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Interview with Refuge's CEO, Sandra Horley

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What is a typical day like as the CEO of Refuge?

No two days are alike. Running Refuge is a 24/7 operation which provides emergency services to 6,500 women and children on any given day. I work in a highly pressurised, ever-changing environment and am constantly juggling priorities. I have to balance the needs of my team and the women and children we support with the demands of fundraising, raising awareness and persuading politicians or ministers to introduce sensible policies. Every day I see and hear about the gritty reality of domestic violence and abuse. Refuge does a lot, but it costs money to provide services, to save lives and change lives. Fundraising is a constant struggle. Every waking moment, I am thinking about how we can keep Refuge afloat in this time of austerity.

What is your current focus for Refuge?

My primary focus is always on keeping women and children safe, doing more for them and helping them regain control of their lives as well as changing negative social attitudes and dispelling the myths which perpetuate domestic violence. The world has changed since I started at Refuge 36 years ago, women today are experiencing other forms of violence and abuse, including rape and sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage,‘honour-based’ violence, sexual exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking. In recent years, we have seen an alarming trend in the misuse of everyday technology by current partners or former partners to control, intimidate and isolate their victims. Our specialist tech abuse service has supported hundreds of survivors who have suffered some form of technological abuse from online harassment, stolen online identities, hacking, revenge pornography to stalking and surveillance.

What was Refuge like when it first opened its doors?

Refuge opened the world’s first refuge in Chiswick in 1971, nothing like it had ever existed before – women and children flocked to its doors in their hundreds. These women were homeless and penniless – they had nowhere else to go. The conditions were far from ideal – it was a dilapidated old house – straight out of Dickens. Women and children squeezed like sardines into our one rundown, Victorian house. They slept head-to-toe - on mattresses in the hall – anywhere they could find a space. But that didn’t matter, the women told me this was better than being beaten at home.

What were attitudes like towards domestic abuse when you started working with survivors?

One of my first cases was a woman whose husband had taken a hammer and chisel to her face. She had 250 stitches and there was not a square millimetre of white skin. Just a mass of purple bruising. I fed her through a straw. And then the priest came. I’d never allow this now, but in those days, you did not know what best practice was. In front of me, he persuaded her to go home, saying her husband promised never to do it again. And of course he did – she was back again later... It was a clear example of the social pressures which then, even more than now, keep women trapped with their abusers.

You’ve overseen huge growth at Refuge – from helplines, campaigns, advocacy, outreach and the refuges themselves. How have you done this?

In spite of our growth over 36 years, there are not enough services to support all those who need help. It takes sheer determination and tenacity to find the funding to develop and keep essential services going. Services for survivors of domestic abuse have changed beyond recognition since the early 1980s when I took over the Chiswick shelter in its run-down, overcrowded and rat infested state, with its 24-hour crisis line that could answer only a fraction of the calls.

Today, Refuge is the largest single provider of specialist services in the UK to women experiencing domestic abuse and all forms of violence against women and girls. We support 6,500 survivors in our frontline services.

But one in four women in the UK will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime. This is deplorable in 2019.

What challenges has Refuge faced over the years?

Over the years, the domestic abuse services have faced round after round of cuts. Sadly, I have led Refuge through these cycles too many times. 80 per cent of Refuge’s services have seen funding cuts since 2011. Some areas of the country now have no refuge provision at all. No country, no matter how developed its response to domestic violence, has ever removed the need for refuges. These safe houses provide a lifeline to thousands of women and children across the country every day. We need to secure long-term, sufficient, guaranteed funding so that everyone who needs support can access it in the future. We hope that the incoming government will seize the opportunity to transform the way we respond to domestic abuse by prioritizing policies aimed at preventing violence against women and girls.

Personally, I think the lessons I’ve learned along this long and tough road have been to keep knocking on doors, keep campaigning about the travesty of funding cuts, keep believing and never to give up, no matter how dispiriting it can get.

You’re an inspiration to many, but who inspires you?

Working at Refuge means that I am surrounded by extraordinary and inspirational women every day – I am lucky enough to lead a team of hugely talented, dedicated and compassionate professionals. Most of all I am inspired by the women we support, many of whom have suffered for years or decades at the hands of men who have abused them emotionally, mentally, financially, and physically. To see them putting their lives back together and building a future for themselves is very rewarding.

Is there anything you haven’t yet achieved in your career that you want to?

If I could be granted one wish it would be for a world where our daughters and their daughters live free from discrimination and violence.