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…

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.

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.

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.

IDPs in the Global North: Women’s Journeys to Escape Domestic Violence

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement recognise that people forced to leave their homes become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

However, tens of thousands of women and children in the UK are displaced due to the human rights violation of violence against women, but they are not recognised or responded to as IDPs. Their individual and hidden journeys to escape violence cause support needs, and a loss of rights, but state and service responses are often inadequate.

What does that say about women’s citizenship in countries of the Global North?

And would using the lens of internal displacement focus minds and actions on more just, effective, and rights-based responses?

A blog post for Researching Internal Displacement discusses the issues and implications of under-recognising women’s displacement in countries of the Global North.

Steps to a new life

The journeys of women and children away from violence and abuse are both practical and emotional.

Journeys may include steps forward – and steps back… Times when you feel that you are really moving; and other times when everything feels stuck.

Like any journey, it can help to know that others have travelled that route before you – it can be reassuring to hear their words of encouragement: to draw on the strength of their experiences.

The participatory creative work in this project provided time and space for women to communicate their experiences of forced relocation and tentative resettlement. 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 their steps to a new life. As women were still at risk from abusive partners, their photographs for public display could not be identifiable. So they looked down at their feet – their little steps forward – their careful steps: as Amy put it. They took photos of their children’s feet – thinking about their journeys together. Favour highlighted that she and her son had had to pack just two small knapsacks for their escape – leaving everything else behind.

But women also saw positives in their steps forward to safety and freedom. Sarah saw a better life ahead for her and her sons – full of love, wealth, and smiles all round – and saw in some cobbled paving the metaphor that there is a space for everyone in this world. Amy saw the traces she was leaving in her careful steps forward – like footprints in concrete – and that she had options and choices of where she and her son went. Kate looked up at the bright lights of Electric Avenue, and Daisy at the beautiful colours of a sunset over the sea.

They all saw steps forward to a new life – and wanted to communicate that to other women escaping abuse.

Images and captions by women on the move due to domestic abuse show their experiences and insights on ‘Steps to a new life’

Home is where…..?

Women on the move due to violence and abuse are home-less. They, and their children, are forced to leave the home they knew – and do not know when they will have a ‘home’ again.

‘Home’ can mean the four walls – somewhere to stay – but it can also mean much more: a sense of belonging, comfort, safety and happiness.

Sometimes, women on the move due to abuse will say that they can never imagine feeling truly at home again.

The participatory work in this project provided time and space for women to be creative – to communicate their experiences of forced relocation and tentative resettlement. Groups held in women’s refuges and a women’s centre were a temporary creative space – for women who would soon be on the move again.

This short video shows some of their images and captions about home: the temporary sense of ‘home’ in a women’s refuge, the mundane bits and bobs and rubbish of home, and moving into a new home. The images show home-making: beginning to lay out your things in a new place – like Qiana’s perfumes – and creating a space of wellbeing – whether by scented candles, a relaxing bath, traditional home-made food, or symbols of belief and religion. As Marita says – a home is somewhere where you can “Make some noise!”

Images and captions by women on the move due to domestic abuse show their experiences and insights on ‘home’

Women’s creativity on the move

When women and their children are forced to relocate due to domestic abuse their lives and energy are taken over by all the practicalities and emotions involved.

It’s hard to make space or time for anything else.

And yet, women on the move still have their hopes and dreams, their hard-won knowledge, and their ideas and insights. And they want – and deserve – to be heard.

The participatory work in this project provided time and space for women to be creative – to communicate their experiences of forced relocation and tentative resettlement. Groups held in women’s refuges and a women’s centre were a temporary creative space – for women who would soon be on the move again.

And yet they could explore their creativity – even as they remained on the move: not knowing when they would have to relocate again.

Images and captions from their creativity are featured in the report from this research, and also as an example in a new article[1] on creative practice and mobilities. The article includes recognition of sensory experiences, material objects, landscape and place, as well as the importance of co-production and participation and the role of creativity in making issues and ideas public.

Creative practice goes beyond text and words, and enables ongoing communication of mobile lives, even when the individuals themselves may have moved on.


[1] Kaya Barry, Jen Southern, Tess Baxter, Suzy Blondin, Clare Booker, Janet Bowstead, Carly Butler, Rod Dillon, Nick Ferguson, Gudrun Filipska, Michael Hieslmair, Lucy Hunt, Aleksandra Ianchenko, Pia Johnson, Jondi Keane, Martin K. Koszolko, Clare Qualmann, Charlie Rumsby, Catarina Sales Oliveira, Max Schleser, Stephanie Sodero, Aryana Soliz, Louise Ann Wilson, Heidi Wood & Michael Zinganel (2022): An agenda for creative practice in the new mobilities paradigm, Mobilities, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2022.2136996