Let’s start with some stats. One in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic abuse over the course of their lifetime. Two women are killed each week by a current or former partner. In the year leading up to March 2016, 1.2 million women reported experiences of domestic violence – a number that is likely to fall far short of the real figure. More than 40% of UK girls aged 14 to 17 have experienced sexual violence at the hands of their partner, and an estimated three women a week commit suicide as a result of domestic abuse.
Reading these figures all in one go is shocking, but domestic violence should be shocking. We should be appalled by it constantly, and yet it can be painfully easy to stop talking about it. Occasionally, something jolts the issue back to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness: a celebrity survivor, a storyline on The Archers. But inevitably, we soon start thinking and worrying and tweeting about other things. Domestic violence becomes cultural wallpaper.
But as a feminist in the UK today, there are few issues that are more worthy of your time, consideration and aid. Since 2010, this country has lost 17% of its specialist domestic violence refuges. Since 2011, national domestic violence charity Refuge has experienced cuts to 80% of its services, with some funding being cut in half. Research published this time last year, meanwhile, suggested that two-thirds of shelters in England and Wales were facing closure due to government cuts. It remains to be seen how many will survive 2017.
What can we do, in the face of such devastation to lifeline women’s services? We can raise awareness, and we can raise money. That’s the purpose behind Walk4, an annual fundraising walk organised by Refuge. Members of the public are invited to join the 10km walk through London on Saturday 9 September, in recognition of the millions of women who have and will experience domestic violence. And we’re calling on our readers to do the same.
The event raised £60,000 for Refuge last year – the equivalent to more than 1,100 nights in a refuge for a woman and her children. All the money raised will go to help this vital charity run its specialist services, which support 5,000 women and children escaping domestic violence every day.
Here, three survivors share their different experiences of domestic violence, in the hope that it will encourage others to join them on 9 September. You can sign up to take part in the walk here.
Joe* and I met at a mutual friend’s party when I was in my final year of university. I added him on Facebook, and we kept in touch. After I graduated I asked if he wanted to meet up, and we got together quickly after that.
I thought he was really sweet and gentle at first. He was open about his emotions, almost effeminate. But in hindsight, there were signs something wasn’t right. Once we ordered a takeaway and they delivered the wrong thing, and Joe got upset to the point that it wasn’t normal. At the time I thought he’d just had a bad day. But now I can see it was a hint of him not being able to control his anger.
He moved in within six months, and the first time we had a bad argument it was just verbal. The second time he threw something. But it quickly escalated. Within two weeks, it had gone from that first row to physical violence. He would topple our furniture and throw it at me. He’d spit on me. He smashed my head into a wardrobe mirror and broke it on my head, until I was bleeding.
After each incident he’d cry and need support. His main focus was always his mental health issues, which he said made him unable to control himself. But that wasn’t true. He had friends and a high-stress job; he wasn’t violent to anyone else. His mental health played a part in his behaviour, but it wasn’t the whole story.
I have a good network of friends and family, but I didn’t tell anyone exactly what was going on. When I told one friend, she immediately came round in a car to take me off. I refused: it was my home, and I didn’t want to leave all my things, or leave so quickly. I think that was frustrating for her, and I can empathise.
Joe was arrested twice. The first time, a neighbour called the police, but I downplayed it. Joe was estranged from his family, and I was worried about what would happen to him if I left. Also, we were living in London, and everywhere we’d lived was too expensive for one of us to afford on our own. I was very aware of that.
After the violence had gone on for a while, I called the police myself. Joe was arrested, charged with assault and given a fine and a year’s probation. But we still didn’t break up, and he stayed living with me.
Eventually, I started to hint that I wanted to live separately. Joe got depressed and stopped going to work, until I was paying for everything. But ultimately, that worked to my advantage. The contract on our house was coming to an end, so I used the fact that I couldn’t afford to support him as an excuse to move out.
I also started doing more things by myself. I began getting involved in activism, and met someone at an event who mentioned they were renting their spare room. I explained my situation, so she knew I needed someone to rely on. And then I had somewhere to go.
Joe and I were still together when I moved out, although I didn’t tell him where I was living. But around this time I took part in Walk4. Talking about domestic violence with people who understood it led me to make the decision to finally cut all ties with Joe.
Since then, we’ve had some contact, but nothing significant. And I feel good. I’m pleased I’m able to raise awareness of domestic violence: no one wants to go through what I went through, but unfortunately it’s relatively normal. So many people experience it that if it didn’t happen to me, it was likely to happen to one of my closest friends. And I would never be put through that again. I’ve learned what’s normal and what’s acceptable in a relationship.
I was 19 when I met Steven*. I was due to join the army, and I was working at a bar while I waited for my recall date. He came in a few times, and one evening my friends and I invited him to come out with us. He didn’t really leave from that night.
It was a whirlwind. He was controlling and would limit who I saw, but I felt as though it was this romantic fairy tale. He convinced me not to join the army, telling me it was an awful life. My parents tried to warn me off him, but I wasn’t having any of it.
We’d only been together three months when I got pregnant. Six months later, he pushed me over during an argument. The violence escalated from there. He started pushing me in almost every argument, then slamming me against the wall. He’d grab my neck and my hair, and throw me around the room. Slapping turned to punching turned to kicking, and then we’d get a mixture of the lot. By the time I left it was normal for him to hold knives against me.
