Rachel was five months pregnant when her husband beat her up and threatened her with a knife. Her case isn’t unusual; women are one-third more likely to experience domestic violence when they are pregnant. Rachel was so psychologically broken she was considering terminating the pregnancy and killing herself. She didn’t think she had any options. But when she left the house later that day, she fainted from the trauma and wound up in hospital, where she finally got the help she needed. In a government report released at the end of last year, it was revealed that the police receive 100 calls an hour related to domestic abuse and that recorded cases were up, with a staggering 31% increase between 2013 and 2015. "While both men and women can be victims of domestic abuse," reads the report, "women are more likely to be victims than men, with 8.5% of women and 4.5% of men having experienced domestic abuse." At its most shocking, the report declared that two women every week in the UK are killed by a partner or ex-partner.
In recent months, charities have warned they are struggling to cope with demand. The charity Refuge, which opened its first home for victims of domestic violence over 40 years ago, says domestic violence is at “epidemic levels”. In December, it launched a campaign called #givethemrefuge to highlight the need for refuge funding. Last year, according to Women's Aid, one-third of all people who turned up at a refuge for help were turned away. Among those are many children. In 75% to 90% of incidents of domestic violence, children are in the same or next room.
Domestic violence is at “epidemic levels”
“The main issue is that local frontline services are being cut,” Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of the charity Women’s Aid told me. “This year has to be the year we get a settlement for refuges and protection for frontline services that support victims.” The problem is that Local Authorities are responsible for providing services for victims of domestic violence, and as their budgets have shrunk under Cameron’s government, anything that isn’t seen as “essential” is having funding cut. It leaves charities at the whim of foundations and bodies like the Big Lottery for funding. It’s an unpredictable way to deal with a problem that is entirely predictable and costs the economy an estimated £15 billion a year in hospital stays, lost working days and care proceedings. “Many Local Authorities have a poor understanding of domestic violence and the services needed,” Polly said. The organisation that supported Rachel was called Advance. It works across West London, placing experienced workers in the places where victims are most likely to turn up, like maternity wards and police stations. Plugged into local services, they help to create the opportunity for a woman to escape her abuser. Anna Smith is the organisation’s Chief Executive. She believes there remains a huge problem supporting women to get out of abusive situations on a permanent basis. “We recently had a case where a woman died after 29 agencies were involved and they still didn’t save her. We need a coordinated community response, instead of the police dealing with an event on Saturday night and treating it as a one-off. We know it is unlikely to be a one-off.” The people I talked to agreed police attitudes had improved in recent years, but it was patchy. As Anna Smith pointed out: “It’s inconsistent. You can have a police force where the Superintendant worked alongside a domestic violence unit twenty years ago and is brilliant. In the next borough will be a force with a high turnover of young police staff who don’t how to deal with it.” Anna would like an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate in every police station. “It’s about professional confidence. If a woman says she’s being financially controlled, and volunteers information, can that officer help?" At its most basic, Anna told me frontline staff often don’t know the right questions to ask like, “Do you feel safe at home?” instead of the closed and too direct: “Have you experienced violence?"
“Coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse.”
Polly Neate, Chief Executive, Women's Aid
On the positive side, a huge breakthrough occurred in December with the addition of a law that finally sees partners who cause psychological harm through controlling behaviour punished by up to five years in prison. “It’s a landmark,” Polly Neate at Women’s Aid said. “Coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse.” She mentioned that previously victims and police officers felt a prosecution could not take place unless physical violence had occurred. It’s a law that would have been useful to 41-year-old Zoe. She was also pregnant when her husband first started shoving her around. She only divorced him after her parents intervened, having witnessed him with his hands around her throat, pushing her up against the playroom wall. By this time, he’d been controlling her mentally, financially and finally physically for eleven years. But Zoe believes it was the controlling behaviour that was most psychologically destructive. “It was a very gradual behavioural change. It started with emotional blackmail, then it was slamming things and throwing things,” she says. An early warning bell was when he used her name to buy expensive items without her knowledge. Later, she remembers discovering that he had been taking naked photos of her while she was sleeping, long after their intimate relationship had stopped. Despite the change in law, organisations in the domestic abuse field believe much more needs to be done not just to support women out of abusive situations but prevent it happening in the first place, and that starts at school age.
“We should be thinking about domestic violence as a national disgrace.”
Anna Smith, Chief Executive, Advance
“We are seeing an increase in domestic abuse among younger people. Young men are more disrespectful, and violence [is seen as] more acceptable,” said Anna Smith at Advance. “We’re not getting into the values of young men, we’re not doing enough.” But there is also concern that rising poverty levels in the UK are endangering women’s lives. “We’re looking at a situation where people are becoming poorer and poorer and those stresses increase violence. But this government is not interested in looking at this section of society,” Anna continued. “We should be thinking about domestic violence as a national disgrace.” Polly Neate at Women’s Aid said a knock-on problem of Cameron’s cuts was that victims of domestic abuse no longer had legal aid, so were representing themselves in the family courts over access to children. Only one in ten separating couples end up in the family courts, but around 70% of those involve domestic violence. Victims often end up being cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner, and the vast majority of men continue to receive access rights regardless. Sometimes they’re asked to attend a course to address their behaviour, but the access is normally not dependent on it, and so men frequently drop out. She wants the family court system to remember it is there to protect the rights of the child, not the father. What’s so angering about the cuts to funding, and the lack of will to solve the issue, is that a properly managed intervention can transform a woman’s life, and that of her children. It can propel her back into society. After Rachel was helped by Advance she got a home of her own, had her baby and is positive about the future. Zoe, after 22 years in the beauty industry, has enrolled in college to study law so that she can help other women escape abusive situations. Until there’s a commitment from all of us to banish domestic abuse for good, Zoe’s new skills are going to be in demand. As Polly Neate told me. “Ultimately we still have a culture that gives permission to men to treat women badly.”