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A choice no one should have to face

A home is more than bricks and mortar. It’s where I should feel most at ease, most myself. The sanctuary to come back to at the end of a long, tiring day. But thousands of adults and children making their way home this afternoon, when they open the front door, are hoping in their hearts that it won’t be ‘one of those nights’ – again. Home is a place of fear and tension. Two million adults had an experience of domestic abuse in England and Wales last year so if this is my home and my experience I'm not alone – but I might well feel it. 

Many families are facing an impossible choice. A choice between living in a home of fear and intimidation, and an uncertain future of homelessness - where would I go? Might it be worse than what I'm living through now? It’s a choice no one should have to make. Being expected to flee, into the uncertainty of not knowing where you will be housed from one week to the next, is not acceptable. We have to help survivors and their children to be safe – and safe means suitable, sustainable and long-term housing. We can't expect adults or children to be able to rebuild their lives when we're routinely taking them away from their communities and support networks.

The nature of an abusive experience is that it can strip away your identity, isolating you from supportive friends and family. And yet the current system further entrenches this after I leave a dangerous home; it removes me from my local community, my sense of belonging, putting distance between family and friends that are a vital resource to help me rebuild. As one survivor put it to us ‘it’s like leaving part of yourself behind’.

Government data tells us that 10% of all people looking to be re-housed say that domestic abuse is the cause. We believe the real number is far greater.  St Mungo’s finds that a third of the women they support are homeless due to domestic abuse.

Our research, published today, also shows that too often it is survivors and their children who are expected to uproot themselves in order to escape the abuse. It shows that those who do become homeless – particularly women – can be vulnerable to further abuse, falling into a cycle of abuse and homelessness that can seem impossible to escape. Perpetrators of abuse are currently more effective at identifying and acting on harmful experiences than those of us with a duty to protect people from them. This cannot continue.

In the best cases, agencies are collaborating to work out how a survivor can stay safely in their own home. They recognise that the presumption that it must be the survivor who packs their bags and leaves, when it is the perpetrator causing the harm, is outdated. A stronger enforcement response from the police, housing, children's services and others, working closely with specialist domestic abuse services, can focus disruptive action on the perpetrator, making the home safer and holding them to account if they continue to try and harass or threaten the victim. Why should anyone lose their home for something that they did not cause?

These instances, in which agencies think laterally about how to address the behaviour of the perpetrator while supporting the survivor, are still too rare. It is still imperative to leave to be safe in too many cases. 

Tonight, the majority of us will sleep somewhere safe and of our choosing. This should be the reality for all of us – everyone has the right to be safe at home.

 

Suzanne Jacob OBE is Chief Executive of SafeLives

In Claire*'s words: being a Pioneer

Claire* is a SafeLives Pioneer. She experienced years of emotional abuse and manipulation from her ex-partner. A former translator and journalist, Claire – alongside three other women – went on to found the charity VOICES, which supports survivors to rebuild their lives. Here she explains what being a Pioneer means to her.

The German word “vote” and “voice” is the same: “Stimme”

Not having an equal vote within a relationship feels like having no voice. Being a Pioneer for SafeLives, for me, is all about strengthening the voices of others to challenge abusive behaviour.

I got involved with SafeLives in the first place because of a simple idea to found a singing group for people like me, recovering from the effects of abusive relationships. That initial contact led to the community group I was part of becoming involved in consultation and eventually, to my joining SafeLives’ Family Friends and Survivors consultation forum.

Our local group became the charity VOICES, which I now run, providing holistic support and services for survivors together with training and consultation. 

Working as one of the SafeLives Pioneers, there is a real feeling of strength and purpose in being part of the national conversation on challenging domestic abuse, and I would like to see as many survivor voices as possible have the opportunity to be heard in the months and years to come.

*Name changed for safety

A letter to my younger self

This letter was written by a brave member of SafeLives staff, who is also one of our Pioneers. She has chosen to share her story with the hope of raising awareness and empowering other survivors.

To my younger self

Just because he is black doesn’t mean you have to defend him whatever he does. Just because you stood up to prejudice and married a black man doesn’t mean you have to deny what he is doing.

When people are racist to him it’s right to defend him, be angry and hurt, and support him, but that’s separate from accepting his violence and anger at you.

You are not his protector.

It’s not ok just because he is a victim himself.

It’s right to want to try and escape. Its right to want to protect your children, his children from seeing and hearing his bad behaviour.

I know it’s hard because he is fitting that horrible prejudiced stereotype of a violent black man and you don’t want him to be.

You want to be able to prove them all wrong, all those racists. All those people who say these bad things about people of colour are wrong... but so is he.

He is wrong to be violent and controlling.

You don’t have to be as good a cook as his mum. You don’t have to fix the window he broke by pushing you through it. He should fix it. He is responsible, not you.

You don’t have to lie when your colleague asks you about the marks on your arms.

You don’t have to make everything ok.

I so understand why you want to make everything alright and calm again, because it’s a much nicer place when he is calm and nice.

Also, you know when that colleague at work says to you “why don’t you just leave” please don’t question or doubt yourself, just remember that you know this man inside out and you knew when it was the right time.

Remember you got you and your children out safely by waiting for the right time.

When you tell his mum and she says you must “turn the other cheek”. ......Please don’t.

When you leave, and you were brave to leave, please don’t feel guilty that the children don’t have their dad at home anymore. It was for the best. Your boys' lives will turn out well.

They will grow into good men; clever, emotionally intelligent and above all kind.

When one of the boys asks you “Will I hurt ladies like dad does” because everyone tells him he “looks like his dad” please know that you were right to reassure him that of course he would not, and that violence and abuse is a choice.

