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.”
it’s important to know that there are projects
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.” 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’.
 Virginia Woolf (1938) Three Guineas
Isolation is such a powerful tactic of abuse that many women experiencing domestic violence do not talk to anyone else about what’s happening. They often think that they’re the only one – that they are to blame for the abuse. Even friends and family may not see the abuse, and the abuser will often behave completely differently around them.
“When I started to talk to some close friends they were saying to me – oh, it’s not true, he’s such a lovely person, he’s look after you; when I see you with him he’s just lovely…”
– Anna – age 42, with an adult daughter. White Polish ethnic origin. Journey from private rented in London to rented social housing in a town in a rural area.
When women arrive at a domestic violence refuge, or another service where there are other women who have experienced abuse, the first contact with other survivors is often as important as any of the formal services.
“I was actually surprised! I was shocked because [laughs] – I didn’t think it would be like this! So that was a relief to me – that I had somewhere safe to go with my child. And I had somebody there to listen, without judging me; without looking for any other cause besides what I’m telling them – to understand where I’m coming from. It made me feel so at home and at peace – I cried – that was the first time I cried.”
– Gloria – age 41, with a 1 year old boy. Black African ethnic origin. Journey from private rented in a South Coast town to rented social housing in a town in a rural area.
Amidst any formal service provision – and professional practices such as risk assessments – it is important to value that contact between women. It is vital to enable women to meet each other – often the first contact when they will be believed by someone who understands.
“We’ve been through a lot together; and I feel it’s nice – I’ve met some good friends here [women’s refuge]; which weren’t my plan! I was like – I’ve come here and I’m not here to make friends and I’m not here to make enemies – but I have made friends, and I will keep in contact with them – definitely. It’s nice – and the kids have made really close friends.”
– Violet – age 35, with a 6 year old boy. White British ethnic origin. Journey from owner-occupied in London periphery to private rented in a town in a very rural area.
Many women have nowhere to go when they try to escape domestic abuse – if they try to get to specialist support services, like refuges, they can face a dangerous period of searching and waiting for help. Some are turned away from statutory services that should offer them help – including housing and social services – and they may also find refuges full, or unable to meet their needs.
The women and children who do get to formal support services have often already been on the move – staying in temporary arrangements such as with family or friends, or sleeping rough.
It was only after finally being able to get to a refuge that Cathy could reflect on the months of precarious stays with friends, on the street and returning to her abusive partner:
‘I didn’t want to go home; but I didn’t have anywhere to go. So some of the things I did was crazy – like sleeping in parks … what the hell was I thinking? Walking on streets in the early hours of the morning – two, three o’clock. I ask myself now – what was I doing?’ [Cathy – age 46 – no children]
Of those women who do manage to find a place in a support service, many are not moving directly from the abusive relationship, but are already on the move. In the period up to 2009, over 40% were previously in other temporary accommodation – half of these were staying with family or friends. Whilst this may indicate cramped living conditions, it may also indicate danger if a women is escaping a partner or husband who knows her so well.
I thought he’d always find me; and that he’d be violent towards my family if I did go – because I’ve tried many times before. And when the police came they said – ‘you can go back to your parents’; and I said to them – ‘no, there’s no way, because he always finds me’. [The police said] ‘You should go to a friend’ – but I said – ‘I don’t want to put this on any of my friends’. [Violet – age 35 with a 6 year old boy]
Research just published by Women’s Aid highlights this period of searching and waiting for women who need to relocate. Even with the intensive help of caseworkers, only a quarter of the women supported by the project were accommodated in a suitable refuge space; often after a period of 1-2 weeks or longer. Some slept rough whilst searching and waiting; and others stayed put with the abuser, and experienced further abuse and injuries. The conclusions are that women are being turned away and sent back to abuse when they seek help.
If you have been to a domestic violence refuge yourself, or you know someone who has, you may have a clear sense of what a ‘refuge’ is and the kind of help provided there. Similarly, if you work in public services – in housing, health, social work or the police, for example – you may be familiar with referring women and their children to a refuge. After all, there have been domestic violence refuges for women and children in the UK since the 1970s, and a recent presentation to the UN Human Rights Council described refuges (‘shelters’) as “survival tools which protect women whose lives are at risk” and “human rights obligations” “not optional extras”.
But many people have no idea that anyone would help them if they experience abuse – and have no idea what a domestic violence refuge is.
Cathy was from the UK but spent much of her adult life in the USA, so when she returned to the UK did not know about her options when her partner became violent.
‘I’d already made my decision years ago to go; but I always ended up going back – not because I liked him, but because I had nowhere to go.’
She didn’t find out about refuges from formal public information, but from a chance conversation while she was sleeping rough and keeping warm in a late-night restaurant.
‘I was in McDonald’s in Marble Arch, and I was just talking to a person in there – just a regular customer – and she said – why don’t you call the Domestic Violence shelter?’
When a Housing Officer told Gloria he would refer her and her baby to a refuge, he didn’t think to explain to her what a ‘refuge’ was.
‘I said ‘refuge’? I have no idea what you are talking about – explain to me what a refuge is – because I say to them – you’re sending me to prison? Did I commit something that I don’t understand?’
Many women and children are so isolated in an abusive relationship that they do not know about refuges. It’s vital for everyone to think about how they could ensure that women hear about refuges if they need them – think about having leaflets and the freephone number (0808 2000 247) available anywhere where a woman might first find out about her right to escape abuse.
 Press release 12 June 2017 ‘States must provide shelters as “survival tool” for women victims of violence – UN expert’ http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21724&LangID=E
Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session35/Pages/ListReports.aspx