From the front lines

One in four women experience domestic violence during their lifetime. Ella Alexander spent a day at a women's refuge learning about the human toll of a crime so common it is no longer considered newsworthy

Ella Alexander, 19 October 2008

Sitting in her office in Canterbury, Janet Thomas, manager of the city's Women's Refuge, doesn't hold back about the scale of the domestic violence problem. "Two women a week are murdered by their partners and the media still fails to recognize this as domestic violence. They report it as a one-off tragic incident, when the reality is it's often the culmination of months, perhaps years, of physical and emotional abuse. People still don't understand what domestic violence is let alone how broad it is. We see wives of policemen, GPs, social workers and teachers. One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, one in four women live in fear and still people ignore the signs."

Statistics like these are not hard to come by. Domestic violence accounts for between 16% and one quarter of all recorded violent crime. Ten suicides are ascribed to it per week. Its cost on society is huge. In London alone, an estimated £278 million is spent per year on domestic violence.

It's like having your own private terrorist living with you

Alice Todd's* ex-partner began abusing her when she fell pregnant, something Thomas explains by the perpetrator feeling threatened by the child. Alice describes: "As soon as we got together everything happened very quickly. We moved in not long after and within four or five months I fell pregnant, and that was when things started to go wrong. He broke my ribs and jumped on my back which I still have problems with now. He would throw pepper in my eyes; that was another one. Then there was sleep deprivation - he'd stop me from sleeping. He'd keep me awake and question me like the Gestapo. He'd tell me I was a slut. He was jealous of the son I'd had from a previous relationship and wouldn't allow us to eat the food from the cupboard."

Alice's partner was never violent when the relationship began. Thomas says this is often the case. "At the start of the relationship the men are always very nice," she describes. "They buy women new phones, ask them to stay in with them and many women like that because they feel protected, but its not long before that protectiveness turns into possessiveness which then leads to imprisonment. They don't realise that the mobile he bought her was a way of keeping a tabs on where she is, that making her stay in was a way of alienating her from friends, of controlling her."

Before long Alice's abuser was punching the walls, part of a pattern of mental and physical abuse. "When I went out he would move things around the house to make me think I was going mad. Then he started throwing things at me, pieces of wood, anything he could get his hands on. He said he'd never behaved like this before and that it was my fault, that I'd driven him to this. If I hadn't said this or done that he wouldn't have to be like this. It's like having your own private terrorist living with you. You're groomed, made to feel special then torn apart."

Alice is certain the abuse caused the death of her son. "I gave birth prematurely because of the stress, and he didn't make it. The worst thing he [her partner] ever did happened the night before the funeral. Usually he didn't care whether I had a black eyes or my head was like an elephant woman's but that night he was very conniving. He beat me so no one would be able to see the bruises. He dragged me around by my hair then poured an ash tray over it. It was so matted. I couldn't wash it because my head was so swollen from the beating so I had to leave it in there. I had to sit all he way through my son's funeral hoping to God I didn't have any fag butts in my hair. I couldn't concentrate at all, I couldn't stop thinking about how everyone would think I was a bad mother. He just said I was a barren bitch who couldn't give him live children."

It's heartbreaking when women do return but we're not here to dictate or tell people what to do, we're here to offer support

The refuge offered Alice a chance to be set free. "Towards the end he started taking heroin and I told him I wanted him to leave but he refused, telling me that if I left he'd tell everyone I was taking his drugs and get the children taken into care. So I took the kids to the social services, told them to look after them and when I got back I was going to kill myself. Then they offered me Refuge and I had no idea they even existed. I said yes immediately and came to Canterbury. It was the best thing I have ever done."

Today Alice lives in Kent with her two children. "I am so much happier now. The refuge helped me to do an art course and that really helped. I met lots of lovely people there. I remember one old man that used to live near me and he asked me one day 'Why do you always walk with your head down? You look like you want to make yourself invisible.' I'd never really thought about it and from that point onwards I made a conscious effort to hold my head high."

Stories like Alice's are no longer a rarity. Clare Sumner, a support worker for the refuge believes the myths surrounding domestic violence prevent the issue from being treated as seriously as it should be. "People often ask why women often return to their abusive partners. It's important for us to realise how difficult is for victims to leave and how good perpetrators are at manipulating and controlling women. Sometimes the children want to go back and see their dad, and that allows the abuse to continue through contact. Often with older children they want their dad because their dad was the strong person in the house.

