A date with the Queen

Alumni Profiles

Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, the UK's largest single provider of safe accommodation and support to women and children escaping domestic violence

It was 1979 and Ontario-born Sandra Horley, BA’79, found herself living in a cottage in the English countryside, after studying abroad at Oxford and the University of Birmingham as part of her McGill degree.

“I was planning to raise chickens,” she remembers. One day, though, she read the classifieds. On a whim, she applied for a job as the director of the Haven Project at Wolverhampton, a house for homeless and abused women. She got it – partly because of her McGill sociology degree and partly, she feels, because of her experience working as an assistant manager at a McGill cafeteria, “doing inventory, counting cabbages.”

She wasn’t sure what to expect in her new job. “I actually thought I might be bored.” Instead, her feet did not hit the ground. For almost five years, day after day, she was inundated with women needing her help – homeless women, refugees, travellers, sex workers, drug users, and battered women with their children.

“I was dealing with the sharp end of the stick,” she says. As the lone paid staff member, Horley did everything from counselling the abused, to assisting clients with applying for welfare, to working with the police. “It was quite an eye-opener. The sheer brutality [of the physical violence] shocked me.” This work experience led her to another position at an organization called Refuge, the world’s first shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, founded in 1971. Horley has served since 1983 as the chief executive for Refuge, which is now the largest service provider of its kind in the U.K., helping 1,600 women and children on any given day.

Flash forward 28 years, and she finds herself with an invitation to meet the Queen. On May 11, Horley will be honoured with a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), one step below the rank of Dame or Knight.

Horley already received the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1999 for “services to the protection of women and children.” Horley is quick to point out that her CBE has been awarded for “services to the prevention of domestic violence.” That apparently minor change in wording is proof for her of some small measure of success over the years. For her, prevention is the key. “You could have a refuge on every street corner and never fill the need. It’s essential to work on prevention.”

An outspoken advocate for women facing domestic violence, Horley’s opinions appear often in the British media. She was the first woman to ever address the Association of Chief Police Officers in England and her allies over the years have included the late Princess Diana.

In 1979, it wasn’t uncommon for a policeman to escort the abusive husband back home to his battered wife, bearing a bouquet of flowers. “No one understood domestic violence,” says Horley. “Slowly with time, we increased understanding. It’s now seen as a crime, rather than simply a domestic argument.”

Despite that important progress, Horley quotes some frightening statistics: Even in today’s Britain, two women are killed every week by a current or former partner, and ten women a week will commit suicide to escape the abuse.

Her work at Refuge has involved high-profile fundraising, public speaking, giving expert witness testimony at criminal trials, and coordinating major ad campaigns to educate the public. She has published two books (Power and Control: Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers and Love and Pain: A Survival Handbook for Women) and has even lectured on the areas of her expertise to the British Forces in Cyprus.

Despite the grim nature of her work, she is careful to emphasize the positive:  “I condemn the behaviour, but not the person. People aren’t born violent. It’s learned and it can be unlearned.”

As for her memories of McGill, “that was a very long time ago!” she laughs. She entered McGill as a mature student at age 24, after leaving home at 15 and supporting herself with secretarial work. She initially began her studies in geography and anthropology, but soon switched to sociology, which “gave me more insight into the world,” she says. “My McGill education gave me the discipline and the desire to question society. It was the right path for me.”

And her eventual career path? “It was destined,” Horley says.

Allyson Rowley, BA’77

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