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The isolation of a mass migration

Isolation is one of the tactics often used by controlling and abusive men: keeping women away from friends, family and other sources of information and support. It is one of the ways of stopping her thinking of escape – and stopping her finding out how to.

Abusive men may try and tell their partners who they can or cannot see – or try and keep track of texts, calls emails… But they may also just make it so uncomfortable for friends and family to call round, or meet up – or may move women to a new area to increase the isolation.

The flow of women – often with children – accessing support services due to domestic violence shows a mass migration in England. Women travelling from every local authority area, and ending up in every local authority area.

But it doesn’t often feel like a mass migration for each woman at the time – she may feel like she’s the only one fleeing abuse, and completely isolated and alone.

The middle point of the flow diagram shows women accessing services – this might be the first time she meets other women escaping abuse: the first time she feels that she’s not on her own. Support services may be the first time of not being so isolated – of realising that you are not to blame for the abuse – of not being so alone.

The administrative data of domestic violence journeys show a mass migration – but women and children themselves can feel so isolated – especially if they do not get the support they need and deserve.

For a poster of the flow diagram, fill in the contact form.

Staying Put – the problems of joint tenancies

Women experiencing domestic abuse should be able to stay put in their homes – whilst safely continuing their lives and connections with friends, family, work and education.

That’s obvious.

Tens of thousands of women and children relocate due to domestic abuse – but for many others, they try to stay put.

However, even if they could safely do this, they are often caught in the trap of a joint tenancy with the perpetrator of the abuse.

Perpetrators may use the joint tenancy as another tool of abuse. They may have originally used coercion to get themselves onto the tenancy, which the woman had in her sole name before. They may threaten to terminate the tenancy and/or continue to maintain control by refusing to remove themselves voluntarily from the tenancy. They may use their name on the tenancy as a means of continuing post-separation abuse – claiming that they could move back into the home. Survivors of abuse may find themselves trapped by the power of the perpetrator threatening to keep/end/keep/end the tenancy – never being free from the control and abuse.

The Government says in its Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan that it has the aim of “bringing victims and survivors more security if the right option for them is remaining in their own home”[1] but there are legal changes urgently needed to make this a reality for women with joint tenancies.

Currently, the legal procedures may be expensive and/or complicated[2] – with survivors often not knowing their options or rights, and finding themselves facing eviction, or being forced to relocate, with all the losses and uncertainties that follow from that.

A real option of staying put is needed.

To provide this, an alternative legal procedure has been proposed[3] – it was raised during the development of the Domestic Abuse Bill; though it was not included by the Government in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. It would provide a simplified legal mechanism for the transfer of a tenancy in the family court if a survivor of domestic abuse shares a joint secured or social tenancy with the perpetrator. It would recognise the tenancy rights within a joint tenancy, but provide a proportionate response to be able to promote the safety, stability, and housing security of the survivor.

Now it is being proposed again in response to the Government’s consultation on the impacts of joint tenancies on victims of domestic abuse. The consultation[4] is open until 10th May 2022 – asking landlords, lawyers and individuals about what is currently happening, and what the Government should do about it. We’ll have to see how the Government responds this time….

Women fleeing domestic abuse are fleeing a human rights violation: they should be able to stay put, stay as near as they can, or travel as far as they need without any detriment to their lives.


[1] HM Government (March 2022) ‘Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan’ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1064427/E02735263_Tackling_Domestic_Abuse_CP_639_Accessible.pdf

[2] National Group briefing on Joint Tenancies and Survivors of Domestic Abuse (2021) https://www.dahalliance.org.uk/media/11058/domestic-abuse-bill-joint-tenancies-qa.pdf

[3] National Group response to MHCLG’s New Deal for renting (2019), https://www.dahalliance.org.uk/what-we-do/national-policy-practice-group/our-national-group-responses-to-government-consultations/

[4] Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (15 February 2022) ‘Consultation on the impacts of joint tenancies on victims of domestic abuse’ https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/consultation-on-the-impacts-of-joint-tenancies-on-victims-of-domestic-abuse

Perverse incentives in (not) assessing need

How do you assess the need for domestic abuse support in a Local Authority area?

It is well-known how hidden domestic abuse is – that many women keep their experiences secret and never seek formal help. Others do seek help, but are turned away. Others do not disclose the violence or abuse until they are safely away from where the perpetrator might find them.

But over and above all that… assessing need in an area depends on what the word ‘in’ means…

  • Is it the women and children already in an area?
    • but what about the many forced to move away because of the abuse…
  • Is it the women and children coming into an area to seek help?
  • Is it both?

