Safety isn’t Static

At every twist and turn of women’s journeys away from abuse they are balancing the threats and risks against them with their own needs and plans and options.  It is a constantly changing assessment, as she tries to assess what she needs and wants, against what she can find to help her.

Meanwhile, as she interacts with services and professionals, they may be carrying out formal assessments of her — and her children’s — safety and other needs.

However, current “Risk Assessment” tools are often not dynamic enough to deal with all these moving parts.

One aspect that is often under-recognised by service assessments and responses is how women’s location strategies — whether she is trying to stay put, remain local or go elsewhere — interact with their needs.  The diagram below shows how levels of key needs for safety, wellbeing and resettlement vary according to the strategies women use.

Wellbeing is a constant need—women and children’s wellbeing will have been harmed by the abuse, and can be rebuilt by their own emotional labour, and supported by peer and specialist support in different contexts.

Other needs, however, interact strongly with the strategy a woman is attempting at any one time. If she is attempting to Stay Put, her safety needs will be very high, but her resettlement needs are low, as she and her children are staying in a familiar place. However, if she goes to an unknown and maybe distant place, her safety needs are massively reduced (and she will become ineligible for any risk-based support services) but her resettlement needs are greatly increased as she is literally safe but deeply displaced in a new area.

This shows the folly and injustice of eligibility criteria based solely on assessing level of risk—excluding women and children who are most in need of resettlement support.  Women’s and children’s recovery will therefore take so much longer, with all the personal and economic costs, if they are left literally safe but isolated and stuck in terms of moving on from the abuse.

The interplay of different needs and strategies indicates the importance of holistic and dynamic responses to domestic violence, which build on women’s own responses and rights.  A new open-access article published from this research includes much more detail[1].


[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/

Women’s struggle to be free

Women and children’s journeys to escape abuse are often complex and multi-stage.  From initially staying put, both the behaviour of the abuser and the support (or lack of support) of services and authorities may then force relocation.

Women’s help-seeking strategies may mean that they get the support and protection they need – involving a range of different services – or they might encounter closed doors, judgement and prejudice, lack of belief, misunderstanding, and service responses that make things worse.

This conference presentation video outlines the individuality of women’s domestic violence journey trajectories – as women try to get themselves and their children to a life free from abuse.

Video of conference presentation showing journey-graphs of women’s help-seeking strategies due to domestic violence revealing unique trajectories and ongoing housing insecurity.

The ongoing displacement is striking – both practically and emotionally – as is shown by the example of housing tenure, and ongoing housing insecurity.

These individual examples are taken from tens of thousands of domestic violence journeys – known and unknown to services and the state – and highlight the responsibilities on the state and those services to respond better: to journeyscape:

  • Through effective policies, laws, professional practice, and awareness
  • To build the infrastructure and map the terrain
  • To minimise the losses so women and children retain their rights and status
  • But not to determine the route that any woman takes

The principle should be that women – and their children – go as far as they need / stay as near as they can; and have a right to a life free from abuse.

Christmas is a time for families

Women experiencing domestic violence seek help all year round; whether it is advice and support to be able to stay put; or relocating to access services locally or further away.

Many factors affect the timing of seeking help.

Individual women may seek help at a time of extreme danger – or at a time of opportunity: it may be when a woman hears about support services or refuges, or is encouraged to believe that someone will help her.

Women are often not just seeking help for themselves – over half the women accessing services over an eight year period in England had children with them[1].

Women may or may not have an option about when and where to seek help – and if they try and access a service they may not find any space at a refuge, or may be put on a waiting list for an advice and support worker.

However, there is one clear pattern in women’s help-seeking month by month:


Whether women are staying put and seeking support, remaining local within the same Local Authority area, or travelling across boundaries to go elsewhere, the numbers dip in December.

Christmas in the UK is often celebrated as a time for families – with the restrictions this year being highlighted as preventing the kind of December that so many people expect. 

However, help-seeking due to violence and abuse highlights another side of many women and children’s experiences in families – with December as a time of not wanting or not being able to seek help; and January as a time of reaching out or relocating for support.

Even so, thousands of women and children will be seeking help in December – with thousands more to come in January.

[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

Night or Day I can go where I want

Women who have relocated due to domestic abuse talk about escaping from the abuser’s control and being able to make their own choices and decisions – in major issues, and in the day-to-day.

One of the participatory photography groups in London produced this poster collage of their local walks.

© 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: www.womensjourneyscapes.net

Displaced by Human Rights violations

Violence against women is recognised internationally as a human rights violation:

“the elimination of violence against women in public and private life is a human rights obligation” – “this form of violence impedes the ability of women and girls to claim, realize and enjoy their human rights on an equal foot with men”[1]

And human rights violations are one of the recognised causes of displacement – whether internationally (leading to refugees) or within countries (leading to Internally Displaced Persons – IDPs).

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs publishes the “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”, highlighting the distinctive issues around internal displacement:

“Unlike refugees, the internally displaced have not left the country whose citizens they normally are.  As such, they remain entitled to the same rights that all other persons in their country enjoy.  They do, however, have special needs by virtue of their displacement.”[2]

The UNOCHA specifically lists human rights violations as one of the causes of internal displacement:

“The reasons for flight may vary and include armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, and natural or human-made disasters.”  

So, it is clear that internal displacement due to violence against women is within these definitions.  That forced displacement of women and children due to domestic violence creates internally displaced persons (IDPs).

But, time and again, the focus of data and action on Internal Displacement is only on the other causes – armed conflict, generalised violence, natural or human-made disasters.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre collects and maps data on displacement events – but the categories of the map are only Conflict, Disaster and Development.

