Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Gaps in provision of support for domestic violence and abuse

The history of the domestic violence movement, the development of refuges in crisis, and the improvement of services and support, is full of examples of poor and bad practice when it comes to how women experiencing abuse have been treated. All statutory agencies have at some point had to look at how its provision does, or does not, meet the need of victims and survivors. This is against a backdrop of wider social responses to abuse where the issue is often ignored.

Lack of awareness and education about domestic abuse

Women’s experiences revealed a lack of understanding and awareness of domestic abuse in society, amongst professionals and people in general, particularly about psychological abuse and controlling behaviour where ‘more depth of insight’ is needed. They included themselves in this, since the majority of the women we interviewed had little awareness of domestic abuse. This was an important factor in keeping them in abusive relationships longer, or as Julia said: ‘The strait jacket’ that was her life. Ella met her first abusive partner at the age of fifteen, and feels that, had she had help to understand abuse at that point, she would not have gone on to have two more abusive relationships.


Ella did not know what a normal guy and a normal relationship were like, until she contacted Women's Aid who 'opened her eyes' to the abuse she had suffered for years (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 27
But relationship-wise, there was the three. But I believe, had I got help after the first, it was almost like patterns, because I believed I wasn’t even though all the things I knew were wrong-ish, I just guessed it was normal as well, like there was nothing better, this was what, this was how it was.


So I feel that, had I got help from somebody sooner, I could have seen that this was wrong. Because when I got in touch with Women’s Aid and realised just how much I’d actually been through, that was such a shock to me. Because I didn’t know that there was financial abuse, I just thought that was normal, that you had to give your money and things like that because you were living with somebody. There were just so many things I opened my eyes to more that I just thought was normal.

Yeah, so throughout those three relationships you’ve told me about, you felt that what was going on was normal?

Yeah, apart from obviously, like I said, a few things that made me feel like this wasn’t right. But, but no, other than that, that was it.

So you didn’t think about abuse. Had you heard of domestic abuse at that time?

Yeah, but like I said to you, when I got in touch, when the lady said to me, “I think you need to speak to Women’s Aid,” I thought, “But I haven’t been beaten up.”

Right yeah.

“I’m not a battered woman. I’m not black, I’m not blue. Why would I need to go to Women’s Aid for?”

Right OK.

And then when I went there and actually started learning and listening to things, I thought, “I can’t believe I’ve been living all these years like this.”
Women called for better education in schools or via the media about abusive relationships. Sarah, in common with most women, had no idea what domestic abuse was other than a ‘man hitting a woman’. She warned against stereotyping. A confident, professional woman, her message is that domestic abuse can happen to anyone.

Sarah said she would have opened up if others had noticed signs like her constantly receiving phone calls from her partner all day long.

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Age at interview: 32
I think there's so many stereotypes ...

Right yes. 

... around domestic abuse about what a victim is and what a perpetrator is. 


I wouldn’t say ... I mean I'm probably a good example of why you shouldn't stereotype about what a victim is because I'm confident and successful and I’ve come out the other end and I'm married and happy and I have a career and everything. It's not what people would automatically think and I do find that actually because I'm quite open about it so when I tell people, people are really, genuinely surprised. Just like how, how could you have gone through that, it doesn't, doesn't make any sense. But it can happen to anyone and I think people need to understand that.


And also knowing the signs, I think is important this is less health care but the police I think they could probably do with being better trained. So I mean for example if they go to a domestic, domestic dispute... 


... and they arrive and there's a women there going absolutely crazy and the man's there shrugging his shoulders then they need to be able to look a bit deeper at what's actually going on there. 


Because it's very easy just to go well clearly she's the problem but it's not necessarily, it's probably not the case. 


But I don't think the police are trained in that way. with healthcare professionals I guess, I guess all they can do is pick up patterns isn't it? Like if people keep returning. 

Yeah, yeah. 

Make sure that they are able to ask whoever it is that's injured; ask them what's happened whilst they're on their own as well, while their partner's out of the room. 

Yeah, yeah that's a good point. 

But yeah it's difficult to say. Just it needs time as well which is the problem, I think, people don't have the time. 

Yeah absolutely. You know, thinking about your own experience what support might you have liked at the time if there had been something available, just there, what do you think might have helped you at that time?

