Transport yourself to a better place

Women’s experiences and voices are vital in this research – their understandings and insights into their journeys. 

As part of the project, participatory photography was carried out with groups of women in three areas of London: two groups in women’s refuges where women would soon be on the move again, and one at a women’s centre with women who were beginning to resettle. 

Over weekly sessions, participants used their photography and captions to communicate their experiences, producing images, maps and collages for themselves, for the group, for display in women’s services, and for wider presentation through the research.

Transport yourself to a better place © Amy/Cordelia/Daisy/Marilyn/Solace Women’s Aid/Janet Bowstead

In this poster, women took the slogan from a London bus as a metaphor for their own journeys from abuse to freedom.  As a mixture of London-born women, and women who had come to London, they took many photographs of their journeys around London on public and private transport, documenting their growing confidence and familiarity with different routes. 

Within the groups they also shared knowledge of places and journeys – taking photographs and developing maps of useful locations and services for other women they imagined coming after them.  Whilst recognising what they had lost, women also focused on what they could take with them, and on sharing messages of strength and hope to reach other women they imagined making similar forced journeys.  Captions to the photographs included “There is always a ‘Way Out’!” and emphasising in the image of traffic lights that “all the lights are green!”  Through the groupwork, women explored their experiences of displacement and resettlement, and brought their individual images together into collages to show their collaboration.

More images from the groups are in a recently published book chapter – the book will be launched at a free online event on Wednesday 23rd June 2021 at 4pm (BST)[1]

Some of the posters were also part of an online exhibition at the Im/mobile Lives in Turbulent Times conference:


[1] http://itd.territorial-identity.ro/evenimente/

Essential journeys

Whilst the Government has made clear that anyone is allowed to leave home to “avoid or escape risk of injury or harm”[1], there is much else that is needed to make it possible for anyone to escape domestic abuse and get somewhere safe.  Let alone the practicalities and support needed in the longer term.

Just thinking about the journeys of escape – the essential journeys – when women and children need to escape domestic abuse, how do they actually travel?

Because the journeys are very secret, not much has been known; but a new article has just been published from this research about different means of transport[2].

Public transport is extremely important – especially for longer distances – as the graph shows; however two-thirds of the journey stages were by private transport.

And, in the sample of women interviewed for this research, the largest category of transport was the private car of friends or family. 

Figure 1. Journey segments by public, private and others’ means of transport

So – at this time – it is not just a problem of that initial escape due to:

  • Increased surveillance from the abuser at home
  • Risk of being questioned about how essential your journey is
  • Difficulty accessing over-stretched support services and refuges
  • Less public transport

It is also a problem that you cannot connect in the same way with others – friends and family – who could help you with both the actual journey, but also to plan how to make the journey safer and reduce the losses for you and your children. 

This might be the initial essential journey away from an abusive partner; but it will also be all the further literal and emotional stages of your journey after that first step. 

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do/coronavirus-outbreak-faqs-what-you-can-and-cant-do

[2] Bowstead Janet C. 2020. “Private violence/Private transport: the role of means of transport in women’s mobility to escape from domestic violence in England and Wales.” Mobilities, doi: 10.1080/17450101.2020.1750289 Available here:  Private violence/Private transport: the role of means of transport in women’s mobility to escape from domestic violence in England and Wales

Escape to the city?

When women experiencing abuse from a partner, husband or ex-partner need to escape, where do they go?  They are at risk from someone who knows a lot about them: the abuser knows their family, their friends, the places they used to live, are familiar with, or always talked about visiting.  For safety, they often have to go to the least-likely place – the place that the abuser would never think of – especially as an abuser may try and track them down.  They may not have had any time to plan, so have to go wherever they can travel to and wherever they can find somewhere to stay.

So we might expect a strong flow of women to major urban areas – an ‘escape to the city’ – away from rural areas where there are limited support services and less public transport, and away from small towns where women might fear being more easily noticed as a newcomer, and easier to track down.  Public transport routes are generally cheaper and easier on the main routes into major urban areas, and more difficult, costly and infrequent in more rural areas.

However, analysis of six years’ of administrative data for England[1] shows the opposite: it is not that there are strong flows along transport routes, or to services in larger urban areas. In fact, major cities are consistently places of net leaving due to domestic violence; with more women and children leaving each year to services elsewhere in the country, than the number who arrive to access services in the city.  London has more women leaving every year due to domestic violence than the number who travel to London to access services, and the same is true of cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne.  It is not an escape to the city after all.

[1]  Bowstead JC. 2015a. Forced migration in the United Kingdom: women’s journeys to escape domestic violence. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40: 307–320 DOI: 10.1111/tran.12085

Bowstead JC. 2015b. Why women’s domestic violence refuges are not local services. Critical Social Policy 35: 327–349 DOI: 10.1177/0261018315588894