Local elections – what is local about domestic violence?

As we approach local elections in England and Wales on 2nd May 2024, local and national politicians are setting the priorities for local authorities: for the funding they receive and spend – and the services they spend it on.

Where are responses to domestic violence and abuse in these priorities?

With many local authorities struggling to cover their statutory duties, such as social care and child protection, and facing loud criticism over bin collections and potholes, where do domestic abuse services fit into their plans?

These plans matter – from advice and information services, to specialist refuges and accommodation: all these are services that national government has devolved to local decision-making.

But domestic violence and abuse isn’t local. Not only are men violent and abusive to their women partners in every local authority in the country… but, to escape that threat, many women and children cross local authority boundaries to seek help and support – as well as safety.

The maps show the domestic violence journeys in one year to services for just five cities, as women (often with children) travel to or from Manchester, Newcastle, Plymouth, Southampton and Birmingham. They show women having to leave their local authority to get the help they need.

One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Manchester to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Newcastle upon Tyne to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Plymouth to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Southampton to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Birmingham to services

But women and children can only make such journeys if the services exist.

Local politicians may pledge to fund – or to cut funds to – domestic violence services, as part of seeking votes in the May elections. It’s a patchwork of separate – unconnected – decisions. And decisions that do not only affect local voters – but affect the tens of thousands of women and children who end up needing services somewhere else – not in their original local area.

It’s an ongoing mismatch between the scale of need and the scale of response – further cemented in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

We need services everywhere, because perpetrators are abusive to their partners or ex-partners everywhere; but we need a network across the whole country – not at risk from hundreds of separate local cuts and local priorities.

Do the uncounted not count?

Women on the move due to domestic abuse are often hiding. They shouldn’t have to, of course…

But if not enough is happening to tackle the perpetrator, then women and children frequently have to move away – to try and keep safe. If the authorities will not prevent the abuser threatening her – and if he won’t change – then women uproot themselves and their children and try to disappear.

They may have to keep hidden for months, for years, forever – breaking contact with work, school, friends, family…

And hiding from the perpetrator also keeps them hidden from other aspects of ordinary life. It also means that they slip between the cracks of all kinds of administrative processes – falling off waiting lists, missing crucial appointments, losing their eligibility for services.

They are also uncounted in another way. All the social surveys in the UK sample the settled population – using the Royal Mail’s Postcode Address File – and so this excludes people in insecure, shared, and communal accommodation. Women on the move due to domestic violence may be in temporary accommodation for years – they may never get back to properly settled accommodation.

So the key surveys that are relied upon for prevalence of domestic violence and abuse (the Crime Surveys in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) systematically exclude anyone on the move or in unsettled accommodation. They exclude the people most acutely affected by the domestic abuse that they claim to count.

There was discussion of the problem at the RadStats conference in London on Saturday; and there is some wider acknowledgement – the Inclusive Data Taskforce (IDTF) reported in 2021 on the issue, and the Office for National Statistics has recently published research with 40 women on temporary accommodation due to domestic abuse.

But this doesn’t fill the gaps – there’s nothing more substantial to address the chronically uncounted; and the implications of them being missing from statistics. The supposed prevalence of domestic abuse – measured by the Crime Surveys – is widely reported; but it is barely acknowledged that the figure is potentially badly skewed by the missing women on the move.

And the missing are predominantly women – not only are women more likely to experience domestic violence and abuse, but when men experience domestic violence and abuse they are less likely to relocate and therefore exit the settled population sampling frame. So the prevalence for men and women are differentially skewed – meaning that the figures just cannot be relied upon.

So – from the assumption of only surveying the settled population, comes distorted statistics and significant exclusions.

And it matters – whenever the supposed prevalence of domestic violence and abuse from Crime Surveys is used to assess need, or make decisions about whether to provide services – and services for whom – the basis is flawed… and the decisions are flawed. And the message seems to be that the uncounted – women and children on the move due to domestic abuse – just don’t count…

Safety and More-Than-Safety for women surviving abuse

New research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown again how (unnecessarily) complicated women’s domestic abuse journeys can be. Journeys away from abuse and towards freedom often include all sorts of temporary accommodation – from hotels to women’s refuges, from self-contained flats to shared and supportive communal settings.

