Changing journeys into journeyscapes

All too often, beyond the original escape, women’s domestic violence journeys continue to be fragmented and disorientating over both time and space.  Women have little control over their mobility – where they go, how long they stay in temporary accommodation, whether they have to keep on moving.

This can be contrasted with the concept of a functional scale for domestic violence journeys – “journeyscapes” – whereby women and children travel as far as they need to escape the abuse, but are not forced any further due to administrative boundaries or services.  A society which thinks and responds more coherently in terms of policy, services and rights could journeyscape women’s experiences and help them re-establish control over their sense and reality of home.

See:   Changing journeys into journeyscapes

Going back?

In the isolation of an abusive relationship, it can be impossible to know what your options are.  Often you need to leave to access the support and information from specialist services so that you can decide what you want to do.

Even if women ‘go back’ – in some sense – they are actually going forward with greater information.  If they have received support and information on their rights, they will be going with greater confidence in themselves and their options.

I’m really glad I came here [refuge] and did it – even if I’m going to be going back…  It’s been good for me, good for the kids – good for my husband.  He came to his senses.  And I came to appreciate myself now – and what I can do for myself….  I’m still the same self – I’m just little more wiser.  Yes – I’m wiser now. [Faith]

It was only because of contacting a refuge that Faith found out about different options for her and her children.

I know when something’s going wrong – I know what to do when something’s going wrong.  I know to say something – to say what’s happening; to say when I don’t like it – when it’s not right.  And I know to go somewhere to get a solution.

Her husband participated in a Respect-accredited perpetrator programme and she was reassured that he was changing his attitudes and behaviour.  She also knew that the programme workers would pass on any concerns.

They’ll let me know if there’s anything I need to know …  It will just be his progress, or if there was anything that needed to be said – anything bad or negative – they would have to let me know.

So, though she talked about ‘going back’ she really felt that it was a new start, and that her family would support her if she needed to leave again.

If it went bad again, that would be it – that would be final.  It would show to me that he would not change; and then I would have to face reality – you cannot live in denial.  If it happens again then that would be final.

And it’s good that the family is involved so that they know that I gave him another opportunity – they know that I tried, but he didn’t change.  I believe that my family would support me in that.

She felt that she was now in much more control.

It’s almost like we’re dating again – I’m seeing what he’s like.  I don’t want to go back in just like that.  I want to get to know him again – I’m studying him…  I want to see if he had really changed – and good changes.

Staying Put

It is commonly said that women and children experiencing domestic violence should be able to ‘stay put’.  That it should be the perpetrators of abuse who have their lives disrupted – that it should be them who have to move out or be held to account.  That it should be the perpetrators who have to make the journeys.

That may be true.

However, that would be all the more reason that – as a society – we need women’s refuges all around the country for women and their children to escape to.


Because an option to stay put is only an option if there would be the possibility to escape.  It is only a choice to stay put if there is somewhere to go to if you need to escape – in the short or long term.  If there is nowhere safe, non-judgemental and supportive to escape to, then you are not ‘staying put’, you are stuck.  You are not choosing to stay put – you are imprisoned in the location of the abuse.

There needs to be both options – staying put and leaving – so that women know that they can get all kinds of help.

“I wish I had the voice to cry out to the world – do not keep quiet; if you fear something is not right with your partner – or whoever is abusing you; if you feel the signs of abuse – talk to somebody.”                    Gloria

Imagined community – Real belonging

In all the talk of strong communities, united communities, struggling communities, the [insert a term of your choosing] community, there remains a real question of where women escaping domestic violence can find a sense of community.  If the actions of her abusive partner or husband have forced her out of her locality, has he also forced her out of her community – her friends, family, her sense of belonging and shared culture?

Can she join a new community?

Even if women experiencing domestic abuse stay put, they can be entirely isolated from their supposed community – unable to tell anyone what is happening, unable to feel at home.

In the 1930s, Virginia Woolf wrote, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”[1] and maybe that points to the potential for women to share experiences – and a sense of belonging – across all kinds of borders.  The potential to cut across isolation and build strong communities of shared experiences.

Women who escape domestic violence and meet other women who have experienced abuse talk about how they begin to make connections:

I find that [isolation] odd; because you think you’re the only one that’s experiencing it… but it’s millions of women – each sitting there thinking – what have I done wrong now? And you haven’t. I was totally amazed.

[Elizabeth – age 56, of White British ethnic origin with an adult son. Living in a rural village in Southern England at the time.]


I’ve made a lot of friends; a lot, a lot of good good friends – like sisters in all this.   

[Julien Rosa – age 24, of Black African ethnic origin with sons aged 7 and 3. Living in a small town in Southern England at the time.]

As well as such real support – a sense of friendship, community and belonging – women imagine themselves as part of a community of women who have experienced abuse; both the actual community of women and children they had met, but also a community outside, and in the future.  They imagine back to a shared homeland of being an abused woman, but also forward to an imagined community they had not intended to be a member of, but had found as a positive outcome in their journeys away from abuse. Their messages to other women are:

Don’t feel TRAPPED!!’

