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A Sisters Uncut protestAlanna Sargent

Politician says ‘play dirty’ against female activists

As a Tory politician accidentally leaks details of a smear campaign against women’s rights campaigners, we speak to Sisters Uncut

Pretty much all of us, at some point, have sent a work email that we swiftly regretted. Maybe you explicitly chronicled your late-night-smut fantasies in a missive to your geriatric boss; or bitched about a certain co-worker in an email to said co-worker. We’ve all done it, although luckily for us, most of the time our fuck-ups don’t end up reported in the national press.

Councillor Scott Harris, a Conservative member of Portsmouth city council, is in the news after an email in which he suggested smearing a local anti-domestic violence charity and feminist group Sisters Uncut was leaked. In the email, which Dazed has seen, Harris set out his plans to attack Shonagh Dillion, the chief executive of Portsmouth domestic violence support charity Aurora New Dawn, as well as the local chapter of Sisters Uncut.

The email says, “The elections are coming and the politics are dirty…Quite frankly, it might be a good idea to play dirty this time.” Ominously, he goes on to promise that he’s “compiling some stuff on Shonagh Dillion, Aurora New Dawn, and Sisters Uncut’, as if he’s Kevin Spacey plotting to take down an opponent in House of Cards rather than a local politician devoting time and resource to attacking a charity doing vital work to keep women safe.

As austerity continues, increasingly women are bearing the brunt of cuts to frontline domestic violence services. As part of Portsmouth city council’s planned budget cuts, £180,000 will be slashed from domestic violence services – putting vulnerable women at risk. Given that two women a week in the UK are killed by current or former partners, according to Refuge, the need for these services is real – and cutting them will have a damaging impact.

To find out more, we spoke Anna from Sisters Uncut. She prefers to stay anonymous – understandably, given the smear tactics being used against the group. She gave us a sense of the situation on the ground.

“About a few months ago we found out that Portsmouth city council were going to cut their domestic services provision by £180,000. Since then we’ve been trying to put pressure on the council to reverse their decision – we went down to a council meeting and did a bit of a protest and got some local press. Then we saw these emails talking about how there was a smear campaign against us and they were going to play dirty or something."

While Anna describes the use of smear tactics "really saddening and upsetting", the real issue here isn't a mis-sent email – it's the women whose lives will be at risk if the planned cuts do go ahead. 

"The women who run these domestic violence services are heartbroken. The cuts will take away over a dozen specialist jobs that would help women in Portsmouth. These aren't mystery numbers – we know the numbers and we know the facts. We know how many women are killed in Portsmouth every year. We know that the loss of these specialist workers will lead to women being hurt, and even killed". 

While the Portsmouth incident is a specific flashpoint, the struggle for victims of domestic violence is a national one – and it's being made worse by austerity. "Austerity in general is putting more women at risk. People can't feed their children, because of welfare cuts, so they end up trapped in abusive relationships. And then when they do leave the domestic abuse situations, the services that would have helped them are closed down. The government is putting up a barrier for women at every opportunity. 

Austerity as a whole – it's state violence against women. That's how we view it. Keeping women trapped in domestic violence situations is nothing less than a form of violence against them by the state. And it must be stopped".