Older women escaping abuse – similarities and differences

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.

But it can be useful to generalise – to some extent – to recognise shared experiences and similarities and differences.  Especially if it is clear that particular groups of women are less likely to use particular types of services – or less likely to seek formal help (or more likely to be turned away if they do).

Older women can often seem to be missing from the experiences of service providers.  Older women do access services – the oldest in the data used in this research was 102.  But older women do seek formal service help in lower numbers.

They also are more likely to have additional needs and barriers:

  • More likely to have physical health problems
  • More likely to have mental health problems
  • More likely to be disabled

And some of these issues may be due to experiencing years of abuse.

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

Some older women will have been experiencing abuse for a very long time before seeking help – like Elizabeth in this research, who planned to leave when her son was independent – and she did when her son left home for university:

“I just thought – I can’t take it any longer.  You know – I’ve stood it for twenty-three years for my son.”

Many older women will not have legally-dependent children, but that is not to say that their children’s needs and concerns don’t continue to affect them, and give ongoing opportunities for the abuser to continue to control the situation.  As Elizabeth said:

“I couldn’t go to my son’s graduation – which upset me in a way; but then, that was my choice, because I didn’t want to see him [husband].  I couldn’t bear to see him.  I’ve seen some of the pictures – that are on the internet – of my husband; and I just had to turn away when I saw him, because it sends the shivers up my spine.”

Though older women may relocate to a refuge, like Elizabeth did; they are significantly more likely to stay put when they seek help, and less likely to go to a different local authority.  But when they do go elsewhere, there is no significant difference from younger women in the average distance travelled.

Older women should not be assumed to be more dependent and needy – in fact, they are more likely to self-refer to services than younger women.   But they are also more likely to have longer engagement with services – being significantly more likely to stay in a service for 9 months or more.  There are only a few services which specifically respond to the needs of older women – like The Silver Project – and there is a toolkit to help professionals improve their responses so older women have a real chance of freedom.

Elizabeth said:

“I knew I was making the right move.  I was worried about my son obviously; and I was worried about the future.  But I thought – it can’t be as bad as what I’m leaving” “ I feel so much better in myself now – than I have done in years; it’s been a great weight off my shoulders.”

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/

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

Part of the family

When you need to relocate because of domestic abuse there can be so many losses – from your sense of home to your personal possessions, from your career progression to your comfy sofa, from your favourite corner shop to your children’s friends.

You take what you can with you.

Maybe you can store some furniture, books, toys until you get somewhere settled.

It all depends on how you have to leave – whether the abuser will notice any plans you make, anything you try to do to prepare.  And it all depends on what kind of help and support you get – practical, financial, emotional…

You do what you can to keep your family safe and away from the abuser.

Pets are part of your family, and often a big concern for women and children – animals pick up on the threat and abuse, and may be at risk from the abuser: either from living in the situation, or deliberately targeted.

You don’t want to leave them behind when you go.

Maud left her cat with friends when she escaped abuse, but felt so anxious about him

“So I’ve got that stress – and he’s my daughter’s baby; so I’m worried.  I actually dreamt about him last night – he’d got one eye and lost a leg; like he’s been attacked – honestly, it’s so.”

So it’s important to know that there are projects[1] that can foster your cats and dogs whilst you are escaping the violence – keep them safe and cared for until you can have them back.  It means one less loss for you – and keeps your pets as part of the family as you start again.


[1] https://www.cats.org.uk/what-we-do/paws-protect

https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/hope-project-freedom-project/freedom-project

A picture can tell…

a thousand words!

A recent exhibition for International Women’s Day (8th March) featured images from the participatory groupwork of this research project.

Whilst women themselves may not be safe enough to speak at public events about their experiences and their hard-won wisdom – their images and captions can speak volumes:

  • Cheers to new beginnings – New friends, New life, New start
  • You can’t walk over us no more. We’re in power because 3 Beats 1
  • What could be more important in life than your children? – my absolute everything!
  • From Fear to Hope – How quickly life changes from black and white to colour!
  • There is always a way ahead
  • We are powerful!
  • Different pieces can complete a puzzle. Everyone has a space somewhere
  • Just wanted to share how I feel… and it’s freedom!


It’s not just about the moving

This research focuses on the journeys women and children are forced to make because of domestic violence.  But it’s not just about the moving itself.

It’s not that either moving or not moving is the solution – it’s about the force and control over any movement.

An abuser will often try and control a woman’s mobility – where she goes, what she does – and expect her to account for her every movement.

Anna was constantly questioned by her partner about her journeys to and from work:

“It was – where have you been…  Because from my work it was possible for me to walk or to go by bus […]  It was – oh, why did you prefer to walk?  Did you meet someone?  I just feel like I want to walk.  No – why are you fifteen minutes late?

In an abusive relationship, a woman can feel imprisoned by such surveillance – and it can be really effective in ensuring that she cannot go anywhere on her own – or seek any help.