The wide range of temporary accommodation may imply options and choice…

However, women survivors experienced barriers to access and a lack of accommodation; as well as lack of information and lack of control of the processes. They didn’t always feel involved in the decisions that affected them and their children; and found themselves trying to navigate complex processes without the support they needed.

Whilst they were escaping violence and looking for safety, they described the importance of both emotional and physical safety – and of more-than-safety that recognised their individual needs and circumstances. They valued accommodation that felt more home-like – less like an impersonal institution – but that offered the holistic “wrap-around” range of practical and emotional support that understood what they and their children had been through.

Not surprisingly, women survivors identified the need for more flexibility and availability of both suitable accommodation and appropriate support.

And for support – rather than pressure – to make decisions. Women have only just come out of the coercion of domestic abuse, where they might not have been ‘allowed’ to make decisions, and then they are often rushed into a journey to a place and a type of accommodation with no time to think. The urgency of a crisis move often sets things in stone – rather a later chance to reconsider, to be heard and respected, and a real range of options to choose from.

Women lost valuable possessions – of themselves and their children – as well as sentimental items, favourite toys, important paperwork, and family pets.

They have survived the domestic abuse – but the current limited and fragmented system of temporary accommodation (and the barriers to accessing what there is) means they have to be survivors again- survivors of complicated journeys to find somewhere truly safe to stay.

One woman survivor who had stayed in a refuge now said:

“All of a sudden, I have the freedom and the space to be, to just be. When we were talking before about safety as well, that’s important to me. The fact that you have the space and the freedom to be; that I feel safe … just being myself.”

Counter-mapping for new knowledge

Creative geographies think critically about representation – what is shown and not shown. New visualisations allow new interpretations, new imaginings, new knowledge – to enable new worlds.

The aim is to counteract the dominant images – the dominant stories – as forms of social and political resistance.

Maps can be an especially powerful method of representation – and misrepresentation – and counter-mapping challenges the misrepresentation, the misinterpretation, and the previously and deliberately hidden geographies.

The new issue of “You Are Here: the journal of creative geography” focuses on counter/cartographies – highlighting that “Any act of map-making (conceptual, physical, material, or visual) is about relations of power and to countermap is to redistribute or reclaim power. It’s a practice that considers power at different scales, as it appears in different modes, represented in different places, as it occurs at different times, and perceived through different ways of knowing.”

Chapters include indigenous and activist mapping – claiming place, space and identity – questioning who makes the maps and who tells the stories that define our world.

Counter/cartographies is organised around four themed sections: boundaries, borders & place; counter-mapping & storywork; technology & information; and land & environment.

In the Countermapping and Storywork section, there are contributions to trouble and rework dominant cartographies – including a chapter[1] on this research: rendering visible the displacement journeys of women and children escaping domestic violence. In the United Kingdom, the dominant policy and practice story focuses on domestic violence rooted in place – with statutory duties only within local authority boundaries – and ignores the tens of thousands of women and children forced across those boundaries. The counter-mapping of journeys across administrative boundaries makes visible the need for a new acknowledgement of border-crossings – to accept the new knowledge – and to recognise and respond better to the tens of thousands of women and children affected.

Counter-mappings critique the dominant assumptions and make alternative understandings knowable – requiring alternative understandings and policy and practice responses.

You can watch the launch event, download a copy of Counter/Cartographies, and buy a print copy of the journal.


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2023. “The Spatial Churn of Women’s Domestic Violence Displacement.” You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. Counter/Cartographies, no. 24: 92–95.

‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)

Social science research investigates ‘topics’ that are actually the lived experience of people. Whilst all research into people’s lives involves their participation in some respect (whether or not they know about it), it is the engagement (or not) with issues of power, social justice and inequality that matters when thinking about ‘participatory’ research.

Academic research supported by an institution will need to consider the ethics of people’s participation – what do they know about the research? how are they being treated? will they benefit? is there a risk of harm? But rather than a one-off consideration of ‘ethics’, social research should ensure ongoing self-questioning of the quality of interactions from the start of thinking about the work right the way through.

Taking on board these interactions, researchers may work with community, voluntary or third sector groups, and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) has published a series of guides about working with voluntary and community organisations.

