#FreeHelen: as The Archers' storyline grips listeners, the situation for domestic abuse victims is bleaker than ever

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Moya Crockett
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No fictional story has got people talking about domestic violence – or about The Archers – quite like that of Helen Titchener.

This week, thousands of listeners will be tuning into the Radio 4 soap opera, as Helen appears in court charged with the attempted murder of her abusive husband Rob. The storyline last made headlines back in April, when Helen stabbed Rob after enduring months of emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse.

The circumstances around the incident are unclear but details are expected to be unveiled during the trial this week, with listeners raging at the radio as the hashtag #FreeHelen trends on Twitter. 

Social media users have rallied round Helen, showing their "solidari-tea" in a series of supportive Twitter posts. 

Last night's episode heard Rob break down as a witness, appearing very much the victim as he depicted his efforts to support his "erratic" wife. 

For women like Helen, who have often been made financially and socially dependent on their abusive partners – cut off from their friends and family, with no access to their own money – domestic abuse refuges provide a vitally important sanctuary.

Domestic abuse leads, on average, to two women being murdered each week in Britain. But in 2016, it’s not just women who are at risk. New research shows that women’s refuges are also under threat from government plans for welfare reform.

According to a new report by Women’s Aid and Welsh Women’s Aid, government plans to cap housing benefit could mean that more than two-thirds of specialist domestic abuse refuges in England and Wales will be forced to close.

If refuges are not exempted from the proposed changes, 67% of specialist refuges in England would have to close, the charity says. The figure is even higher in Wales, at 68%.

Consequences will be severe even for refuges which aren’t forced to close, says Women’s Aid. Every single Welsh refuge would have to reduce the services it currently provides; in England, 87% of refuges would be forced to cut their current level of provision.

Why will housing benefit changes affect women’s refuges?

The government is planning on capping housing benefits for socially rented properties, to the level paid to private landlords. When he announced the cap in November 2015, George Osborne said this would be a means of “prevent[ing] social landlords from charging inflated rent for their properties”.

However, the lives of thousands of vulnerable women and children could be put at risk if refuges aren’t exempted from the reforms, according to Women’s Aid.

This is because housing benefit currently provides a vital source of income for women’s refuges – in some cases covering up to 90% of their rent and other charges.

A spokesperson for Women’s Aid said that the approximate income of one refuge in England will be cut from £300 to £60 per room per week if refuges are subjected to the benefit cap, placing it under unsustainable financial pressure.

Charlotte Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor and manager of a women’s refuge in Surrey – who described herself as “a real-life Helen” – said that her centre will be forced to close if the proposed changes to housing benefit are pushed through.

“It is a dire situation,” she said. “The uncertainty means we cannot plan for the coming months. We don’t know if we’re going to be here. More women will die.” She added: “I cannot stress enough how high the demand is for refuges.”

Women’s Aid and Welsh Women’s Aid are urging the government to exempt refuges – and the wider supported housing sector – from the proposed cap. 

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, says that the housing benefit cap would “undo all [the] good work” the government has done over the past two years to protect female victims of domestic violence, adding that “refuges form a tiny part of the welfare bill”.

She added that the current Archers storyline shows just how important women’s refuges are. “If Helen had access to specialist domestic abuse support in Ambridge, perhaps she would not be on trial,” she said.

Neate also pointed out that protecting women’s refuges is a matter of “economic sense” as well as ethical responsibility. “Each domestic homicide costs society £1.8 million, meaning that the loss of women’s lives due to domestic abuse costs the country over £14 million a month,” she said.

Julie Walters, a patron of Women’s Aid England, said that “domestic abuse is a human rights issue”.

“Women and children need the specialist support that refuges provide to reclaim their dignity and strength,”

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said that a review into the housing benefit cap is currently being conducted “to ensure it is sustainable in the long-term”.

“We fully support the valuable work carried out by domestic abuse refuges and other supported accommodation providers,” he said, adding: “We will continue working with providers to ensure the right protections are in place and will set out our plans in the autumn.” 

Feel fired up by this story? Here's how you can help...

According to Women's Aid, Stylist readers can get involved to make a change - here's how:

  • Tweet the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), calling on them to exempt refuges from the cap now with the following suggested tweet: "I am calling on @DWP to protect refuges & exempt them from the #LHAcap today @DWP @womensaid #saverefugessavelives". 
  • Write to your MP to raise awareness of the issue and ask them to write to DWP Ministers on your  behalf. You can find our who your MP is by clicking here.  
  • Check out Women’s Aid’s SOS campaign page to see more information and more actions you can take.

If you have suffered from domestic abuse of any kind, contact Woman’s Aid here, or call the free National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. You can also contact Refuge by clicking here