The women and girls paying the price for the cost of living

By Nimat Jaffer

As we approach the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, our VAWG Programme Manager shares how the organisations fighting the fight are also battling with the cost-of-living crisis, leaving vulnerable women more hesitant to flee abusive situations.

We’ve all seen the headlines… “how to cope with the cost-of-living crisis” including “top tips to save money as energy bills and cost of living rise” and “UK inflation moves back up with the cost-of-living crisis”. We also know that violence against women and girls, also known as VAWG, alongside the recent global health crisis further facilitated opportunities for violence and abuse. So where does this leave the victim-survivors of violence against women and girls, and the grassroots organisations that support them?

In September 2022, 32% of 41 richly diverse partner organisations in our VAWG Grassroots Fund, supported by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) reported the cost of-living crisis as their primary concern. When we consider the nature of their work – which includes safety planning and supporting the recovery of abused and exploited women and girls – this is significant.

"Women are being pushed further into debt and poverty. We are seeing more women in need of money for food and other essentials."
Maa Shanti

Living in destitution

Sister System, who support care leavers, have found that the young women they support are struggling with attending workshops and appointments as affording travel is difficult. "Our community is feeling more isolated and alone, unable to engage because of the struggles around poverty that they are dealing with. We are trying to mitigate this as much as possible." The Kurdish Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation (KMEWO) also explain that women asylum seekers and those with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) struggle with the little allowance they are given. "The women we support report extreme poverty, difficulty in paying bills, not being able to meet essential needs."

These changes have led these organisations, among others like Nour DV, WAND UK and Stay Safe East, to set up their own hardship fund and, in some cases, use their free reserves to provide essentials. This includes paying for basics like food, travel, electricity bill debt, mattresses, and winter clothes for children.

Rising costs have also resulted in an increase in referrals to these organisations, and reliance on foodbanks, but even here – there are struggles. Flashy Wings Ministry, an African-led organisation, reports that food banks tend to provide foods which the women and children they support wouldn’t usually eat. They are working hard to seek funds to help them buy more culturally appropriate foods, such as dried fish which can last for months and be used to make a variety of dishes.

East European Resource Centre offers advocacy, legal advice and therapeutic support to survivors of domestic abuse. They issued more food vouchers in August alone than the previous six months. Similarly, they have found that food banks generally supply processed foods. With the majority of their beneficiaries coming from an East European background, where the cultural norm means home-cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients, many of the women and families they support would often rather go without eating.

The food bank, WAND UK, not only provides food and essentials for the local community but helps identify women suffering domestic abuse. They have recently noted a link between women accessing the food bank and a breakdown in relationships, alongside financial hardships. Unlike Eastern European Resource Centre, they highlight that microwaveable meals are actually in very high demand, as cooking with an oven or hob has become too expensive. This has also had a knock-on effect on the organisation themselves as they now need to source more microwaveable meals, and a bigger fridge-freezer to store them safely. These varying requirements demonstrate the need for a tailored approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all.

A change in services

It’s therefore no surprise that reports from the VAWG Grassroots Fund organisations show a direct connection between the cost-of-living crisis and an increase in demand for services from these specialists, especially organisations supporting women from ethnic backgrounds.

Maa Shanti, who support South Asian single mothers, share "We are worried about women fearing deportation who are therefore not accessing the life-saving support they need." Even with this barrier, the organisation has reported an increase in referrals including previous service users returning for advocacy on money, housing and benefits.

The way in which support is being delivered has also shifted. The team at Faith Regen Foundation would normally raise awareness of financial abuse, instead they are also now completing actual budget plans with women. Similarly, Nour DV are spending a substantial amount of time making applications for individual grants so that women and their families have money for essentials. In response to seeing more victims of domestic abuse citing the cost-of-living crisis as a factor in not leaving abusive circumstances, The Sharan Project have also applied for the NatWest Circle Fund, which supports victims of economic abuse.

Some women prefer to stay in violent environments fearing that they won't be able to support themselves and their children without a husband.
Kurdish Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation (KMEWO)

Weighing up the worries

KMEWO, Aanchal Women’s Aid and Respeito have shared that the decision to leave abusive relationships is further impacted by statutory services, such as access to housing and welfare benefits.

Respeito explain that “Childcare costs prevent women from accessing employment and subsequently economic independence. This means women rely mostly on welfare, which can be a long process due to the difficulties created by statutory services for clients’ representation and advocacy. The lack of access to Universal Credit due to lengthy processing time and language barriers means vulnerable women are left with little choice but to return to their perpetrators.”

It is important to recognise that while violence against women and girls is most often perpetrated by men, it is not exclusive to men. There are increased reports of inter-generational abuse, especially of older women living with their children, who find themselves subjected to domestic servitude and, often, who cannot speak English – leaving them trapped in an unhappy and lonely life.

The Violence Against Women and Girls Grassroots Fund has taught us that the type of violence that a woman or girl experiences comes with its own intersectionality, often connected to poverty, conflict, tradition and so called ‘honour’. When this is added to the dynamics related to race, culture, community, religion, and language barriers, the challenges become layered. These challenges are further impacted by the pressures on statutory services, the media’s influence, and legislative changes.

Without the practical intervention from these organisations, a victim-survivor’s chance of recovery is at risk because all of these factors affect their recovery and create a complexity that is often hard to capture. But this is also what makes these organisations the specialists that they are.

Organisations like our VAWG Grassroots Fund cohort are seeing the impact of the cost-of-living crisis first-hand. Your donation to our Together for London appeal will make sure these women and girls can continue to get the support they need this winter.