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 requires Local Authorities (Counties and Unitary Authorities – and London as a whole) to “assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the need for accommodation-based support in its area”[1].

But how can they do that?

To take the example of one year of help-seeking to services and one local authority – Cambridgeshire:


The local authority should be able to count the number of women who manage to access formal services – women’s refuges and other types of accommodation – due to domestic abuse;  and include that in their ‘needs assessment’. But that depends – of course – on them providing services in the first place…

And the majority – it can be noted – do not actually come from Cambridgeshire…

And then, what about Cambridgeshire women and children? – where do they go to access services?

Well, some ‘remain local’ – remain within Cambridgeshire – but many (and the vast majority of those needing women’s refuges) go elsewhere[1]

So, should Cambridgeshire be including these as well in its ‘needs assessment’? – maybe if it provided more services they would have been able to stay in the County… maybe they wouldn’t…

Certainly, Cambridgeshire is very unlikely to have any data on all those who ‘go elsewhere’ as the whole point is that they are escaping the abuse – they are not going to wait and inform the authorities of their plans.

So, any local authority – like Cambridgeshire – is only going to be able to count those who come into its area if it already provides services for them to come to; and is unlikely to have any idea of the numbers of its women and children who flee elsewhere.

With the best will in the world, a very partial needs assessment is all that is possible… and there is a perverse incentive to reduce or limit service provision, so that there is less expressed need in your area – and therefore less ‘need’ to provide services for…

Is this what local authorities are currently doing?  Given that the ‘needs assessments’ are not made public, it’s impossible to know…

But it’s clear that if you wanted to design a system to fail to meet domestic abuse accommodation needs, then this would be a good way to do it….


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2021. “Stay Put; Remain Local; Go Elsewhere: Three Strategies of Women’s Domestic Violence Help Seeking.” Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence 6 (3): 4. doi:10.23860/dignity.2021.06.03.04. https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol6/iss3/4

[1] Domestic Abuse Act 2021 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2021/17/section/57/enacted

Drawbridges and Moats – the problems of local connection

Despite decades of recognition that domestic abuse forces journeys across local authority boundaries, and the further evidence of the scale of such journeys from this research, so many aspects of the system of services and support remain fragmented down to the local authority scale.

Local authorities can tend to operate as closed systems – like they are surrounded by moats to cut them off from everything else. As soon as you cross that boundary, everything changes – your rights to services, your place on waiting lists, your housing, schooling, college access, and so much else.

Government has further reinforced these boundaries – deepened these moats – by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 devolving needs assessments and strategies for safe accommodation to the local authority scale.

Yet tens of thousands of women and children have to move to a different local authority due to the violence and abuse.

And the problem isn’t just at the crisis point of seeking emergency accommodation – it continues when women try to find housing where they can resettle longer term, and find themselves caught out by residency requirements that they cannot fulfil. The drawbridge that let them cross to another place in emergency, is pulled up again when they try to apply for social housing, and they are turned away.

In 2018 statutory guidance was issued[1] because – to quote – “The government believes that victims fleeing domestic abuse should be given as much assistance as possible to ensure they are able to re-build their lives away from abuse and harm.”

But this clearly isn’t working.

Now the Government has realised that “domestic abuse victims are being denied social housing allocations in some areas because they have no local connection to an area” and identifies the need “to consider further measures beyond statutory guidance”[2]. The proposed solution for England is “to introduce regulations so that local authorities would be prevented from applying a local connection or residency test to victims who have been forced to flee to another local authority district in order to escape domestic abuse.”

But it wants to find out whether this is a good idea.

So there is a consultation at present[2] – until 10th May 2022 – asking local authorities and individuals about what is currently happening, and what the Government should do about it.

Women fleeing domestic abuse are fleeing a human rights violation: they should be able to stay as near as they can, or travel as far as they need, without being forced any further, and without any detriment to their lives.

But many of the consultation questions are not concerned with enabling rights and support, but are concerned that any change should be strictly limited. Proposed limits include that exemption from ‘local connection’ only applies for a limited time period “after the victim has fled domestic abuse” or that the social housing is only being considered “for reasons connected with that abuse”. The consultation asks about limiting it in terms of the current accommodation (eg. refuge, temporary accommodation, private rented), in terms of moving to England from the rest of the UK, and in terms of the kind of evidence of domestic abuse that local authorities require.