‘good luck to new women who come here!’

‘Help is at hand’.

[1] Virginia Woolf (1938) Three Guineas

First contact

Isolation is such a powerful tactic of abuse that many women experiencing domestic violence do not talk to anyone else about what’s happening.  They often think that they’re the only one – that they are to blame for the abuse.  Even friends and family may not see the abuse, and the abuser will often behave completely differently around them.

“When I started to talk to some close friends they were saying to me – oh, it’s not true, he’s such a lovely person, he’s look after you; when I see you with him he’s just lovely…”

– Anna – age 42, with an adult daughter.  White Polish ethnic origin.  Journey from private rented in London to rented social housing in a town in a rural area.


When women arrive at a domestic violence refuge, or another service where there are other women who have experienced abuse, the first contact with other survivors is often as important as any of the formal services.

“I was actually surprised!  I was shocked because [laughs] – I didn’t think it would be like this!  So that was a relief to me – that I had somewhere safe to go with my child.  And I had somebody there to listen, without judging me; without looking for any other cause besides what I’m telling them – to understand where I’m coming from.  It made me feel so at home and at peace – I cried – that was the first time I cried.”

– Gloria – age 41, with a 1 year old boy.  Black African ethnic origin.  Journey from private rented in a South Coast town to rented social housing in a town in a rural area.


Amidst any formal service provision – and professional practices such as risk assessments – it is important to value that contact between women.  It is vital to enable women to meet each other – often the first contact when they will be believed by someone who understands.

“We’ve been through a lot together; and I feel it’s nice – I’ve met some good friends here [women’s refuge]; which weren’t my plan!  I was like – I’ve come here and I’m not here to make friends and I’m not here to make enemies – but I have made friends, and I will keep in contact with them – definitely.  It’s nice – and the kids have made really close friends.”

– Violet – age 35, with a 6 year old boy.  White British ethnic origin.  Journey from owner-occupied in London periphery to private rented in a town in a very rural area.

Acute shelters or longer-term refuges – who decides?

At the European Conference on Domestic Violence in Porto this month[1], there were quite a few presentations about women on the move due to domestic violence… but not many that really explored the overall trajectories of women’s journeys.  Rather than focusing on the complexities of women and children travelling over distance and time, they tended to focus on particular segments of the journeys, such as when women accessed services.  As a result, they often looked at the journeys from the perspective of agencies, services and authorities… rather than from the perspective of women and children themselves.


One segment of women’s journeys that was focused on was a stay in a domestic violence shelter or refuge, with presentations from Portugal, United Kingdom, Norway, Finland, Austria, Canada and Sweden.  However, though the terms “refuge” and “shelter” are often used interchangeably, these services are very different in different countries.  And so women and children’s experiences are likely to be very different if they are staying in a shelter in, say, Finland – for 14-21 days – than if they are staying for six months or more in a refuge in the UK.


Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) report[2] that the maximum period of stay for women and children varies enormously – from 4-6 weeks in some countries, to up to 12 months in others.  Clearly some of these services are seen as acute and crisis support, without time for longer term recovery and independence.


The key question is who decides the length of stay?

Who is in control of this stage of women and children’s journeys away from abuse?


As WAVE report: “No country mentioned that women survivors of violence and their children, if any, had the right to stay as long as needed, which would be the standard of a human rights-based and gender-sensitive approach”.  They argue that “Restrictions on the right to stay are especially problematic if there are no housing programmes guaranteeing permanent or even temporary housing for women leaving shelter.”  “If a woman is exposed to the same situation of violence after her stay in shelter, the State and society have failed to guarantee her right to live free from violence.”


If women and their children can only stay a few weeks in a domestic violence shelter, where do they go next?



[2] WAVE. 2016. WAVE Report 2015: On the Role of Specialist Women’s Support Services in Europe. Vienna, Austria: WAVE Co-ordination Office.


Dangerous journeys – Safe research

Women make journeys to escape domestic violence – to escape a known abuser.  They can be at highest risk of violence at the point of leaving, when a controlling partner senses or realises that she is breaking away from his control.  Women’s ongoing safety often depends on keeping hidden – the safety of themselves and their children depends on not being tracked down.  They will often travel to the least likely place, and cut contact with friends and family members, so that there is no chance of anyone disclosing where they have gone.


Their dangerous journeys are therefore hidden journeys.


Even when women and children are starting to resettle in a new safe area, they will often still keep very secret the details of where they have come from, and why they moved.


As a result, it is difficult to research these journeys – and vital that any research is carried out safely.


Research using administrative data is one way to carry out detailed research, but research which does not place women and children at risk.  Administrative data are the information that services collect to manage and monitor what they do.  If it is de-identified in terms of individuals (and confidential locations such as women’s refuges) it can be used to provide evidence of women’s relocation to access services.  It can be used to carry out safe research on dangerous journeys.


