Women come into refuge because they need a safe place to stay. They come from all different walks of life, often with very few belongings, and stay for varying lengths of time. Some women stay untill they are suitably rehoused, and some women choose after a short (or long) period to go back to their homes and partners. That is their choice and they receive no judgement from us. We simply let them know that our doors are always open if they ever need to come back. It actually takes a woman seven attempts on average to leave an abusive relationship before finally making the break for good, which is hardly surprising when you consider that she must often leave behind friends, family, her home, her possessions and pets, in order to move somewhere where she will not be found and harassed by her ex-partner. Many women do continue to endure harassment and abuse even after they have left their relationship. Two women every week are murdered in Britain by their partners or ex-partners, and the first three months after she has left (aswell as during pregnancy when she is three times more likely to be assaulted) are widely recognised as being the most dangerous and vulnerable time for a woman.
It is a popular misconception that domestic abuse simply means physical violence. It is in fact an umbrella term for many different sorts of behaviours that abusive people will sometimes use to control and bully their partners, including:
Financial abuse: eg Controlling all the money and denying the partner access to funds. Racking up debts in the partners name. Making the partner solely responsible financially while spending irresponsibly themselves.
Isolation: eg Stopping or reducing contact with family and friends. Deliberately moving the partner somewhere where they don't know anybody. Preventing them from having a job or attending college. Stopping or making it difficult for the partner to go out.
Emotional and psychological abuse: eg Constantly putting the partner down. Calling them names. Making them feel stupid and incompetent. Monitoring phone calls and checking up on them. Threatening suicide if the partner leaves. Telling them that nobody else would ever want them.
Women do not necessarily have to be experiencing physical violence to be suffering from domestic abuse. Many perpetrators are able to achieve the domination and control that they desire over their partners by using some or all of the tactics listed above, although it is by no means an exhaustive list. Of course these tactics can also sometimes be a precursor to physical violence, especially if the perpetrator begins to feel that they are no longer having the desired effect on their own.
The effects of domestic abuse can be devastating. The effects of emotional abuse can be particularly pernicious. Loss of self-worth and confidence in ones abilities, destroyed self-esteem and a real difficulty in making ones own decisions being just the tip of the ice-berg. Women who have also been physically and/or sexually abused by their partners can often be left deeply traumatised. Post traumatic stress disorder as a result of having lived in an almost constant state of fear over a period of time - often years - is common, as are panic attacks, flashbacks, extreme anxiety and depression, and addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol (women often turning to these substances in a desperate attempt to somehow cope with what is going on at home.)
As a result of the effects of domestic abuse some women are already on sickness benefit when they first come into refuge, or sometimes (I am not - let me be clear - suggesting that this is always the case) they need to apply for it when they arrive. It's not actually called sickness or incapacity benefit anymore - it's called Employment Support Allowance or ESA, but is still much the same thing in terms of being a benefit that is paid to anyone who is considered to be unfit for work due to ill-health. There has been a huge government led drive recently to lower the numbers of people receiving ESA, with doctors being discouraged from giving their patients sick-notes and instead being told to write reports about what their patients can rather than can't do. Now please don't get me wrong; I am all for empowering people to improve their lives by getting back into the workforce if they are able, and I'd be the first to agree that long term unemployment can sometimes have its own negative effects on mental health. But the problem with this new approach is that it does not discriminate. Vulnerable people who are perfectly entitled to receive ESA are having their benefits suddenly stopped or their claims turned down, left right and centre. The only option for them is to appeal the decision - a lengthy process that involves filling in endless complicated paperwork, and submitting to an examination and interview conducted by a doctor who is specifically employed by the department for work and pensions. The irony of course is that it is all so stressful, it often has the effect of setting people who suffer with anxiety or mental health issues further back, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to return to work in the near future.
In recent months I have seen women whose appeals have also been turned down despite them having produced letters of support from their G.P's confirming that they are at present entirely unfit for work, and despite them having produced letters of support from us and even sometimes social services and police liaison officers, explaining what they have gone through and that they are now living in a refuge and are technically homeless. Despite all this they have still been forced to go over it all again with a strange and sometimes hostile doctor who has then gone on to pronounce them fit for work.
It is a scandal. One which makes me furious, and which can only get worse under a conservative government. All we can do is watch and wait.
If you would like any information or support regarding domestic abuse, please click on the links below:
I have referred only to male perpetrators and female survivors in this piece because domestic abuse is recognised as a gender specific crime in which the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are male and the overwhelming majority of survivors, female. However women do sometimes abuse - both in the context of heterosexual relationships and in the context of same-sex relationships, and I think that it is important that that be acknowledged.