It is a huge pleasure to welcome you all today, as friends and supporters of Refuge, to mark 50 years of outstanding service to survivors of domestic abuse.
In 1971, the world’s first women’s refuge opened in Chiswick. Many of you were not even born then, but those of us who were around (in those far-off days) remember how different life was for women and, above all, for women living with abuse. They were, effectively, prisoners in their own homes; held captive by the one person they should have been able to trust. 50 years ago, there was almost no support available: no helplines, no counselling, nowhere to go, no specialist laws, and, perhaps most painfully, very little public understanding of the issue. It was a taboo subject: what happened at home stayed at home. But suddenly, with the creation of the first refuge, domestic abuse began to come into the national consciousness. People were, at last, hearing the message that it was wrong to use violence against your partner and that, if the victim chose to leave, she would be helped every step of the way. Slowly but surely, refuges were established all over the country, usually by small groups of women, working on a shoestring to allow others to escape the terror of an abusive relationship. The refuge in Chiswick was followed by the first in Edinburgh in 1973 and in 1974, over 40 refuges opened across the UK. Battling through the financial struggles, the lack of understanding and the challenges of communal living, these women were making history – and saving lives.
Although society’s attitudes towards the crime, the perpetrators and the victims have changed enormously over the last 50 years, your work, sadly, is as necessary as ever. We know that one in four women in England and Wales will, at some point, experience domestic abuse. Thankfully, you continue to make history and to save lives, working with many thousands of women every day.
This morning I visited that first refuge in Chiswick. It was abundantly clear that it remains a beacon of hope and healing for its inhabitants. I heard encouraging stories of the immediate, practical difference that survivors have seen from recent changes in the law and from the determination and bravery of everyone who is fighting to protect those living with abuse.
All of you who work in the field of domestic abuse would be the first to say that you look forward to the day when your service is no longer needed. Today, then, we are marking rather than celebrating your fiftieth anniversary. Let us use it as a milestone to galvanise and inspire us all towards a world where women and children can live in safety, free from fear.
Finally, I would like to thank you all for what you have done over the past half-century and beg you to carry on your vital work to ensure that the next 50 years will see, hopefully, the end of domestic abuse forever.