The consultation recognises the tensions between neighbouring authorities currently providing different levels of services, and pleads “We wish to see local authorities working together with neighbouring authorities”.

But nothing is proposed to make this happen.

Yet again, Government is not considering the larger scale over which tens of thousands of women and children travel – and is not taking national responsibilities – but is hoping that local authorities will make boundary-crossing work a bit better for a limited number, within limited circumstances.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/improving-access-to-social-housing-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse

Statutory guidance: Improving access to social housing for victims of domestic abuse

Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 10 November 2018

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/consultation-on-local-connection-requirements-for-social-housing-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse

Consultation on local connection requirements for social housing for victims of domestic abuse

Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, 15 February 2022

When is a ‘refuge’ not a refuge?

There has never been sufficient accommodation for women and children who need to go elsewhere due to abuse: for somewhere safe, secret and supportive away from the abuser.

Women’s refuges provide both the (temporary) accommodation in places all around the country and the holistic specialist and peer support that is recognised as needed to begin recovery from abuse. Refuges provide much more than just safety[1].

But there has never been enough refuge space for women and children.

Space has become even tighter in the last decade, due to both the closure of some services, and the fact that women are often staying longer in refuges as they wait for some more-settled housing. Other forms of temporary accommodation are filling the gap between the acute need, and the lack of provision, and there is increasing concern about what these types of accommodation really provide. They are known as ‘exempt accommodation’ because they are exempt – like women’s refuges – from the usual Housing Benefit rules that limit rents, due to offering additional support.

However – do they really offer the support that is needed? A Commons Select Committee of Parliament is currently carrying out an inquiry to find out what is going on – prompted by concerns about “unscrupulous landlords failing to provide the support and care that vulnerable tenants need”. In contrast to the quality standards developed with and by women survivors and women’s organisations, there is widespread concern that other providers are unregulated and drive down standards to increase profits.

So, what is a refuge?

The Government has stated key factors that are necessary for a refuge, such as “a planned programme of therapeutic and practical support from staff”, that the “address will not be publicly available”, that it will be “single gender or single sex accommodation”, that “the service will enable peer support from other refuge residents”, and that the “duration of support to be based on needs and not pre-set timescales”. However, there has been a sharp increase in providers who may claim to provide refuge accommodation, but do not meet these minimum standards. And yet they are currently using the status of ‘exempt accommodation’ to claim high levels of public money under Housing Benefit regulations.

The short timescale of the inquiry call for evidence may mean that there are few responses. Indeed, there were only 133 responses to the Government consultation on the whole issue of ‘safe accommodation’ under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. However, there are due to be further public evidence hearings, and it is vital that the Select Committee identifies the rules and regulations needed so that the accommodation women and children have to flee to due to abuse really provides them with what they need.

For women and children’s support and safety, they need and deserve specialist and supportive services – including genuine refuges if they have been forced to relocate.


[1] Bowstead, Janet C. 2019. “Spaces of Safety and More-than-Safety in Women’s Refuges in England.” Gender, Place and Culture 26 (1): 75–90. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2018.1541871.

Women on the Move – report published

On Human Rights Day – 10th December 2021 – the report from this research was published.

Featuring more than 250 images by women who have been forced to relocate due to domestic violence, the book and maps provide an overview of the project, highlighting key research findings and new conceptualisations and knowledge from the research.

The publication presents the key messages – and points to further reading – on aspects of People, Places, Patterns and Processes of women and children on the move due to domestic violence and abuse.

To order a copy, please send postal address to info(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)womensjourneyscapes.net or send details via the contact form

Women on the Move – Vol. 1: Journeyscapes of Domestic Violence (book). ISBN: 978-1-7399686-0-1

Women on the Move: Journeyscapes of Domestic Violence. From Everywhere to Everywhere (map). ISBN: 978-1-7399686-1-8

Women on the Move: Journeyscapes of Domestic Violence. One Year of Spatial Churn (map). ISBN: 978-1-7399686-2-5

See the flier for further information.

The Opportunity to Allow, Enable or Assist

Leaving abuse is a process – not an event – and often involves points of interaction with agencies, professionals, family, friends, employers, or even strangers.

Each interaction provides an opportunity.

Every woman has been dealing with the reality and consequences of domestic abuse from before she has any contact with services; and will be doing so for long afterwards. But the impact of these interactions on the journey can be crucial.