And please know you were right. Neither of them turned out like their dad..... In fact the complete opposite.  In years to come you will look at your boys sometimes and almost burst with pride.

When the time is right, talk with your boys about what they saw and heard so they can equip themselves to deal with their dad going forward and know they are not to blame. Don’t think you need to protect them from knowing their dad is violent and abusive. You need to protect them from being confused by the truth not being told.

And by the way, he will never go on to hurt your mum and dad like he threatened or tell your police colleagues things that will make you lose your job.... He won’t because he is just threatening you to get you to do his bidding.

One day in the future you will make all this work for you. You will use it to make a difference to lots of other people’s lives. You will not have a vanilla life; you will have a life with all shades of colour because of this experience.

You will turn the negative into positive and you will flourish and reach your potential. Just not in the way you dreamed of as a child. Sorry but you won’t be a famous dancer!

You will be a well-respected police officer, a light in domestic abuse work nationally and most of all a good mum, daughter, sister, friend and wife. This will be your collateral good.

 

If you're worried about your relationship, feel scared of your partner or are concerned about a friend, help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge) 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247 – if you're in immediate danger always call 999 and ask for the police.

Sarah*'s story

Sarah* is a professional woman in her twenties who is now living safely and rebuilding her life after domestic abuse. She has shared her story with us in the hope that by raising awareness, we can help others to recognise that they are experiencing abuse and access support. 

“What does love mean to you?” I once asked my ex. Perhaps it was a rather intimate question to be asking over Skype but we were so comfortable with one another – it felt right. Also (to tell you the truth) I was keen on getting to know the intelligent, charming medic who had recently appeared in my life. He was based abroad so unless he flew out to visit, this was the closest I was to being with him and I wanted to know everything about him.

Despite his intelligence he wasn’t sure.

“I’ve not really thought about it much… love is love right? How about you? Maybe I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”

Little did I know that give it two years and I’d know exactly what love and relationships were all about to him. Three words: power and control. The last thing I would have ever thought love could mean.

Emotional, financial and mental abuse was the mainstay of what I was to endure after moving in with him. Isolated already as I’d moved to a foreign country, he still felt the need to limit contact with my family and friends. He had an abundance of excuses as to why I should be careful about the information I shared and who could visit us. Some of the most outrageous were people using black magic to try and separate us and a relative of his who might try and kill us. Though I didn’t understand most of it, he was always “trying to protect me”, and it was his “love” for me driving him to behave this way, which somehow made it more acceptable.

Through all the confusion and lies about finances, family and our relationship I felt I was losing myself. I found myself anxiously juggling everything to try and ensure I was being the best I could be to resolve the difficulties our marriage was facing. I communicated this confusion to him, little did I know that the more questions I asked, the more his tactics would escalate. Ironically the more I did for our relationship, the more he expected and these expectations were always changing.

There came a point when I came to know that this man who had vowed to commit to me and build a future together, saw me as merely an object. I had no priority in his life and our future family would suffer the same fate. This shattered me from the inside however the day he admitted it, gave me an entirely new lease of life. Empowered; I took some time out to process his confession. Something I hadn’t considered was that I wasn’t going to be allowed to come home to him thereafter. I unintentionally escaped his control and because of this he decided to cut me out of his life. Since that day I haven’t stepped foot into our marital home again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him and we don’t talk. If you had told me this a few years ago I would have told you that I couldn’t live without him and that it would be impossible.  It was strangely painful, but it wasn’t impossible. Through all the pain; I have gained far more than I ever thought I would. My voice is finally heard again. My beliefs and choices are wholly my own. I have a career. I have friends. Through my healing I’m learning to love myself more each day. I’m free. 

If my story resonates with you the one thing I want you to take from this is that you’re not alone. There is help available and there is always someone who will listen. Also you must remember that if you are in an abusive relationship, the perpetrator’s behaviour isn’t a reflection of you, their actions are a reflection of them. You are not at fault in this. You are worthy and deserving of true love. A love that is kind, sincere and liberating.

*Name changed for safety

If you're worried about your relationship, feel scared of your partner or are concerned about a friend, help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge) 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247 – if you're in immediate danger always call 999 and ask for the police.

'The Devil at Home' - extract

Rachel Williams is a survivor, campaigner and SafeLives Pioneer. In 2011, after years of abuse, her ex-partner Darren attempted to murder her. Rachel survived and now devotes her time to helping other victims and survivors, and campaigning for change. Her book, 'The Devil at Home' tells her story.

We're so proud to work alongside Rachel, and to share this extract from her book. This International Women's Day, we're celebrating Rachel and all the brave survivors who speak out and use their voices to create change. 

'I started to wonder if we were just an emotionally charged couple or whether I was experiencing domestic abuse. But I was a strong girl, not some timid wallflower. I wasn’t being controlled or beaten up every day; the incidents were few and far between.

Plus, I knew Darren inside and out – if he was moody I knew he was thinking about his brother, and if he was snappy I knew it was the anxiety talking. It seemed inconceivable that Darren would grow up with domestic violence then go on to become a perpetrator. And he was always so remorseful when he stepped out of line.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what constituted an abuser, but I didn’t imagine it was a man who wrote love notes and sobbed his heart out after losing his temper. I would joke with him that it was like living with two men: Darren was the bad one and Daniel was good.

I guess I felt that if I wanted Daniel I had to put up with Darren from time to time. And I believed I had enough love and strength in me to do that.'

 

You can buy The Devil at Home here.

If you're worried about your relationship, feel scared of your partner or are concerned about a friend, help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge) 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247 – if you're in immediate danger always call 999 and ask for the police.

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