Sunderland is set to become the first UK city without a single domestic violence refuge, reports Fiona Cowood
Marie* remembers clearly the night she thought she was going to die at the hands of her ex-partner. 'Nothing in particular had triggered it off, but he came upstairs and pinned me to the bedroom wall,' Marie, now 46, recalls. 'I was holding our 11-month-old baby, and he punched holes all the way around my head - right through the wall - and then led me to believe that I was getting the last punch. I remember thinking, "This is it, this is me gone."'
Marie didn't die that night but her ex continued to terrorise her, making it clear that if she told anyone, she would pay the ultimate price. Her lifeline came in the form of Jackie Siggens from Sunderland's network of women's refuges, who came to her house while her partner was at work and gave Marie the support she needed to finally - and safely - break free.
'I honestly don't think I would be here if Jackie hadn't come to see me,' Marie tells Grazia. 'I'd hit rock bottom. He'd attacked me in front of our two children as they sat in their high chairs and I just couldn't see a way out. I was suicidal. But Jackie gave me hope; she helped me get an injunction and take him to court.'
Tragically, the service that Marie credits with saving her life is under threat of closure due to funding cuts, and last week a campaign gathered pace to keep this vital service alive.
For more than 30 years, Wearside Women In Need (WWIN) has run the city's four refuges but Sunderland City Council has informed staff that their funding (£586,000 per year) will not be renewed in June, as they have to cut £74m from their budget by 2020.
Clare Phillipson, who co-founded the organisation, told Grazia that people are open-mouthed when they hear the refuges face closure: 'It should be unthinkable that you would even consider having a city with no provision for women fleeing domestic violence - but that's what we're facing. Officially, the council says no decision has been taken, but every time we have a meeting with them they tell us the contract is not being renewed.'
Domestic violence refuges are largely paid for at a local level, which means a postcode lottery in terms of the help you can access. In Tyne and Wear - as with many parts of the country - they have already weathered cutbacks and struggle to accommodate all the families that turn to them.
And it's not just refuges that will close, Clare explains: 'We also run a 24-hour helpline and have 800 women we support through outreach [like Marie] - 600 of them are at very high risk of murder. The idea that we won't be there to help is horrific. We're not exaggerating - women will die. And the worry is that if Sunderland get away with this, other local authorities will follow suit. The domestic violence murder rate is growing and all the good work that's been done is now being rolled back.'
Polly Neate, CEO of Women's Aid, agrees that if this goes ahead it'll set a dangerous precedent. 'Refuges are a national safety net,' she says. 'They're funded locally, but women in danger often have to travel to a different part of the country to reach safety.'
Marie gets tearful towards the end of our conversation. 'WWIN is like a fourth emergency service. I have such a happy life - great job and my kids are happy - but with WWIN, I don't think I'd even be here now.'
Sign the petition to save WWIN at change.org/SunderlandDomesticViolenceCuts