Domestic violence and abuse survivors supporting each other
Research has shown how important it is for survivors to be able to help others, and that this can help to turn their negative experiences into something positive. Many services encourage peer support groups and involve volunteers who want to give something back to the services which helped them. As well as general groups, more structured domestic violence and abuse groups exist. For example, the Freedom Programme is a rolling twelve - week course that women can attend as many times as they wish. Whilst facilitated, the purpose of the group is to enable women to support each other in recognising signs of abusive behaviour and looking at safe ways to move forward. After the Freedom Programme, and when they are ready, women can go on to complete the Recovery Toolkit.
Women we interviewed frequently said that the best support for dealing with domestic abuse and its aftermath was to talk to other women who had experienced it themselves. One of the reasons women found it hard to talk to family members or friends was that they did not have first-hand knowledge of domestic violence and abuse. As Anna put it: ‘Unless they’ve been there they don’t get it’. Shaina suggested that it would be helpful if professionals with personal experience of domestic violence and abuse spoke out, as they could offer better support. She felt that ‘there is only so much you can do to put yourself in somebody’s shoes’. After her support worker from a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency confided that she too had been through domestic violence, Tina was able to get ‘really close to her’. Tina flagged up the limitations of non-specialist organisations, such as the Samaritans, in supporting survivors of domestic violence, and it was her specialised support worker who she believed saved her from suicide. Chance and informal meeting with other survivors
One of Victoria’s friends was also in an abusive relationship. She helped Victoria to recognise what was happening to her, as she saw her ‘light going out’. Women who had chance encounters with other survivors of domestic abuse were able to share experiences and provide mutual support. They said it was a welcome change from the usual response of ‘why did you stay so long?’ Jessica talked to friends whose relationships were in difficulty and offered them support either to stay or to leave. Anna shared her experiences with members of a group, and was able to help another woman who opened up about domestic abuse. A few women, like Julia and Stephanie encountered colleagues who were survivors, in the workplace. Lindsay lost custody of her daughter but a chance encounter with another survivor helped her to start the process to get her back. While still in an abusive relationship, Penny and Chloe both had contact with their partners’ previous girlfriends. Penny’s partner’s ex communicated via email, urging Penny to get out of the relationship, a warning that provided the trigger for her to leave. Chloe became friendly with her partner’s ex through shared parenting, and regretted that she didn’t take enough notice that his ex ‘was very happy to be rid of him, which should have been another big red flag’.
Tasha was in a new healthy relationship at the time of interview. Her new male partner was also a survivor of domestic abuse and the couple are able to support each other.
Following chance encounters with other survivors, both Shaina and Lindsay became involved in setting up local survivors groups and received training and support. Lindsay got help from MIND, a mental health charity, and Shaina got support from her local Council. Through her support group, Lindsay found out about the Freedom Programme. Volunteering
Many women were keen to put their experience of domestic violence and abuse to good use, by helping others. Tanya, Ella and Min were volunteering for their local domestic violence agencies. After receiving a lot of counselling, Min wanted to offer something back in return for the ‘amazing’ help she had received. Since ending her abusive relationship, Victoria felt she was ‘coming back to [herself]’. She wanted to help tackle the problem of domestic violence and abuse because it was on ‘such a grand scale’. She planned to take a counselling course as a first step towards helping other women.
Meeting survivors at a women’s refuge
Women entering a refuge talked to other survivors. For Tasha this was an ‘eye-opener’, which enabled her to recognise the full extent of her partner’s abusive behaviour. Khalida, who had lived all her life within a close Asian community, and had never been shopping or made any household decisions, received practical and emotional support from another women in the refuge (see ‘Going Into a Women’s Refuge’). Freedom Programme
The Freedom Programme is a structured educational and support group for women survivors of domestic violence and abuse, often run by survivors who have had training and experience in group work. Women who attended the Freedom Programme described it as their ‘saviour’, a ‘wake-up call’ and a ‘turning point’. Meeting other survivors was crucial, and often the facilitator had also experienced domestic violence and abuse. For most women, it was the first time they had recognised that what they were experiencing was domestic violence and abuse. For Jessica, the Freedom Programme was crucial. It helped her to recognise the nature of her husband’s abusive behaviour. She saw the ‘flaws’ in her marriage and felt empowered to leave her husband of 26 years. The facilitator also supported her to phone her local Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency to ask for help. Lindsay attended the Freedom Programme after leaving her abusive partner, and said how much it had helped her to deal with the ‘knock-on effect’ of domestic abuse on her and her children. She said: ‘I’m not a victim anymore. I won’t be a victim anymore’. The opportunity to meet other survivors lessened women’s sense of isolation and loneliness. Penny, however, preferred to opt for one-to-one support rather than a group. Stephanie could not find a group that met outside of her work hours.
After the Freedom Programme, Melanie went on to complete the Recovery Toolkit and subsequently began to act as a mentor for other women through Women’s Aid.