The map for the last 30 days only shows events caused by Conflict or Disaster:

https://www.internal-displacement.org/

The map for the last 90 days also shows a few displacements caused by Development:

https://www.internal-displacement.org/

But there is no mapping here of human rights violations causing displacement.

The UK shows some Disaster displacement – and current news reports are full of people being forced from their homes due to flooding.  But there is no mention of the tens of thousands of women and children forced from their homes due to domestic violence – the tens of thousands of domestic violence IDPs in the UK.

[1] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/Pages/VaW.aspx

[2] Handbook for applying the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1999, p. 5) http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/idps/50f94df59/handbook-applying-guiding-principles-internal-displacement-ocha-november.html

Forced to move ─ Forced to stay

There’s always talk that women and children shouldn’t have to relocate due to abuse:

“Why should she have to move?”

Of course she shouldn’t…

It would be better if we lived in a society where women and children didn’t experience violence in the family ─ if perpetrators were swiftly and effectively permanently stopped from being abusive. 

Abuse can be physical ─ but it can also be emotional, psychological, financial…  In the context of an intimate relationship, there are so many ways that an abuser can control you: can get into your head, as well as your heart.  It can take a long time to recognise this ─ to realise how much you are only doing what he wants you to do: how you have become so used to living in fear.  If anyone asked you about the “latest incident”, it would be impossible to define what an incident is within your constrained life.

Even if the perpetrator disappeared, it could take months and years to rebuild your sense of self; and to help your children learn what healthy relationships look and feel like.

There is a big difference between being just literally safe, and being in a context where you can feel free in your mind and your emotions.

Escaping ─ relocating ─ leaving ─ moving…

These are strategies that can be vital for immediate safety (because we are very far from living in a society that holds domestic violence perpetrators accountable and stops them continuing their abuse); but also for women and children to rebuild their sense of self, independence and freedom.  To be in a place and amongst people who help you to make sense of the abuse in all its aspects ─ not just physical incidents ─ and to accept that you are not to blame.

So moving can be a crucial strategy ─ for safety and freedom.  Getting away from the danger ─ but also from the constraints and memories.  Meeting other women who have been through similar experiences.  Clearing your head ─ and getting information and advice for your next move: whether that move is geographical or emotional (or both).

It shouldn’t be for anyone else to force you to move ─ or to force you to stay.

We need a society where all options are really available for women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Women’s Rights are Human Rights?

It shouldn’t be too controversial a statement to highlight that violence against women is not just an individual problem – causing fear, harm, injury – but a human rights violation.  A violation that does not just harm the individual woman, but harms society, community, nation and humanity – every time that abuse is not responded to with justice. 

Violence against women does not just need a response from welfare services to individuals; it needs a response from justice services in the widest sense.  It needs a willingness to tackle the causes as well as the consequences of the abuse.

That is the thinking about linking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25th November) with International Human Rights Day on the 10th December via the internationally-recognised “16 days of activism” each year[1].

At the international level, the United Nations highlights that “violence against women has come to be recognized as a violation of women’s human rights and a form of gender-based discrimination”; and the latest report[2] from the  Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences details the international legal framework on women’s human rights and violence against women.

But you will struggle to find much recognition of women’s rights as human rights in the priorities of the UK Parliament.  During the Second Reading of the Domestic Violence Bill on 2nd October 2019[3] only three MPs mentioned human rights:

  • Conservative MP Theresa May talked about an individual abuser controlling a woman “until that individual’s rights as an individual human being were taken away from them.”
  • SNP MP Angela Crawley highlighted that “should the Bill fail adequately to promote equality, including for those with insecure immigration status, it would risk violating our existing human rights obligations.”
  • Labour MP Debbie Abrahams focused on public services for both men and women stating “That needs to be a human rights approach, and those services need to be adequately funded.”

A human rights approach requires a less piecemeal approach.  It can’t be an afterthought or add-on.  It needs to go beyond a brief statement[4] on the Domestic Violence Bill by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid that “In my view the provisions of the Domestic Abuse Bill are compatible with the Convention[5] rights.”

As the Special Rapporteur [2] states “At present, at the international normative level, the right of women to be free from violence is recognized as an international human rights standard but, in practice, gender-based violence against women and girls continues to be tolerated and has become normalized in many societies.”


[1] https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/take-action/16-days-of-activism

[2] UN Human Rights Council. 2019. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. A/HRC/41/42. UN Human Rights Council. http://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/42

[3] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-10-02/debates/C3488538-CFEC-4670-9299-732672E2BE67/DomesticAbuseBill

[4] https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2017-19/domesticabuse/documents.html

[5] European Convention on Human Rights. https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf

An infrastructure for women’s human rights

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[1] 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.




[1] 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

What if you do not escape?

It is a chilling fact that women are most at risk from men they know.  Three-quarters of women killed by men in the UK last year were killed by someone they knew[1].

Many of the killings were in the context of domestic violence – 64 women were killed by a current or former intimate partner.

The women who died include those who were not able to escape the abuser, as well as those who were tracked down after trying to get somewhere safe.  Many were killed by a former partner in the first few months after separation.

These should not be seen as private or isolated incidents – the ‘Femicide Census Report’ highlights similar patterns in cases across the country – and similar possible ways to prevent future killings.

It is clear that it is vital that women can find somewhere safe and supportive to escape to[2].

 

[1] Most of those killed by a stranger were killed in a terrorist attack.

[2] Support is available via the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247