But it can also be that an abuser uses moving around as another way to imprison and isolate.  During the course of her marriage, Violet’s husband insisted on them moving house to somewhere she didn’t want to go:

I was moved furthest – furthest away from my parents, my friends – so really really remote spot.  If he’d take my car then there was nowhere even to go to a shop in walking distance – it was too far.  So I felt really isolated.”

So it’s not just about moving or not moving – it’s about who initiates the moves, and who is in control.

Going back?

In the isolation of an abusive relationship, it can be impossible to know what your options are.  Often you need to leave to access the support and information from specialist services so that you can decide what you want to do.

Even if women ‘go back’ – in some sense – they are actually going forward with greater information.  If they have received support and information on their rights, they will be going with greater confidence in themselves and their options.

I’m really glad I came here [refuge] and did it – even if I’m going to be going back…  It’s been good for me, good for the kids – good for my husband.  He came to his senses.  And I came to appreciate myself now – and what I can do for myself….  I’m still the same self – I’m just little more wiser.  Yes – I’m wiser now. [Faith]

It was only because of contacting a refuge that Faith found out about different options for her and her children.

I know when something’s going wrong – I know what to do when something’s going wrong.  I know to say something – to say what’s happening; to say when I don’t like it – when it’s not right.  And I know to go somewhere to get a solution.

Her husband participated in a Respect-accredited perpetrator programme and she was reassured that he was changing his attitudes and behaviour.  She also knew that the programme workers would pass on any concerns.

They’ll let me know if there’s anything I need to know …  It will just be his progress, or if there was anything that needed to be said – anything bad or negative – they would have to let me know.

So, though she talked about ‘going back’ she really felt that it was a new start, and that her family would support her if she needed to leave again.

If it went bad again, that would be it – that would be final.  It would show to me that he would not change; and then I would have to face reality – you cannot live in denial.  If it happens again then that would be final.

And it’s good that the family is involved so that they know that I gave him another opportunity – they know that I tried, but he didn’t change.  I believe that my family would support me in that.

She felt that she was now in much more control.

It’s almost like we’re dating again – I’m seeing what he’s like.  I don’t want to go back in just like that.  I want to get to know him again – I’m studying him…  I want to see if he had really changed – and good changes.

Staying Put

It is commonly said that women and children experiencing domestic violence should be able to ‘stay put’.  That it should be the perpetrators of abuse who have their lives disrupted – that it should be them who have to move out or be held to account.  That it should be the perpetrators who have to make the journeys.

That may be true.

However, that would be all the more reason that – as a society – we need women’s refuges all around the country for women and their children to escape to.

Why?

Because an option to stay put is only an option if there would be the possibility to escape.  It is only a choice to stay put if there is somewhere to go to if you need to escape – in the short or long term.  If there is nowhere safe, non-judgemental and supportive to escape to, then you are not ‘staying put’, you are stuck.  You are not choosing to stay put – you are imprisoned in the location of the abuse.

There needs to be both options – staying put and leaving – so that women know that they can get all kinds of help.

“I wish I had the voice to cry out to the world – do not keep quiet; if you fear something is not right with your partner – or whoever is abusing you; if you feel the signs of abuse – talk to somebody.”                    Gloria

Imagined community – Real belonging

In all the talk of strong communities, united communities, struggling communities, the [insert a term of your choosing] community, there remains a real question of where women escaping domestic violence can find a sense of community.  If the actions of her abusive partner or husband have forced her out of her locality, has he also forced her out of her community – her friends, family, her sense of belonging and shared culture?

Can she join a new community?

Even if women experiencing domestic abuse stay put, they can be entirely isolated from their supposed community – unable to tell anyone what is happening, unable to feel at home.

In the 1930s, Virginia Woolf wrote, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”[1] and maybe that points to the potential for women to share experiences – and a sense of belonging – across all kinds of borders.  The potential to cut across isolation and build strong communities of shared experiences.

Women who escape domestic violence and meet other women who have experienced abuse talk about how they begin to make connections:

I find that [isolation] odd; because you think you’re the only one that’s experiencing it… but it’s millions of women – each sitting there thinking – what have I done wrong now? And you haven’t. I was totally amazed.

[Elizabeth – age 56, of White British ethnic origin with an adult son. Living in a rural village in Southern England at the time.]

 

I’ve made a lot of friends; a lot, a lot of good good friends – like sisters in all this.   

[Julien Rosa – age 24, of Black African ethnic origin with sons aged 7 and 3. Living in a small town in Southern England at the time.]

As well as such real support – a sense of friendship, community and belonging – women imagine themselves as part of a community of women who have experienced abuse; both the actual community of women and children they had met, but also a community outside, and in the future.  They imagine back to a shared homeland of being an abused woman, but also forward to an imagined community they had not intended to be a member of, but had found as a positive outcome in their journeys away from abuse. Their messages to other women are:

Don’t feel TRAPPED!!’

‘good luck to new women who come here!’

‘Help is at hand’.

[1] Virginia Woolf (1938) Three Guineas