Whilst the Government has made clear that anyone is allowed to leave home to “avoid or escape risk of injury or harm”, there is much else that is needed to make it possible for all the different stages of escaping domestic abuse and getting somewhere safe.
There is a risk that the focus on women and children escaping to a safe place implies that the escape phase is the only critical stage in domestic violence journeys. But at each stage there are crucial concerns both about the options available; and who is in control of the decisions.
A new initiative between housing providers and women’s refuges is trying to free up the next stage after an initial escape to a refuge.
The issue is that some housing providers have a number of homes that are currently empty as the usual nominations and lettings procedures were paused during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, refuges are increasingly full, and unable to support women in the refuge to move on to less temporary accommodation.
Move on from refuges is difficult enough at the best of times – women and children often face years of housing insecurity after leaving a refuge – but now the problems are even more acute.
And if women and children are staying longer than they need in refuges that both frustrates and stalls their journey, and means one fewer refuge space for someone else in acute need. The average number of refuge vacancies in England during the first 7 weeks of lockdown was 97, compared with an average of 183 for the same period in 2019.
The initiative from the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance (DAHA) provides clear guidance to housing providers and refuges about how to make at least this part of the system work a little bit better at this time of acute and ongoing need.
It’s a window of opportunity – to free up space in different stages of the system for women and children who need support in moving on from abuse.
Each woman’s journey to escape domestic abuse is unique, but there are shared characteristics that can be identified.
Understanding these shared aspects can help identify the barriers and challenges that face particular women or women in particular places or circumstances. That can highlight the kinds of help and support needed from different types of services – or the policies and practices that could be changed to assist women and children.
Domestic violence journeys can include stages of actual relocation, but also stages of staying put; and journeys can be short or long, and include crossing administrative boundaries.
The data from women who did access services show three distinct strategies when women seek help:
Stay Put – and seek help from support services
Remain Local – relocate to access support, but within the same Local Authority
Go Elsewhere – move to another Local Authority to seek help
The three strategies are not just distinctive in terms of where women and children go; they also involve different types of agencies. And these agencies therefore only know about some women’s strategies – which limits their understanding of what other women do.
For example, statutory agencies such as Police or Health are only involved for some women – and distinctively for women who are trying to Stay Put or Remain Local. Housing is particularly involved when women need to relocate but are Remaining Local.
However, voluntary agencies are much more likely to be contacted by women who need to Go Elsewhere – escaping to another area. And women self-refer for all three help-seeking strategies.
Different types of agencies – in different areas of the country – will only see a fraction of what women are weighing up in their strategies away from abuse.
Whilst the Government has made clear that anyone is allowed to leave home to “avoid or escape risk of injury or harm”, there is much else that is needed to make it possible for anyone to escape domestic abuse and get somewhere safe. Let alone the practicalities and support needed in the longer term.
Just thinking about the journeys of escape – the essential journeys – when women and children need to escape domestic abuse, how do they actually travel?
Because the journeys are very secret, not much has been known; but a new article has just been published from this research about different means of transport.
Public transport is extremely important – especially for longer distances – as the graph shows; however two-thirds of the journey stages were by private transport.
And, in the sample of women interviewed for this research, the largest category of transport was the private car of friends or family.
So – at this time – it is not just a problem of that initial escape due to:
Increased surveillance from the abuser at home
Risk of being questioned about how essential your journey is
Difficulty accessing over-stretched support services and refuges
Less public transport
It is also a problem that you cannot connect in the same way with others – friends and family – who could help you with both the actual journey, but also to plan how to make the journey safer and reduce the losses for you and your children.
This might be the initial essential journey away from an abusive partner; but it will also be all the further literal and emotional stages of your journey after that first step.
is always a powerful concept – the ‘domestic’ in domestic abuse/domestic
violence highlights the complexity of what home means.
