I received the OBE in 2007 specifically for providing services to disadvantaged women. It was great to get it; it felt like recognition for the work the organisation has done.
“But recently it has been keeping me awake at night. I feel like it would be dishonourable and wrong to keep it. I’m facing a future where I can’t give women who come to my organisation the services they deserve – I won’t be able to provide the services for which I got the OBE.”
Marshall is worried about what the cuts will mean for women’s safety. “We will see situations where women are in danger as a result of the cuts. There are disasters waiting to happen.” she said.
Like many charity directors, Marshall is unclear whether government grants will continue to fund all the projects she runs in the new financial year. She has been asked by the Ministry of Justice to reapply for funding for the scheme she runs for trafficked women, the Poppy Project – but with a projected reduction in funding of up to 75% for each victim. “They want a bargain basement service,” she said.
She has declined to submit a tender to provide services at a radically reduced level, and has pulled out of tendering to continue to provide refuge services in Kensington and Chelsea, west London, at similarly reduced rates.
“I’m not prepared to bid for a service that did not enable women to get the quality of service that is essential,” she said. “If you run a refuge where you don’t have the support staff it just becomes a production line, where you move people on as quickly as possible to meet the targets. You’re not helping women to escape the broader problems they face. They may get a bed, but no help with changing their lives and moving out of situations of danger.”
Women’s organisations have always struggled financially, but charities across the sector are reporting that the current round of public sector cuts has left them facing unprecedented funding shortages. Earlier this year Devon county council proposed to scrap funding to its domestic violence support services; after vigorous campaigning from women’s groups a 42% cut was imposed instead.
“I’ve worked in this sector for almost 30 years. I don’t want to sound melodramatic but I don’t think I have ever felt as depressed and desperate as I do now,” Marshall said.
“There has never been enough money, but we were able to scratch around to find some. I’ve always been reasonably pragmatic; I’ve been good at finding bits of money from grants, local authorities and charities. Now it feels like there is nowhere to go to. I feel devastated.
“We have always worked on a shoestring, but now that shoestring has been cut. What is suffering is the quality of the service provision. What was already a barely functioning sector is now in danger of dying on its feet.”
Marshall called St James’s Palace to find out how to return the OBE, and was told she could send it to either the Queen or the prime minister, with an explanation of why she was giving it back. Last night she had dusted off the medal, which she had stored at the back of a cupboard, and was writing a letter to David Cameron.
“To be told that we are all in this together and must make cuts like everyone else isn’t right, because we didn’t have enough money to begin with,” she said. “Do we have to say to rape victims, you can only have half the counselling sessions you need because we don’t have enough money? That’s just wrong. It’s not like there are other services we can tell them to go to instead – that’s just not the case any more.”
She believes local authorities have consistently failed to understand the need for women’s refuges, and she worries that a move to a “big society” model of local decision-making will mean that these services lose out further.
“Domestic violence victims don’t go and storm the local town hall to demand more help; rape victims don’t go to the local paper to complain that there isn’t a good service for them. They are invisible,” she said. “Women’s services are seen as an easy target. They are usually quite small, and lack the power to campaign and lobby because of historic funding shortages.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Tackling violence against women and girls is a priority for this government. We have protected Home Office funding for specialist services to tackle violence against women and girls with over £28m of funding allocated until 2015.”
Inside Eaves’s headquarters in south London, women were anxious about the organisation’s long-term prospects. Mary (who preferred not to give her real name), 32, who was trafficked into prostitution from Nigeria, said if the charity’s Poppy Project were to lose its funding, she would become homeless. “It would destroy me,” she said. “I’d be on the streets doing prostitution. We don’t want the service to close.”