For details of how such data are used in this project on women’s domestic violence journeys, see Administrative data as a safe way to research hidden domestic violence journeys


And for further details on using administrative data for research see


Pulling up the drawbridge

In housing law in England it has long been recognised that to escape domestic violence you may need to leave home, and travel quite a distance – including across local authority boundaries.  Access to social housing would usually require a ‘local connection’ to that local authority – like a moat created between each council area.  However, an exception exists for individuals who are unable to remain safely in their own local authority – like a drawbridge extended across these moats – creating a route to safety.  So women escaping domestic violence are able to apply to a local authority where they have no ‘local connection’.


But these drawbridges are being pulled up in all kinds of ways – cutting off escape routes for women and children.


Sometimes, a housing officer in a local authority will not tell women that they can apply for social housing.  Other times, they will refer someone in crisis to a refuge in another area, and not explain that this temporary accommodation does not necessarily fix their location in the longer term.  Refuges may be required by funders to prioritise local women, and even keep a room empty rather than provide accommodation to a non-local woman needing to escape abuse.  Sometimes women give up a secure tenancy knowing it will never be safe for them to return… but no-one tells them that they might be able to use that tenancy for a transfer or reciprocal arrangement to another local authority where they would be safe.


As these drawbridges are closed to women who need to relocate to another area, their escape journeys are made more fragmented – more risky, costly and disruptive – by law, policy and practice.  Law, policy and practice which could be changed….


For more details on how women’s domestic violence journeys are made more fragmented by policy and practice see:


Journal of Gender-Based Violence
Segmented journeys, fragmented lives: women’s forced migration to escape domestic violence


which is free to access during August 2017.

Searching and Waiting

Many women have nowhere to go when they try to escape domestic abuse – if they try to get to specialist support services, like refuges, they can face a dangerous period of searching and waiting for help.  Some are turned away from statutory services that should offer them help – including housing and social services – and they may also find refuges full, or unable to meet their needs.


The women and children who do get to formal support services have often already been on the move – staying in temporary arrangements such as with family or friends, or sleeping rough.


It was only after finally being able to get to a refuge that Cathy could reflect on the months of precarious stays with friends, on the street and returning to her abusive partner:


‘I didn’t want to go home; but I didn’t have anywhere to go. So some of the things I did was crazy – like sleeping in parks … what the hell was I thinking? Walking on streets in the early hours of the morning – two, three o’clock. I ask myself now – what was I doing?’ [Cathy – age 46 – no children]


Of those women who do manage to find a place in a support service, many are not moving directly from the abusive relationship, but are already on the move.  In the period up to 2009, over 40% were previously in other temporary accommodation – half of these were staying with family or friends.  Whilst this may indicate cramped living conditions, it may also indicate danger if a women is escaping a partner or husband who knows her so well.


I thought hed always find me; and that hed be violent towards my family if I did go because Ive tried many times before. And when the police came they said you can go back to your parents; and I said to them no, theres no way, because he always finds me. [The police said] You should go to a friendbut I said I dont want to put this on any of my friends. [Violet – age 35 with a 6 year old boy]


Research just published by Women’s Aid[1] highlights this period of searching and waiting for women who need to relocate.  Even with the intensive help of caseworkers, only a quarter of the women supported by the project were accommodated in a suitable refuge space; often after a period of 1-2 weeks or longer.  Some slept rough whilst searching and waiting; and others stayed put with the abuser, and experienced further abuse and injuries.  The conclusions are that women are being turned away and sent back to abuse when they seek help.



How do women hear about refuges?

If you have been to a domestic violence refuge yourself, or you know someone who has, you may have a clear sense of what a ‘refuge’ is and the kind of help provided there.  Similarly, if you work in public services – in housing, health, social work or the police, for example – you may be familiar with referring women and their children to a refuge.  After all, there have been domestic violence refuges for women and children in the UK since the 1970s, and a recent presentation to the UN Human Rights Council described refuges (‘shelters’) as “survival tools which protect women whose lives are at risk” and “human rights obligations” “not optional extras”[1].


But many people have no idea that anyone would help them if they experience abuse – and have no idea what a domestic violence refuge is.


Cathy was from the UK but spent much of her adult life in the USA, so when she returned to the UK did not know about her options when her partner became violent.


‘I’d already made my decision years ago to go; but I always ended up going back – not because I liked him, but because I had nowhere to go.’


She didn’t find out about refuges from formal public information, but from a chance conversation while she was sleeping rough and keeping warm in a late-night restaurant.


‘I was in McDonald’s in Marble Arch, and I was just talking to a person in there – just a regular customer – and she said – why don’t you call the Domestic Violence shelter?’


When a Housing Officer told Gloria he would refer her and her baby to a refuge, he didn’t think to explain to her what a ‘refuge’ was.


‘I said ‘refuge’?  I have no idea what you are talking about – explain to me what a refuge is – because I say to them – you’re sending me to prison?  Did I commit something that I don’t understand?’


Many women and children are so isolated in an abusive relationship that they do not know about refuges.  It’s vital for everyone to think about how they could ensure that women hear about refuges if they need them – think about having leaflets and the freephone number (0808 2000 247) available anywhere where a woman might first find out about her right to escape abuse.


[1] Press release 12 June 2017 ‘States must provide shelters as “survival tool” for women victims of violence – UN expert’

Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences