Friday 25 November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Domestic abuse is extremely common – but understanding how to leave an abusive relationship can feel impossible. Helen Thewlis heads up the family law team at Ramsdens Solicitors and has years of experience in helping victims of all different types of domestic abuse to build a case against their abuser and free themselves from the situation. Here, she shares what she has learned.
If you need to leave this web page quickly, click here to go to the BBC News homepage. If you are worried for your safety, contact the police immediately.
According to the charity Living Without Abuse (LWA), as many as one in four women will suffer from domestic abuse in their lifetime. Women’s Aid says that the police receive a call about domestic abuse as frequently as every 30 seconds. Despite this, many women in the UK are still living in fear, in abusive relationships, often because they are being coerced or controlled and feel powerless – or because they do not realise that their partner’s behaviour constitutes abuse at all.
The UN established the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to raise awareness of its work preventing gender-based violence. With this in mind, I urge you to read on to find out exactly what domestic abuse is and how to safely remove yourself from a dangerous situation.
What is ‘domestic abuse’?
It is a common misconception that domestic abuse only relates to being physically abused – but this is not the case. Solicitors like myself offer legal advice and support for victims of all types of domestic abuse.
This covers everything from slaps to cuts and bruises, burns and in some cases, even death. The violence does not have to leave marks to be classed as such; hair-pulling for instance also counts as physical abuse, even though it is unlikely to leave a visible mark.
Some victims of emotional abuse may not suffer any physical abuse from their partner. In this situation, victims often convince themselves that they are not being abused or worry that they will not be taken seriously if they speak out.
Emotional abuse is often used by the abuser to grind down the victim’s confidence and alter their personality so that they can be easily controlled or coerced. The abuser may constantly criticise them, try to isolate them by limiting how often they can see friends and family, encourage them to give up work or change careers against their will and humiliate them in front of people or talk down to them. Over time, this will grind down the victim’s confidence and self-esteem until they become reliant on or intimidated by their partner, giving their abuser the opportunity to control them.
Refuge warns that women suffering emotional abuse are at risk of physical violence in the future too.
Watch: The definitive guide to sexual consent
This form of abuse can be incredibly powerful and is often a reason why victims feel there is no way out of the situation. The abuser may take control of their partner’s finances, prevent them from working, or monitor their spending.
Women should never feel forced into sexual activity. Being in a relationship or married does not permit automatic consent. If a victim is made to feel threatened or forced into sexual activity, that is sexual abuse.
How to escape an abusive relationship safely
Deciding to escape an abusive relationship is a huge decision, so remember, it is never too late to leave. Whether it is the first instance of domestic abuse or the fiftieth, there is a way out once you have decided that you are ready to do so, and you will not be penalised for having stayed in the relationship after the first instance of abuse.
Based on my experience of helping victims, I recommend taking the below steps to build a strong case against your abuser.
Evidence is key - so keep a log of every instance of abusive behaviour
Evidence is crucial in building a strong case, and can take many different forms – from photographs of physical harm, logs of GP or hospital appointments, abusive text messages received, witness accounts from friends and family. Basically, you should record anything that helps to build a picture of the abuser’s behaviour and actions.
If you’re worried about where to store evidence, keep it in a locked diary and store it at a friend’s house or on a password-protected USB that you can hide. If you start to record abuse after an instance occurs, make sure you can date and recall it accurately.
Research and plan an exit strategy and cover your tracks when doing so
In order to leave safely and reduce the likelihood of going back, you need a plan that ensures you have somewhere safe to live and enough money to get by until you find your feet. Many victims stay in abusive relationships because they are financially dependent on their partner, however there is always a way out.
Firstly, you need to research what financial options are open to you. A simple online search for ‘domestic abuse help’ will bring up lots of different charities that detail such information on their website, however it is unlikely to be reflective of your specific situation so you should just use this as a starting point and do not be disheartened if you cannot find the information online. Refuge and Women’s Aid both offer 24-hour advice lines which you can call and seek advice specific to your situation. I would recommend contacting them and thoroughly explaining your situation and they will advise on you on the best course of action to take.
In addition to charities, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau offers practical advice to victims. This is particularly useful if you are in the UK on your partner’s visa but want to escape an abusive relationship, as they can advise you on how to stay in the UK to escape domestic violence.
When you are ready to report the abuser to the police you should also contact an experienced family law solicitor as they will help you to build a case against your partner and resolve the situation safely for you and other family members.
How to cover your tracks when researching an exit strategy
Many women are too scared to research their options online in case their abuser finds out. Try to avoid researching the topic on personal devices, as web history is often easily accessible, particularly if your partner knows their way around a computer. Try to use public PCs at the library, or a friend’s laptop, for instance, and create a new email account using a fake name, that you never ever access on your own devices.
If you cannot get access to a public or friend’s PC, using an anonymous browser will add another layer of protection to your browsing history. Google Chrome has an ‘Incognito’ mode which allows you to use the search engine and browser anonymously. Incognito mode can be used on smartphones and tablets by installing the ‘Google Chrome’ app or by installing the browser on laptops and PCs . Some devices (particularly those which run on Android) have Chrome pre-installed.
If you do need to do some research at home, practice closing the webpage you are on by pressing Alt+F4. This keyboard shortcut will help you to close a webpage much quicker than trying to reach the ‘close’ button with your mouse, and is less likely to make your abuser suspicious. Always check your internet history after you have finished researching in case you need to clear it.
Always remember: you are not alone, and there is a safe way out.
Images: iStock, Rex Features