Blog | Press Release

2 November 2020

Message from Sandra Horley on her retirement

Today is my final day as Chief Executive of Refuge, an organisation I have led, and loved, for nearly four decades. A lot has changed in the world during this time – and at Refuge – but one thing remains the same: domestic abuse is a horror that millions of women around the world live with every day.

Forty-two years ago, I first started working in women’s refuges at the Haven Project in the Midlands. Back then, it was generally accepted by society that a man had a right to hit his partner and a woman just had to put up with it. Abused women (or “battered wives” as they were labelled then) had no money, nowhere to go, and no one to turn to for support.  Refuge, and others, led the march – step by step, towards change.

As I retire, I am proud to reflect on what Refuge has achieved, but there is still so much work to do.  That is why the time is right for me to step aside and hand the reins to others so they can build on Refuge’s achievements.  I am glad that as I leave the charity, it is stronger than ever, financially secure, with dedicated staff and a talented senior leadership team who will ensure that no woman or child is turned away from the help they need. At Refuge we have been tenacious, resilient and not afraid to speak truth to power. I am confident that every team will continue to advocate powerfully and effectively for the women and children we support and whose safety and wellbeing are always the priority.

I will never forget one of the first women I supported. A woman whose husband had taken a hammer and chisel to her face. 250 stitches needed to be administered and there was no skin on her face which was not stitched together. I fed her liquids through a straw. It was at that moment that I made myself a promise – that I would always use my voice for women whose voices were not heard. That I would do whatever it took to keep them safe. More than four decades later, domestic abuse has never been higher on the political or public agenda, and I am incredibly humbled to have played my part in making that the case.  But it was by no means easy. Sometimes I was threatened and followed by perpetrators.  Men would try and break into refuges. Policemen – incredible but true – would bring abusers carrying a bunch of flowers to the door of the refuge and say:  “He says he is sorry, now can you fetch his wife so he can take her back home?”  I was constantly challenging the police and governments to improve their responses to domestic abuse.

Refuge’s roots are in Chiswick, where the world’s first safe house was opened by Erin Pizzey in 1971. Nothing like this had ever existed before. I became the director of the Chiswick refuge in 1983 and was shocked by the conditions. Women escaping abusive men had flocked to our doors and this safe space was full to overflowing. Although the conditions were far from perfect – a rundown old house, with women and children sleeping head to toe on mattresses on the floor – at least they were safe. Even with cockroaches, mice and holes in the wall, the refuge provided safety, shelter and support for women when they were most in need. Women told me that living in squalor was better than being terrified at home with a violent partner.  I am so glad that today Refuge provides safe accommodation in clean, well-maintained and healthy environments – another achievement over the years. .

Under my leadership we launched Refuge under its new name in 1993 in the presence of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.  Now, nearly five decades on from its humble but important beginnings, Refuge has grown from one house in Chiswick to become the largest single provider of specialist domestic abuse services, supporting more than 6,500 women and children on any given day. I am immensely proud to have overseen this growth. When I first started, I had one colleague and a handful of volunteers. I admitted thousands of women and children into the refuge and listened to their experiences.  In between supporting traumatised women, I began negotiating for funds from the local authority, the Greater London Council and the government, approaching benefactors and donors to ensure our doors stayed open.  The original Helpline was in the refuge lounge, but calls were diverted to my bedside telephone when I went home in the evenings and at weekends. I am so proud of the professional Helpline Refuge now runs, after these basic beginnings.

At the start of my journey I was a lone voice, and the police simply did not want to know about domestic violence. They dismissed it as a “domestic”, a private matter, to be kept behind closed doors. There was no government funding and no adequate homelessness legislation to give survivors a right to housing. Back then women leaving violent men were told they had made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ and therefore not entitled to accommodation or they had to provide proof of violence before they could access emergency accommodation. Now, domestic abuse is rightly seen as a crime, and it has been pushed up the political agenda. The Domestic Abuse Bill is soon to return to the House of Lords, following its passage through the Commons.

My early days in the Chiswick refuges were long, and they were tough. But together we started to move things forward. In 1984 the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) was passed giving police more powers to arrest in order to protect a vulnerable person. In 1990 the Home Office issued a Force Order to police forces in England and Wales, recommending that they adopt a more interventionist approach, arresting perpetrators to protect and support victims.  I was invited by the Home Office to explore the Canadian Government’s approach to addressing domestic abuse, which led to the establishment of the first domestic violence units in police stations in London. In 1990 we fought successfully to make rape in marriage illegal. I gave speech after speech, willing duty bearers to do more.

Refuge has achieved so much. Not only has it grown its refuges and community-based services, but it has also enhanced the Home Office funded National Domestic Abuse Helpline. Every single minute of every single hour of every single day, women can call Refuge’s specialist team and receive confidential support. Whether they are ready to flee their abusive partner and need emergency accommodation, or they need guidance on accessing the legal system, or simply want to talk and be heard, Refuge’s team is ready to listen, and to help. If there is one message I want every woman reading this to see and remember, it is that you are not alone. Help really does exist, and lives can be saved, and changed.

Refuge has become a modern, professional organisation, and I am very proud that it has achieved British Standards Institute (BSI) ISO9001 accreditation.  In 2016 the New Economics Foundation (NEF) carried out an independent evaluation of social return on investment in Refuge’s services.  Their findings were, in their words, “extraordinary, that for every £1 invested, clients, their families and society at large reap a reward equivalent to £4.94”. Further, NEF’s team was able to calculate that if Refuge’s services had not been available, it would have cost the State an additional £5.9 million a year.

Since Covid-19, we have taken extra steps to ensure women can contact the Helpline in different ways, by digitising it, including implementing a live-chat facility. As technology becomes more advanced, so must our abilities to communicate with the women who need us. We were also able to secure funds from the Government to help us do this swiftly, including funding from the National Emergencies Fund which meant that our services were not compromised during the necessary Covid-19 restrictions. Within days of lockdown being announced, our Helpline was running remotely, meaning women who needed us could still reach us during a pandemic.

Refuge’s growth has not been without challenge. Sometimes it has felt like one step forward and two steps back. Specialist domestic abuse services have never been properly funded – often running with hand to mouth budgeting. Austerity cuts led to a reduction in services, with the real victims of these cuts being the women and children who needed them most. But Refuge did not let these cuts stop us. While it is true that 80 per cent of Refuge’s services have seen funding cuts since 2011, and that some areas of the country have no refuge provision at all, we have increased our support to women and children. Often, Refuge’s generous supporters have stepped in when Government funding was not forthcoming.  Major donors have stood shoulder to shoulder with me over many years, making long-term gifts to keep services running. Other supporters up and down the country make a monthly direct debit donation. Every single person who has ever donated to Refuge has helped a woman or child in need. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

There has also been the support of our wonderful and talented patrons. So many people with big profiles and even bigger hearts have helped us along the way – people who have been able to help us amplify the voices of the women we work with and put domestic abuse on the political map and on the public agenda. If I named every single one of them I would probably need several more months until retiring – but I cannot retire without mentioning people like the late Diana, Princess of Wales who stood alongside us when we needed her, Dame Helen Mirren, Sir Patrick Stewart OBE, who has always been so generous with his time and profile. As a survivor of abuse as a child his story has undoubtedly helped many young people deal with the trauma they have experienced. I am grateful to Dame Stella Rimington, my mentor and Refuge patron, for her unstinting support and Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, former trustee and patron, who has championed our cause for decades and asked me to be the first expert witness to give evidence on ‘Battered Woman Syndrome’ in a British court. My heartfelt thanks to Helena Bonham-Carter, Jo Brand, Olivia Colman and Fiona Bruce, brilliant women who have given their time over the years to stand in solidarity with the women we support as well as raise much needed funds.

During my time at Refuge, I have been awarded two honours, an OBE, followed by a CBE.  I am proud to have these letters after my name but more important, they reflect the new recognition that domestic abuse and violence against women and children, matters. As policies and legislation have changed, Refuge’s message has remained clear. Domestic abuse is a crime, women and children have a right to live safely and without fear. Domestic abuse is rooted in power and control, and gender inequality. To challenge domestic abuse, and other forms of violence against women – modern slavery, rape and sexual abuse, honour based violence and forced prostitution – we must challenge the patriarchal culture which perpetuates these crimes.

As I stand back from my role, I leave a message for the Government: the imminent Domestic Abuse Bill has the potential to be hugely transformational. However, that potential will only be realised if it makes a meaningful difference to the women and children it is meant to protect. I hope you will show the courage and leadership to ensure this Bill is as bold as it can be and that it also protects migrant survivors who have no recourse to public funds; that the Bill recognises the gendered nature of abuse – almost always perpetrated by men, against women; and it ensures that women have the resources to flee and are able to access emergency housing. Most important, I hope the Bill provides sustainable, ring-fenced funding for women’s refuges. I am hopeful that the Government’s commitment to providing a legal duty to fund women’s refuges will come to fruition. I know the political will is there, I have seen it first-hand.  We continue to co-operate with government departments and former and current Home Secretaries: Jacqui Smith, Theresa May, Amber Rudd and Priti Patel have all come to Refuge to learn more about the issues surrounding domestic abuse and all forms of violence against women and girls.  Now, we need action and I stand ready to support making this a reality however I can. I may not be leading the charge anymore, but I am on the side-lines, ready to do what is needed for women and children, and I always will be.

As I step back and reflect on our achievements at Refuge, I know how much I owe to the incredible and committed staff with whom I have had the privilege to work – many have been with us for decades. The honours I have received are dedicated to you all, on the frontline, and to the women needing Refuge’s support in the past, present and future. You are my inspiration. I hope for a world in which no woman faces abuse, where every woman can live in safety and without fear and where refuges are not needed. Until then I am grateful that Refuge is the fine, life-changing and life-saving organisation that it is.

We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.  I am enormously grateful to all of you who have accompanied me on this journey – volunteers, staff, donors, civil servants, politicians, Refuge trustees and patrons.  I am confident that you will continue to succeed in protecting and preserving the rights of women and children.

Au revoir. Thank you.

Dame Sandra Horley

31 October 2020