The abuse was also sexual and emotional. Steven would rape me. He’d encourage me to wear an outfit, then attack me because someone looked at me. I forced myself to put on weight so that people wouldn’t look at me, and he attacked me for being fat.
He expected me to work, but made it impossible. He’d call my office repeatedly and refuse to collect my son from childcare. I once interviewed a man for a position at my company, and he spied through the window. When the gentleman left, Steven attacked him. I was forced to leave my job as a result.
But to most of the world, Steven was charm itself – the life and soul of every party. For my part, I’m six foot one, and a strong person emotionally. If you had to describe me, you’d say: “She’s big, she takes no s***.” If I rocked up with a bruise and said I’d bumped into a cupboard, people accepted it. The alternative was unthinkable.
I did seek help, but the police were horrendous. Whenever they were called by our neighbour, Steven would make excuses, and they believed him every time. Once I overheard an officer tell him that I was “clearly psychotic”. The council said they couldn’t rehouse me because “domestic abuse is a policing issue”. When social services threatened to put my son on an at-risk register if the police were called again, I stopped screaming. I can’t say I never contemplated suicide.
Steven tampered with my contraceptive pill, so I was pregnant almost constantly. After I realised what he was doing, I got the coil – and he removed it with a pair of pliers. Next I secretly had a Depo injection, so he stopped me leaving the house until I missed my next appointment. I was soon pregnant again.
The pregnancies rarely lasted due to the abuse, but my daughter made it. I left when she was 10 weeks old. Steven came home drunk and fell asleep, and I was contemplating where to put my daughter so she wouldn’t get caught up in it when he woke up. And then I just thought: I can’t do this. I put my children in the car and drove.
We ended up in a refuge in a village 70 miles away. The staff were amazing: it was so much more than a roof over my head. Steven sued me for access for the children, and although the judge ruled he had been abusive he was still allowed to see them. He doesn’t anymore, though. He lost interest after about six months.
It’s now 12 years since I left, and I have a new partner who is loving and respectful: the kind of man who scoops up spiders rather than treading on them. It took me a long time to stop flinching, and now I can’t remember the last time I did. A psychologist once told me that my son might become a danger to women, but I’m incredibly proud to say he isn’t at all. He even calls himself a feminist, which I just love. My life now is like night and day.
I was just 14 when I met my ex-partner. Tom was 17 – older than me – and we fell in love quickly. My family didn’t like him at all, but if anything that just pushed me further into the relationship. I was besotted with him.
The relationship wasn’t violent at first, although he was always jealous and possessive. He called me a lot, and wanted to be around me all the time, and didn’t like me having male friends, but he told me that it was just because he loved me so much. I was young, and I believed him.
We’d only been together a few months when he was violent for the first time. We were arguing, and he slammed a hammer into a mirror. I played it down, telling myself that it was just his temper flaring up, but before too long things got worse. During another argument, he started smashing up the furniture in his flat. Scared, I picked up my bag to leave, and he shoved me backwards onto the sofa. I was totally shocked. He instantly broke down and apologised, saying that he loved me and promising that it would never happen again – but of course, it did. He’d scream in my face during arguments, push me around, slap me, kick me, slam my head into walls.
The violence only escalated when I got pregnant with our first child at 19. I didn’t know at the time that 30% of domestic violence cases begin or get worse during pregnancy, but it was certainly true for me. My hair was ripped out so my scalp and hair follicles were permanently damaged, and he’d strangle me until I was left with red-raw marks around my neck.
Physical violence often goes hand-in-hand with psychological and emotional abuse, and Tom did everything in his power to make me doubt myself. He told me that I was stupid, stupid, stupid, so stupid I couldn’t even help our son with his homework. He’d gaslight me, making me question my memories, beliefs and personality until I barely knew who I was anymore.
At the same time, he alienated me from my family and friends, to the point that he was the only person I had. He was very clever, and he operated so systematically and subtly that I didn’t even realise what was happening until it was much too late.
When I was five months pregnant with my youngest child, he jumped on my back and started choking me from behind. It was at that point that I genuinely thought that was it; I was going to die. But I didn’t, and later on that day, I remember thinking: I have to get out. I called the police, and he was arrested. A couple of months later I testified against him in court, which resulted in him being charged with Actual Bodily Harm and me being granted a restraining order. I was still only 29, but I’d been in an abusive relationship for 14 years.
I took my children and moved away, but it wasn’t as simple as just starting over. I’d been completely changed by what I’d been through, and I felt so guilty about what my children had had to witness. It didn’t help that so many people questioned why I’d stayed with Tom for so long. I’d been depressed and terrified of him; he’d reduced my world to nothing but him and my children. What other explanation could I give?
But today, my life is unrecognisable. I’m married to a wonderful man, I’m safe, I’m working. I joined a support group for other survivors, which was invaluable, and now I volunteer to raise awareness about domestic violence. I’m happy. Most importantly, I understand that my experiences made me strong, not weak; brave, not powerless.
*Names have been changed. If you are experiencing domestic violence, you are not alone. Please visit refuge.org.uk. To sign up to Walk4, Refuge’s annual fundraising walk through London on 9 September, please register here by Sunday 3 September.
Images: iStock / Julian Nieman for Refuge