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Tackling violence against women and girls

On the eve of International Women’s Day, Leader of Lambeth Council, Lib Peck, blogs on how Lambeth is tackling the issue of Violence Against Women and Girls and what more could be done at a London level to support this work.

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Whilst there is much to celebrate in terms of women’s positive achievements over the past year – and I will be taking part in some really inspiring events over the weekend – I just couldn’t ignore the report this week that 44% of women in the UK have experienced physical and sexual violence.

This International Women’s Day, I want to use today to draw attention to the issue of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) and to advocate some positive and pragmatic steps I think can be taken at a London-level to help tackle it and support its victims.

I’m sad to say that the prevalence of VAWG noted above is very much replicated here in Lambeth. Sadly, we rank as the highest volume borough in the Metropolitan Police Service for reported ‘Most Serious Violence’ against women, and Lambeth makes the highest volume of calls from all London boroughs to the National Domestic Violence Helpline.

I believe a serious problem like this requires a serious response, and whilst prevalence of VAWG remains high, I think it’s fair to say that Lambeth is now held up as an exemplar in terms of how local authorities can tackle it. We took a political decision to make this issue a priority, and it’s a decision I remain immensely proud of.

Lambeth was, and still is, one of the first councils in the UK to develop an integrated VAWG strategy and is the first to develop and deliver a service specifically addressing all forms of VAWG* under one roof. Perhaps even more crucially, our Safer Lambeth VAWG Strategy was developed using innovative co-operative council principles, which included listening to the insights of women who had accessed the service, to identify what worked well and what did not. Listening to the women who use these services seems like such an obvious thing to, but it’s a step that is so often overlooked.

A major component of our new VAWG strategy was the re-commissioning of the Gaia Centre – now run by Refuge – bringing together all strands of VAWG under one roof to provide a better, more responsive and more appropriate service for users. The Gaia Centre provides confidential, non-judgmental and independent support for anyone experiencing gender violence in the London borough of Lambeth, supporting women and girls aged 13+ and their children, and men aged 16+. This Gaia model means that all victims of VAWG can use the centre as a first point of contact. It is designed so that staff can either deliver the specialist VAWG support directly, or support the victim in accessing further services when needed.

From January to December 2013 the centre received a total of 1716 new referrals, of which 1627 were female and 89 male. The centre also supported their 919 children. Interestingly, the highest percentage of these newcomers were self-referrals, which is very unusual for a support service like this, and really shows the widespread impact this service is having.

One of the reasons why so many people want to come and visit the Gaia Centre and see the work it does – and believe me they do – is because it produces excellent outcomes for the women it serves. The Gaia Centre uses a range of complex and person-centred measures to monitor outcomes for individuals. It reports a 47% reduction in harm for females and 58% for males. In terms of health, economic and other outcomes, the Gaia Centre achieves over 96% of these.

For me, this work is a moral imperative, and the harm reduction identified is enough in itself. But I also understand that in the context of huge and devastating cuts to local authority budgets – in Lambeth our funding is being cut by more than 50% – council budget holders really have to justify everything they spend. That’s why it’s worth pointing out that there is also sound economic evidence from the Home Office that calculates the cost of VAWG to various services – including those that are council run, like housing and social services – runs into the millions. Notwithstanding the cost of running a service like Gaia, in the long-run, tackling VAWG and supporting its victims saves you money – it just makes sense.

But you can only work to support victims so much before you begin to wonder what can be done to prevent so many people, mostly women, becoming victims in the first place. In Lambeth, we have also made a point of trying to tackle the prevailing culture in which VAWG is seemingly able to flourish. We have run some highly publicised campaigns which proactively target male perpetrators of violence; moving away from the model of simply advising women on how to protect against it. It’s not women who commit the majority of these crimes – we must recognise this.

However, we can’t do this on our own. Clearly, to really tackle VAWG a fundamental shift in our culture would have to take place, and while Lambeth Council might have some laudable aims, I’m afraid that’s not something I can promise to deliver! Furthermore, times are really tough, and we can’t do everything we want to do; we’ve already had to make some cuts we’d rather not have had to. That’s why we’re looking for new and pragmatic ways we can tackle VAWG and continue to support victims.

One of the things I’m committed to looking at is the provision of refuge beds for women fleeing violence. In Lambeth we have maintained the number of beds we provide this year, but to do so have had to find savings elsewhere. However, the picture of refuge bed provision across London is patchy, and the burden often falls on councils like us who feel that moral imperative.

By the nature of the service, a local authority will often be providing refuge beds for women from other boroughs. Whilst we would not seek to shirk this duty, at the same time we feel more could be done to ensure equity in the funding made available to support this. It seems clear that if an accurate picture of need for beds could be collected at a London level, the beds, and the funding for them, could be distributed more responsively, going to where they are most needed. When said like that, it seems bizarre that this isn’t how the system is run already.

The most obvious way to provide this would be through the powers and budgets of the Mayor of London. Last year the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) released it’s ‘pan-London’ strategy for VAWG. If VAWG really is a ‘key priority’ for the Mayor of London, and he’s committed to tackling it at a London level, here’s one way to put that into action.

Over the coming weeks myself and my colleagues will be holding meetings with like-minded London boroughs to see how we can make this happen. The Mayor of London is very much welcome to join us.


* This includes: Domestic violence (physical, sexual, financial, emotional or psychological abuse), Sexual Violence,  Stalking, Prostitution, Trafficking for sexual exploitation, Female genital mutilation (FGM), Forced marriage, and So-called ‘honour’-based violence.

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