Government advice is to ‘stay at home’ – what about women and children for whom
home is a very dangerous place because of the abuser who lives with them, or
knows where they live?
for women and children experiencing domestic abuse, sexual violence and all
forms of violence and abuse have issued a statement
that they will do everything they can to continue to offer support and a safe
place to go if you need to leave home.
that, they, in turn, need the practical, awareness and financial support to be
able to do so.
safe – and know that there is help and support:
Live Fear Free helpline provides advice, support and referrals 24 hours a day,
7 days a week, 365 days a year to anyone affected by violence against women,
domestic abuse or sexual violence in Wales. You can contact the Live Fear Free
There are many kinds of evidence and information
that help us decide how to respond to domestic violence: how to prevent abuse –
and the kinds of services to tackle perpetrators and support and empower
One important part of the evidence is the data
that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports in November each year. It often forms the basis of media articles
around this time.
And it is around this time of year because of the International
Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25th November) –
because domestic violence is predominantly gender-based violence – predominantly
violence against women by men.
So it is vital in all our responses to domestic violence
that we are clear about who does what to whom.
But here the data collection in England and Wales
lets us down – Police Forces are still failing to produce the most basic data
on whether victims and perpetrators are male or female.
If these are the data being used to make decisions on the seriousness of the issue and what should be done to tackle it, what does it say about priorities that only 28 out of 43 regional Police Forces in England and Wales can report the sex of the victim and the perpetrator?
Police Forces producing adequate data in 2018 (coloured blue)
Police Forces producing adequate data in 2019 (coloured blue)
At this rate it will still be years until England
and Wales has just the very basic evidence of “who does what to whom” in terms
of domestic abuse reported to the Police.
local authorities have around the same number of women arriving to access
services because of domestic violence as the number of women who leave their
area due to the abuse. Authorities may not realise this, of course,
as women (and their children) leave secretly – to reduce the risk from the
abuser, they don’t tell the authorities when they leave, or where they are
authorities who provide domestic violence services – especially refuges or specialist
accommodation services – tend to imagine a flow of women and children into
their area from elsewhere. They know
nothing about their local women who escape violence and abuse by crossing
boundaries – the women who leave.
is only because of the service data for the whole of England (up to 2011) that
we can see the wider picture. And that is still only the picture of women
and children who went to those particular types of housing services.
is a striking picture – no strong flows between local authorities. Not even strong flows into major cities, or
along key public transport routes.
is a pattern of thousands of very individual journeys – including journeys from
every single local authority in England.
It is a total churn of displacement – journeys probably far more complex
than the straight lines on the map. But
even a flow map of one year of journeys
gives a sense of the disruption and upheaval for women and children seeking
safety across the country.
Janet C. 2015. “Forced Migration in the United Kingdom: Women’s Journeys to
Escape Domestic Violence.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers
40 (3): 307–320. doi:10.1111/tran.12085.
 Department for Communities and Local Government and University of St Andrews, Centre for Housing Research (2012) Supporting People Client Records and Outcomes, 2003/04-2010/11: Special Licence Access [computer file]. Colchester, Essex, UK Data Archive [distributor]. Available from: <http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7020-1>
Imagine a world where there were enough refuge spaces for women and children escaping domestic violence. Where these refuges were situated all around the country – in all types of places – so that women could go to the right type of place for their needs.
Not too close – first and foremost you need safety
Not too familiar – the abuser might try and track you down
Not too far – so that you don’t feel that you have been forced into exile
Not too strange – the kind of place where you can start again
Imagine a world where you could escape if you needed to – and therefore
also knew that you could try and stay put (using legal protection and services’
support if necessary) if you wanted to…. because there would always be a
safety net if that didn’t work.
Imagine a support system that gave top priority to your rights and
needs – that was there to serve you.
A basic infrastructure that you have a fundamental right to access –
when and where you need it.
Not the current fragmentation – where local areas can decide whether or not to provide services – and restrict the services they provide to local women and children. Where you have to keep on proving that you really need help, and prove where you have come from – as if you are asking for some special favour rather than simply your rights…
If we really believe that “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms” then every state should ensure that women can easily access their right to escape violence. Every state should provide a comprehensive, fully-functioning infrastructure for women’s human rights.
