Steps forward to a better life

A picture can tell a powerful story – a way for women’s voices to be heard.

Women in the creative groupwork for this research produced images and captions –messages for other women they imagined making domestic violence journeys in the future – wanting to encourage and inspire them in their journeys from abuse to freedom. 

Their journeys had often been long – difficult – and they faced further relocation and uncertain futures.

Many of the image stories were about the small steps – but also about the sense of progress.

Sarah celebrated her new life with her two sons – safe away from the abuser – and recognised the steps forward they were taking. She emphasised that it was not just a new life…. but a better life for them all.

Steps forward to a better life, full of love, wealth and smiles all round

Steps forward to a better life, full of love, wealth and smiles all round © Sarah/Solace Women’s Aid/Janet Bowstead

Many more images and captions are in the report from this research.

You can’t walk over us no more

Women in the creative groupwork for this research produced images and captions for other women they imagined making domestic violence journeys in the future – wanting to encourage and inspire them in their journeys from abuse to freedom. 

Sarah celebrated her life with her two sons – safe away from the abuser.

When four becomes three!

She poignantly and powerfully combined her and her sons’ hands and shoes – showing how strong they were together now.

© Sarah/Solace Women’s Aid/Janet Bowstead

Her message to the abuser was:

You can’t walk over us no more

Her message to herself and her sons was:

We’re in power because 3 Beats 1

A picture can tell a powerful story – a way for women’s voices to be heard. Many more images and captions are in the report from this research.

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!

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.

Journeyscape or Journeybreak?

Domestic violence isn’t in any way a game, but it is important to use all kinds of ways to prompt discussion and thinking about the issues – and a new card ‘game’ aims to do just that. “Serious games” use the interactions and norms of games – from playing cards or board games to online gaming – to engage and inform in ways that other methods cannot.

Journeyscape or Journeybreak? is a card game about women and children’s journeys to escape domestic abuse. The game draws on the British Academy-funded research project “Women on the Move: the Journeyscapes of Domestic Violence” using examples of the pressure points women experience and the help or hindrance from people, policies, services and luck.

Relocation is only one possible strategy for women but tens of thousands of women and children relocate in the UK due to domestic abuse, often in multi-stage journeys over time and distance, and accessing a range of services and support. The game presents a simplified journey of multiple stages and stopping points, with the players gathering the points they need for the next stage, whilst also experiencing the ‘chance’ elements that can allow them to leap forward or fall back on their journey.

The examples of ‘chance’ – positive and negative – are taken from women’s accounts shared during the research, and the cards showcase women’s images from participatory photography groupwork carried out with Solace Women’s Aid. The cards are therefore an expression of women’s creativity and insights, and the game aims to highlight how journeys away from violence can be either stalled and thwarted by ‘journeybreaks’ or ‘journeyscaped’ by law, policy, services and support.

Journeyscape or Journeybreak? will be launched at the Social Research Association conference on 15th June 2023 in London. It is part of the “Please Do Touch” gallery – emphasising the importance of in-person interaction with each other and with material objects: the value of actually being able to touch…

Journeyscape or Journeybreak? is a game for 2-4 players and could be used by groups of professionals involved in responding to domestic abuse, as well as individuals who want to understand more about women and children’s journeys.

If you would like a set of cards, please make a donation to Solace Women’s Aid, and then use the contact form of this website to send your postal address.

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’