"Despite the fact he was the abuser, they still feel he was the strong person in that family. They get moved to the refuge and think mum's useless - she's mad, she's crying all the time. They can't depend on her anymore. It's heartbreaking when women do return but we're not here to dictate or tell people what to do, we're here to offer support."

The impact of domestic violence on children is an issue rarely addressed. In 90% of cases children are in the room when their father subjects their mother to physical or verbal abuse and the effects his has on children are all too apparent.

Instead of asking 'why won't she leave?', why not 'why doesn't he stop hitting her?'

During my day at the refuge, Carrin Davies, family and child support worker told me about one three-year-old boy who used to smack and bite the other children in the refuge. "He had to be very closely supervised." says Davies: "If you asked him not do something he would spit and swear at you like he had seen his father to do to his mother."

Davies explains: "It does vary, but certainly across the board there's a prolonged use of comforters like dummies, bottles and blankets.

"Lots of the children we see have speech difficulties and delays because they haven't been socialised. Some may be withdrawn; most do have attachment difficulties because of what's been going on in the home."

She continues: "Sadly we've seen from past research that children with a domestic violence background are more likely to either become a victim or a perpetrator themselves."

Sumner adds: "One of the saddest cases we've encountered was when the abuser encouraged his son to join in when he beat the mother and laugh when she cried. That completely destroyed the bond between the mother and son, and he was fostered for a while. Luckily they did manage to work through it and they both live together now."

Figures have shown that women experience numerous attacks and beatings before she leaves or reports to the police. So why don't these women leave? Thomas states: "That question is one of the biggest myths we hear. Instead of 'why won't she leave?', why not 'why doesn't he stop hitting her?' Research has shown the most difficult period for domestic violence victims is the time when the victim is planning or making her exit.

"These women get to the point where they don't think they can survive on their own any more. They have no sense of confidence or of self because the perpetrator has spent so long undermining her character and personality. One woman we met was with a partner who would lock her in her flat all day. One day she managed to sneak out of a back window and into the alley below. When she got there she didn't know what to do or where to go so she climbed back in. There is a huge stigma attached to refuges and it's incredibly brave to go to one. The woman has to make that decision to leave her friends, her family and often move to another part of the country with the minimum amount of belongings. A lot of these women don't drive so they arrive with just what they can carry."

Today there is still a shortage of women's refuges - there are four animal sanctuaries to every women's refuge. 'Map of Gaps', a report published by the End Violence Against Women Campaign and the Human Rights Commission, revealed that many areas of the UK have limited access to domestic violence services, some areas with no support at all. The map demonstrated that women face a postcode lottery, with a third of local authorities offering no specialised services at all. Sharon, a refuge support worker comments" "It still isn't regarded as a priority. We need to start efficiently addressing the issue."

So why is domestic violence still such a broad and horrific problem? Sumner believes it stems from existing gender inequalities in society.

"People don't think it happens because women are already oppressed in society and [they think] that sexism is somehow acceptable. If it is seen as OK to treat women badly, then why wouldn't you treat a woman as a second class citizen or like an animal? The issue of domestic violence is not going to change until we change our attitudes towards women as a society and deal with gender issues."

Davies agrees, "It is still a man's world and the conviction rate and sentences are reflective of that. The sentences given to perpetrators are still shockingly short, which sends out the message that really domestic violence is OK." In Alice's case, her abuser was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison after smashing a table over her back. Davies says: "If abusers are getting such short sentences and sometimes not even being convicted then men won't think that this is wrong."

*Names have been changed.

Refuge and Women's Aid run a free, national domestic violence helpline: 0808 2000 247

About the author

Ella Alexander

Ella Alexander has recently graduated from the London College of Fashion after studying print journalism. She spent her final year focusing on women's issues in contemporary British culture, including an investigation into women's binge drinking and an interview with Theresa Flynt, Larry Flynt's (Hustler Magazine CEO) daughter looking at her career and her views on being a feminist in the pornography business. She is currently completing an internship at The Observer newspaper and will begin writing for Time Out in January

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