Women are experts in their own lives, and are passing through a complicated and fragmented system which may or may not help them. At each encounter with family, friends, services, professionals, or strangers she may need

  • to be allowed to continue her journey – pursue her strategies – and not be blocked
  • to be enabled in practical or emotional ways – with information and input – and not be blanked
  • to be actively assisted by services, support and resources – formally or informally – and not have her strategies broken

The encounters and interactions need to build on where she is at – and what she wants and needs.

Whatever women need, they are still managing their own lives, and have the right to do so; and do not need a replication of the surveillance and control previously wielded by the perpetrator.

Therefore, it is crucial – whether you are friends or family; or professionals in statutory or voluntary organisations – to see the opportunity at the point of interaction. The opportunity to Allow, Enable or Assist women’s own strategies.

The independence of voluntary sector services

Women escaping abuse often contact a range of organisations and services.  Some help – Some don’t.

Different women might find particular services more accessible – more understanding of their needs and concerns.  Each woman’s journey to escape domestic abuse is unique, and only some include formal services in their help-seeking. 

The key focus for any responses should be to respect women’s rights and needs – and listen to their experiences.  And independent voluntary sector services can be key in this – especially specialist ‘by and for’ services.

These might crucially be women-only services – and services by and for particular minoritised communities.

Black and ethnic minoritised women are significantly more likely to be referred to services by voluntary sector agencies – and less likely to be referred by statutory sector agencies – than White British women[1].  When referrals are made by statutory agencies, Police are more likely to refer Asian Pakistani women, Housing more likely to refer Black African women and Social Services more likely to refer Asian Bangladeshi women. 

And Black and ethnic minoritised women are significantly more likely to access services run by the independent voluntary sector – especially women’s refuges – than White British women.  This might reflect different help-seeking patterns, as well as the availability and suitability of different services.  In terms of distance travelled, and length of time in support services, it is difficult to generalise about different ethnic groups as there is so much variety within groups.

There is more detail in a briefing paper from this research.

The differences and the similarities between women do show how vital the independent and specialist voluntary sector is for women’s domestic violence journeys.  So that all women can make the journeys they need and receive the support and understanding they deserve.


[1] Analysis by Janet C. Bowstead using data fromDepartment 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

There is always a way ahead

Women who have relocated due to domestic abuse talk about their multi-faceted journeys: emotional, practical and geographical journeys.  Often, during the journeys, they do not know what the next stage will be – or what they need to prepare themselves and their children to face.

Women in the creative groupwork for this research produced images and captions 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.

One of the participatory photography groups in London produced this poster of a path in a local park – leading to the blue sky and sunshine ahead.  The original image was then 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 always a way ahead

© Image by women who have relocated due to domestic abuse – from the research project “Women on the move: the journeyscapes of domestic violence”.  For further details see: https://www.womensjourneyscapes.net

Children on the move – what about their schooling?

After over a year of concern about the disruption to children’s schooling, it’s important to remember other issues that also affect children’s education – like their forced displacement due to domestic abuse[1].

If mothers can seek help and support without having to relocate – by staying put – then children may be able to stay at school, and stay in contact with friends, teachers and other support to help them deal with their experiences of abuse.  But this may not be possible.

Around half of the women accessing services due to domestic violence have children with them, and over two-thirds are forced to relocate to seek help.  Even if this is within the same local authority, children will often still have to change schools due to distance or safety concerns.


Though rates of help-seeking do vary somewhat during the year (see the graph below), with lower numbers in December, the patterns are very similar for women with and without children; and with school-age or pre-school children – as shown by the second graph below which shows the proportions through the year.

It’s clear that women often have very little choice about when and where they seek help – both because of the threat of the abuser, and the lack of service options.  This includes the fact that many mothers of school-age children cannot avoid relocating during term-time, and children often face a further wait to get into a new school – and still longer to settle and begin to catch up.

Tracy talks about how the disruption to schooling has affected her son:

It has all affected them so much; especially the older one – schoolwise.  And the way I was – he was really affected emotionally as well – seeing me crying and unhappy, and all these changes, and coming to a new place from the old place.

For my son – changing schools – you know, it confuses children from one place to another.  It’s like – he’s changed three times.

Tracy & son (age 12), daughter (age 3)

Mothers have to seek help when and where they can – so it’s clear that it is vital to support children to resettle.  They may be literally safe – especially if they go elsewhere – but needing support to get their lives back on track.  This will include both the practicalities of getting back into school, but also the wider support to undo the harm of a disrupted education.

[1] This is based on a presentation at the forthcoming RGS-IBG Annual Conference: https://www.rgs.org/research/annual-international-conference/