I very strongly think that education is a big issue. I had no idea what domestic abuse was, I thought it was just a man hitting a woman. 


That was as deep as my understanding went. So I went in with my eyes shut completely. so although that's not a service I would have received at the time, I think getting it into schools, and encouraging parents to understand it and teach their children and look out for things like that is really, really important. 

Yeah absolutely. 

In terms of the services at the time I think it probably would have been helpful if somebody, again this links into the education, if somebody had been able to recognise what was going on and actually really talk to me about it ...


... then I probably would have felt okay to open up about it. 


But I never had that opportunity. 

I wonder who that person might have been for you; can you imagine who that person might have been?

Yeah, friend or family I guess, or colleague at work. 

Yeah, yeah. 

When I was getting lots of phone calls every day for me now that would ring alarm bells if I saw someone receiving 20 calls a day.

Yeah, yes. 

But for other people it's easy to just go oh she's on the phone again that kind of thing you know. 

[Laughs] yeah. 

You need to, you need to kind of just give it a little bit of thought [laughs] what's actually going on instead of being dismissive. 

Melanie had a breakdown during her relationship and fears for other women in similar situations unless more awareness and help is available.

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Age at interview: 42
You might not always be able to see it externally. 




Just take a little bit of time to try and get somebody’s story, because I think, I think appointments, sometimes you rush in and you rush out. I think if somebody’s coming in to your room in distress, I think maybe you should take a little bit of time and try to hear what they’re saying. Because they might not tell you the whole story but there might just be a snippet…


… of what their life is like in there.



A clue.

A clue.

Yeah. OK. So, thinking about support that you have had what would you say the main thing was that was missing? What, what, what support might have helped you that perhaps wasn’t available to you? Not just medically, I mean generally. 

[Sighs] I genuinely think that [sighs] understanding from med, from all professions whether it be the police and social services doctors, nurses, whether you go to the hospital. I think there should be somebody within those fields that recognises and is able to understand a little bit, what abuse is, because it comes in many, many, many forms. And it doesn’t just have to be physical. You know. And I think for me, psychological abuse is such a horrific thing to have to experience. Because I live it every day still.


I still live it every day. You know. Today I’m well. But I think that if we can catch that before it gets that, too out of hand, I think, or before it gets too, because I think there are a lot of women that are probably within the, that had breakdowns because of this. And I was definitely one of them that was on the verge, so, I think if you catch people at the right time. Yeah.
More funding needed

Some women were aware of how poorly funded domestic abuse services are. At the time of the interviews, the UK recession had resulted in cuts in government funding to all public services, including women’s refuges. Sophie feels that in the absence of any ring-fenced funding, domestic abuse services are under pressure and women like her are missing out on support.

Sophie feels that a ‘cultural shift’ in attitude towards domestic abuse is needed including better support for professionals delivering abuse services.

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Age at interview: 49
But if you are working with clients it’s going to bring stuff up for yourself, maybe. How do you then deal with that? What support is there for you? Maybe you might need to be taken out of this, you know, or whatever, what – you know, you can’t just train people in stuff like that and expect them to be able to deliver it without there being some impact on themselves.

Give them an hour lecture on DV, that kind of thing, “There you go, that’ll cover it.”

Exactly. And there’s no – that seems to have gone. I mean I know that years ago we used to hear about, you know, learning from the client. You don’t seem to hear about that anymore.

So, for you, I mean what’s been missing in terms of the support that’s been available to you?

Well I think obviously some of it’s obvious, like funding, that there’s not really any funding. There’s no ring, ring fenced national funding for DV services. And so consequently I’ve left – lost out.


Because what happened is that the local services were constantly having to rebid all the time, which meant that they were more focused on rebidding than providing a service, which is wrong.

And did you feel that?

Yes, very much so. And the staff are under pressure all the time that they’re not going to have jobs. And that’s not, that’s not acceptable. And I think, and I think also what is missing I mean I think that, in a sense, I wish I could say that we need this or we need that. Like, you know, my daughter, I could say, “We actually need this,” and in some ways it’s actually quite straightforward and it wouldn’t damage anybody to [laughs] supply it, apart from financially. But with DV, I think what I need is my culture to change and to acknowledge that this is going on. That’s what I need. That’s what’s missing.