The guides consider research about health, disability and care, through to austerity, violence, and creative collaborations. They ask questions about the way such research is done – to draw on the experience of groups and organisations, but not in a one-way extractive relationship. Community groups will have hard-won insights and experience – knowledge that may not be in the academic literature. They will have ideas about which areas need further research – and which just need political and practical action (not yet more research!).

The guide on working with groups opposing violence against women draws on this research project – highlighting key aspects of research design; and providing suggestions for how to carry out further research.

It’s about committing to the process of how such research is done – not just what you do…. but the way that you do it….

That’s what gets results!!

Finding the Way Out from abuse

In the isolation of an abusive relationship it can be very difficult to see a way out.

Women seek help, seek support, seek information, seek hope. They often make complicated emotional, practical and geographical journeys. They may not know what the next stage will be – or what they need to prepare themselves and their children to face. They may find their options limited and their way blocked.

Women in the creative groupwork for this research produced images, posters and messages for women they imagined making such journeys in the future – wanting to encourage women in their journeys from abuse to freedom.  The posters were then put on display in the women’s refuges and centre where the women met.

Amy took many photographs on her travels around London – often noticing signs and slogans that she related to her journey away from abuse. She saw this sign on the Underground as reminding her of when she felt that there was no exit for her and her son from the abuse.

But she also took a more hopeful image – one that reassured her that there was a way out. The group of women loved that image and its message, and wanted it as a poster to put up in the centre where they met. The original image was made into a mosaic of hundreds of their photographs: the idea of combining everyone’s contribution into one image, and one strong message:

There is a Way Out from abuse!

Arrival and Departure – the spatial churn of domestic abuse

Within the UK, many people find themselves forced to relocate, whether due to housing evictions, dispersal of asylum seekers, clearance of housing estates for regeneration projects, or homelessness policies and practice. These non-voluntary mobilities affect individuals differently, but are structurally imposed.

The forced relocation of women and children due to domestic abuse may be seen as somewhat different – with the journeys initially forced by the abusive perpetrator. However, even at that point, there is the question of why the state isn’t holding him accountable – controlling his abuse so that women and children do not have to uproot themselves and relocate…

And, often, after that initial relocation, the domestic abuse journeys are further forced by state policies, availability (or not) of support services, and the implications of crossing administrative boundaries. So the journeys, in their multiple stages over time and place, are often structurally imposed in many ways.

With other non-voluntary mobilities, the flow of forced journeys may be in one direction: forcing people out of areas that are being ‘gentrified’, forcing asylum seekers out of major cities, or out of residential areas. And the focus of those who want to support such displaced persons is therefore on welcoming new arrivals, with the authorities focusing on the ‘arrival infrastructure’ including civil society and social professionals. The ReROOT Project is currently working across a range of locations in Europe, to improve practices, policies and imaginaries of arrival infrastructures; and a workshop in London on 9-10 October will explore the context and responses in the UK.

Thinking about arrival infrastructures, the forced internal displacement due to domestic abuse has parallels – all the difficulties of starting again with your life in a new, unknown, unchosen place. Individuals’ experiences may be similar, in terms of the effects and needs, but there is also a key difference in the aggregate effect in each place. For, at the same time as that arrival, there is also likely to be a departure – another woman, often with children, fleeing domestic violence. They won’t be aware of each other – their journeys will often be secret and hidden to escape the abuser – but domestic abuse occurs in all places; and journeys are from everywhere to everywhere.

Administrative data from services, analysed in this research, shows this spatial churn – that most local authorities experience around the same number of domestic violence departures as arrivals. But the lack of net effect is made up of a mass of journeys and disruption for individuals. So, a rights-based response to the disruption and harms of forced relocation, as well as the harms from the abuse, would create an infrastructure for both arrivals and departures – a coherent infrastructure so that women and children can go as far as they need and stay as near as they can.

Shared space – Shared food – Shared belonging

Where can women escaping domestic violence find a sense of belonging?

The actions of an abusive partner or husband often force you out of a sense of belonging at home – even if you don’t actually leave.

As Gloria said in an interview for this research:

“He would bring his friends, and have fun – while I was just stuck in the bedroom; I was living in the bedroom – he didn’t want to see me in the lounge. […] So, to me – what was the point of torturing my soul in that house? I might as well leave and go and stay under a bridge where there’s nobody there to torment me.”

