‘We try to make Christmas special for the women and children we help’
Sandra Horley CBE is the chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge. She lives in London with her husband and has one daughter.
One in four women in the UK will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime. As head of Refuge, which provides emergency services to 6,500 women and children every day, my primary focus is keeping them safe and helping them regain control of their lives – on Christmas Day and every day.
I work in a highly pressurised, everchanging environment, juggling the needs of my team and the women and children we support raising funds and awareness, and persuading politicians to introduce sensible policies. It’s a 24/7 operation. Providing services is expensive and I think about how to keep Refuge afloat every waking moment.
While studying in Birmingham, I got a job directing a project for homeless and abused women. One of my first cases was a woman whose husband had taken a hammer and chisel to her face. She had 250 stitches, was a mass of purple bruising and had to be fed through a straw. I’d never allow this now, but a priest came and persuaded her to go home. Of course, her husband did it again and she was soon back.
Refuge opened the world’s first refuge in Chiswick in 1971, with women and children flocking to it in their hundreds. I started working for them in 1983. Women and children were squeezed like sardines into our dilapidated, rat-infested Victorian house; they slept on mattresses in the hall. The 24-hour crisis line could only answer a fraction of the calls that came in.
I worked in our frontline services for 25 years. I still try to visit the refuges and community services and will always feel fond of the original Chiswick refuge. I feel proud to see how Refuge has grown from one house to the largest single provider of domestic and sexual violence services in the country.
This year marks my 35th year at the charity. I’ve stayed because I believe everyone has a right to live in safety. Knowing that what we
do makes a difference to the lives of women and children keeps me going. The world has changed since I started – women today are experiencing other forms of violence and abuse, including FGM, modern slavery and human trafficking. I’ve overseen huge growth at Refuge – through helplines, campaigns, advocacy, outreach and the refuges themselves. But there are still not enough services to support all those who need help.
One of the most challenging parts of the job is the cuts. I’ve led Refuge through cut cycles too many times. Some areas of the country now have no refuge provision at all. These safe houses provide a lifeline to thousands of women and children. I’ve learnt to keep knocking on doors and campaigning, no matter how dispiriting it gets. To lead a charity, you need energy, passion, belief and be able to keep giving it 100% even when it gets tough.
Running Refuge can be allconsuming, but I have a supportive husband and tune out by walking in the countryside with my family, spending quality time with my daughter and travelling.
For many of us, Christmas is spent with loved ones but, for thousands of women, the festive season offers only intimidation,
Everyone has a right to live in safety
violence and isolation. Christmas is a busy time at Refuge, as we strive to make it as special as possible for the women and children we support. This year, donors can ensure all the women and children we are supporting over the festive period receive a present by purchasing an item from our Christmas Gift List. It is really important for them to know people care.
If I could be granted one wish, it would be for a world where women live free from discrimination and violence. No one should ever live in fear of abuse.
For more information, visit www.refuge.org.uk/christmas-gift-list
Sandra: ‘I feel proud to see how Refuge has grown’