All women should have the right to a safe vote
Back in 2017 I was invited to participate in a ‘round table discussion’ with the Minister of Constitution, Chris Skidmore. The topic, Anonymous voting for women in refuge fleeing domestic abuse.The campaign started due to the difficulties experienced in securing the franchise for our women to vote.
Essentially, the evidence required attestation from a qualifying person to attest (confirm) that the safety of a person would be significantly compromised if the refuge address was disclosed, therefore an unacceptable risk option.
There were also only 2 options for these criteria to be met:
· Court order or injunction that was in force
· Applications must be supported by a qualified person
The qualified person able to attest to be are either:
· Chief Officer of Police of any police force in England and Wales
· Chief Constable of any Police force in Scotland/Northern Ireland
· Director General of the Security Services or the Serious Organised Crime Agency
· Director of Adult or Children’s Services or Chief Social Worker in UK
Have you given up already? So, let’s look at why anyone would have given up!
If you're a resident in a Refuge or Safe House, you can't have an injunction in place as this would make your residential address or where you reside a matter of public knowledge. For most women fleeing domestic abuse an injunction is not an option as most need to flee last minute or at a moment’s notice.
In order to register anonymously you needed the Electoral Registration forms attested by one of the qualified persons in the list above, which in our opinion were unreachable. Women were being overlooked and they felt they were being penalized by procedure and deprived of the right to vote. Hence a campaign was started.
What women wanted was a more accessible registration process to anonymously vote; to be placed on the electoral register without their names appearing on the register as their safety is at risk. To be able to achieve this it would require extending the list of attestors to include others for example; Refuge Managers and Health Professionals and reviewing the documentation required and new types of documentation to be accepted.
We discussed at the round table that I Choose Freedom firmly believed that health professionals should be added to the list, especially in the case for women who access refuge. In our opinion it is also critical that GP's should be added to the qualified attestor’s list. When a woman moves into refuge, she will have to change the GP to the new location. On the arrival of a family in to refuge a letter is sent to the new GP confirming that the woman is in refuge and is fleeing domestic abuse. The family are then registered as either permanent or a temporary resident. When a woman resettles in the new area of her choice the GP notes will again be transferred over to the new surgery, therefore providing an evidential trail of her previous refuge history and domestic abuse.
Midwives and Health Visitors (HV) also play an important role with women who have suffered domestic abuse. Disclosures to these health professionals are often made because of the rare occasions that the perpetrator is not present with the woman. Whereas, at a GP surgery perpetrators are more likely to attend appointments usually to ensure that no disclosures are made. Midwives and HV will usually be allocated to the family and a relationship can be formed as the midwife and HV will being involved with the women and the children. Home visits are usual for women who are pregnant and/or who have small children so at this point again a key opportunity for health professionals to see a woman on her own.
I Choose Freedom believed it was essential for Refuge Managers to be listed as attestors to evident that a woman is fleeing from Domestic Abuse. We believe that there should be a direct connection between an applicant and the refuge. I Choose Freedom would not attest for a woman that has not resided in our refuge as we would have no evidence to elucidate the facts unlike Health professionals who may have access to records or disclosure of previous DA and refuge history.
In 2014 there were 275 refuges accessible to women fleeing domestic abuse. The most recent figure shows a reduction to 200 (27.2%), an alarming rate of closures for a service that is experiencing increasing demand.
I Choose Freedom are a specialist women's refuge service and we firmly stated that the court orders, injunctions live or not (which were requested as evidence) are relevant to the risk of the woman which should remain ongoing. Women who experience domestic abuse are often too scared to face the perpetrator or upset the perpetrator for fear of further retribution. When invoking the legal system i.e. solicitors and courts this can have significant repercussions for woman and her children. In some cases, a perpetrator may move on to a new woman and leave their former partner alone until the new relationship breaks down and then return to the original victim of the domestic abuse and reinstate the abuse.
The other issue was the anonymous register needs to be applied for on a yearly basis, this creates further issues. I Choose Freedom strongly believes that the ability for lifetime anonymous registration should remain with a woman. The burden for the woman to keep proving her domestic abuse will get harder i.e. if the closure of women’s refuge’s and the support provided diminishes. These additional burdens will place further strain on the woman and prevent her from becoming a survivor of domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse may stay with some women for their lifetime, especially if there are children involved. I Choose Freedom states that it’s very important to understand that a perpetrator can return to a previous victim at any one point to perpetrate abuse against them. Unfortunately, woman still must apply on a yearly basis and, but we hope to continue the campaign to give lifelong anonymity.
Since the ‘round table’ discussion, Refuge Managers and Health Professionals have been added to the list of attestors to make it easier and more accessible for women fleeing domestic abuse to have a voice in the democratic process
I Choose Freedom believe that a woman should have the right to a safe life, free from abuse and by applying these new proposed democratic processes will enable her and her children achieve this goal and be able to vote safely with peace of mind.