 UN General Assembly. 1993. Declaration on the
Elimination of Violence against Women: General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20
December 1993. United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/a48r104.htm
were first developed in the 1970s as part of a wider feminist movement. They were set up to help women and children
by providing a roof over their heads when they needed to escape male
violence. So, a safe place to stay was
central over forty years ago – and is still vital today.
refuges provide more than just safety. The
refuge movement also had the goals of challenging male violence and changing
women’s position in society; as well as helping individual women. It’s important to remember these roots, and a
project on the early history of refuges in the East of England and in East
London has been interviewing the pioneers of the 1970s to provide an oral
history archive of women’s experiences.
Refuges in the UK
have developed and changed over the decades, and refuges on a range of
different models have been set up around the world. There have been positive and negative
changes; such as improvements in the quality of accommodation, but also
constraints on length of stay. Many
refuges in the UK were originally run by volunteers – often women who
themselves had experienced domestic abuse in the past – and have seen increases
and decreases in funding for paid workers over the years. A feminist ethos of mutual self-help has
sometimes been replaced by a more social service ethos of professional staff
helping ‘service users’.
So there are many
different ways of running a refuge, and a recent article as part of this journeyscapes
research highlights how the practices of workers and residents help create a
dynamic space for so much more than safety.
It is important
both to remember the history, and to take the insights forward to face the
current threats to women’s refuges.
Governments often find it easier to pass another law which claims to tackle a complex issue, rather than implement the laws that are already in place. And rather than develop and sustain the services and social infrastructure that are needed to make a real difference.
It looks like this is happening again in the UK. In February 2017 the UK Government – Theresa May herself – claimed “I believe that the plans I have announced today have the potential to completely transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence and abuse”.
In March 2018 Theresa May pledged to “bring forward new legislation as part of my longstanding commitment to end domestic abuse”.
But the proposed Bill focuses yet again on the criminal justice system, with new definitions and the possibility of longer sentences for convicted perpetrators. It doesn’t focus on developing a society that prevents abuse and supports survivors. Many women who experience abuse go nowhere near the criminal justice system – often these are the tens of thousands of women (and children) who relocate every year in the UK.
If the Government wants to change the options and life chances of these women and children, it needs to ensure sustained funding for the specialist services all around the country that enable woman and children to rebuild their lives after abuse. We do not need a new law for that – we need everything from lessons on healthy relationships in schools, to refuges all around the country for women to escape to, to holistic and timely practical and emotional support.
This would need effective action by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, by the Department for Education, by the Department of Health and Social Care, by the Department for Work and Pensions – not a new law.
Whenever we hear of cutbacks or closures to domestic violence services in a particular area, we hear campaigners and concerned local people ask “Where will local women and children go now – when they need to escape abuse?”
But if the service under threat is a women’s refuge, then local women and children will probably be the least affected.
Local women and children will most likely be going to a refuge elsewhere.
Cuts and closures of local support services affect local women and children. But – if they need the distinctive services of a refuge – chances are they would not have been able to stay in their local area anyway.
In general, when women relocate to access services because of domestic violence, it’s about half-and-half whether they stay in their own local authority area (“residential mobility”) or move to another local authority (“internal migration”).
But, this varies enormously between types of services. For support services that do not provide accommodation 80-90% of women are from the local area; and for non-refuge accommodation around two-thirds are similarly from the local area.
However, for women’s refuges, 70% of women have travelled from another area.
But – at present – they are generally planned and funded locally, which makes them particularly vulnerable to cutbacks. And local cuts do not primarily have a local impact – they affect women and children nationally. We are planning and funding refuges at the wrong scale.
Local women and children everywhere might need women’s refuges; but they need them not in their original local area.
 Bowstead JC. 2015. Why women’s domestic violence refuges are not local services. Critical Social Policy 35: 327–349