And if you leave, you may end up staying with friends or family (if it’s safe), stay in temporary accommodation, or go to a women’s refuge where you don’t know anybody.

You may have to share kitchens, bathrooms in the refuge – even if you don’t, you will be sharing other rooms and other space. That can be difficult – unchosen communal living – but it can also be a place of connection and support. Support for yourself, as you meet other women who have been through similar experiences; and also support for children – friendships, playrooms, and childworkers.

The shared space can become a positive space – a space of shared belonging .

In the participatory photography groupwork for this research, Shalom shared images from shared food in the refuge:

“Last week, me and some of the ladies – I went to show them Brixton, because they had never been – so we bought these crabs – because she knew how to cook them really well.”

“And these are mackerel – grilled mackerel – and these are like baked sweet potatoes, but they are a different kind – not the regular reddish kind – they are a bit longer, a bit tougher, and when you bake them they don’t just fall apart like the red ones do, you know. And that’s rice, and we had the giant prawns in the rice; and then broccoli.”

“We didn’t have any special thing to eat them, so we just cracked them open – we found a way around them, with hands – with teeth – with spoons; and then we found a way. It was really good – we had a laugh! We had so much – we couldn’t eat all of it! It tasted so good!”

“We didn’t plan it – it was a very random thing; but I think we’re going to plan it next time for the house. We are thinking that we should make it like a house thing; because this was like very random – I went to show them Brixton and then we went into the shops, and they wanted fruit, and then we ended up seeing the crabs – crabs! – so we got the crabs, and then the other things – and cooked it together.”

“We just laid everything out – so we could eat; and a lot of dancing and singing! – while we were cooking.  It was a lot of fun!”      

Being Beautiful and Strong

Women forced to relocate due to domestic violence take time to get to know the new area they have moved to.

To begin with, it is often the practical places, the urgent appointments – the housing office, the doctor’s surgery, the supermarket, the school….

And then they can begin to notice other places – parks, community spaces – and begin to recognise the street names, and decorations such as murals.

The participatory work in this project provided time and space for women to come together as groups in women’s refuges and a women’s centre and be creative. To take photographs and talk about the places they were visiting, the routes they were exploring.

Amy said she had walked past this mural many times before really noticing it. And then she began to spot the colourful creatures – the frogs, the owls – and then she noticed this hummingbird.

She loved the image and made a connection with a mobile she’d been given of a hummingbird – it’s a tiny bird – but beautiful and strong.

She shared her images with the group – and the group made a photo-mosaic image based on the hummingbird. Hundreds of images from all the women in the group were combined to make up the total picture.

It brings together all their images as a group – to make one image that celebrates them being “Beautiful and Strong”! The image was printed on canvas and put up in the women’s centre – to inspire them and all the women who would use the centre.

Opening the Door towards a new life

For women who have experienced domestic abuse, the front door is a powerful image of whether they feel safe or not. Living with an abusive partner, they feel unsafe to go into the place that they had called home. The danger is inside – not in the outside world – and home feels like a prison.

As Elizabeth said in this research, after she had left her violent husband:

“I’m in a different world – completely! I’m free. I feel like I’ve come out of prison in a sense; where I was completely dictated to – now I’m free! If I want to go down town – I go! If I want to stay out all day – I can. I’m not controlled – I’ve got the control; I’ve taken the control back!”

The front door became an image of independence – as Elizabeth said:

“I’ve got my own front door – so what if I can’t afford the curtains! [laughs]  I’m safe – you know – I’ve got my life back.”

Having left the violent relationship – a front door you feel safe to go through is a definition of a true home. As Julien Rosa said:

“You don’t need to be scared to go in – you just go in. You know, when I was back in [the relationship] I used to be scared to go in – I just stood there. So – that’s a big difference – to be happy, to be relaxed – it’s incredible.”       

The participatory creative work in this project provided time and space for women to communicate such experiences. Women in the groups drew ‘maps’ of their journeys, and took photographs to explore the twists and turns of their routes.

This short video shows some of their images and captions about opening the door towards a new life.  Their images show closed doors, gates, blocked views, difficult routes and strange angles that mirror the disorientation of abuse. But they also show a way forward and the hopefulness of a way through.

Women saw the support of others as part of opening the door towards a new life – and wanted to communicate that way forward to other women escaping abuse.