How does that happen, how does that change?

Well I’m not holding my breath [laughs]. I mean my academic background, I didn’t want to do social work-y type things, I did ancient history and classical archaeology. And I can tell you that [laughs] social change takes a hell of a long time, [laughs] particularly I think when it comes to gender and, and stuff like this. Because you can see it going back, you know.


Yeah forever, you know, it’s like the same problems they had in ancient Greece, you know, and we’re still having them now. And you know, we think everything is specific and I, I think we’ve got a long way to go, but I think that probably we need to acknowledge that rather than pretending that we have, we have arrived at some – the sort of the darkness to life. Well they call it the darkness to light narrative, that there was the dark and now we’re in the light. You know, we’re not in the light. We’re still in the darkness. 
Ongoing support needed, not just a ‘quick fix’

Women, like Jessica and Tasha, talked about how domestic abuse had impacted on their whole lives and they needed more follow-up, particularly after leaving a women’s refuge, since there is ‘very little afterwards’. Tasha could have returned to the refuge but said: ‘I can’t keep running away’. She needed help with ongoing harassment. Jessica would have liked help with mental health and housing issues, or more networking with other survivors of abuse.

For Jessica, domestic abuse was ‘different from other things’. She found she couldn’t talk to anybody about it ‘because there’s not that understanding there’.

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Age at interview: 46
But also I think its ongoing support. Because, OK, you move on and time goes by, but like with me it’s my whole life, it’s that impact of my whole life and it’s not a quick fix.

So you need ongoing support when you, you know, because once you come out of the refuge and that, there is very little afterwards. And to go through abuse is different from other things. And you just can’t talk to anybody about it because there’s not that understanding there.

Hmm. So what form would you like that ongoing support to take?

It would have been nice to have had more from [local mental health and housing association for women]. And maybe a follow through after a certain length of time.

After those sessions ended sort of …


… a follow on?

Yeah. I don’t know, I know you’ve got the 24 hour domestic abuse help line and things like that which actually the other day I did phone up and because of all my childhood stuff started bringing stuff up, so I did actually ring there. I don’t know, just some sort of agency out there that you can tap into. And it’s also like social networking, because it’s like you’ve, you’ve got an illness or something and sometimes you need to be with other similar people so that you can discuss and things. 

So perhaps networking with other women who’ve been through abuse, that type of thing?

Yeah. Yeah. 

Hm. What was it like using the helpline, having a telephone contact with someone rather than a face to face contact?

That was OK, because I just wanted somebody to talk to. I didn’t need one-to-one face at that point, I just needed somebody to listen and that was excellent. If I’d phoned a different sort of help line I wouldn’t have got that sort of interaction I wanted. So it helped.

It’s important for you that there’s a domestic violence …


…help line?

… very much so.
Professionals and others need to be proactive

Women often described living in fear, waiting for an incident to occur that might trigger a response from professionals or others. Women experienced professionals, family and friends as being reactive to a crisis of some kind rather than taking action to help prevent further abuse. For example, police officers often told women that no action could be taken unless they were physically hurt or threatened (see ‘Role of the police in domestic violence and abuse’). Similarly, women wished doctors had taken a more active role, for example handing out leaflets for the Freedom Project (a group course for women experiencing domestic abuse). For Melanie the Freedom Programme was her ‘turning point’ but she only attended because ‘Shelter’, the housing and homeless charity, made the phone call for her and got her a place.

Melanie was ‘too frightened and panicked’ to get help but someone from ‘Shelter’ rang the Freedom Programme for her. She ‘cried and cried and cried and cried… finally it felt like I’m going to get some help’.

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Age at interview: 42
And has that come from within you or have you had help from any other agencies or people to get to that point?

The Freedom programme [relief in voice].

Yeah. How did you manage to find out about the Freedom programme?

I was quite distressed and I think I was having a problem with my housing, there was a lot of things going on all at one time and I think I spoke to Shelter as well about that, at this stage and I think I was just, and I went to the police. 

What stage was this? What year are we talking about?

I think in 2012.

Was this after you’d …


… told him to go?

Yes. I think everything just [knocking] I was learning to pay my bills, so I had to go to Shelter to help, for help with finances and putting things in place. I was being taken to court for my water bill. I was being taken to court for my television license. So I was reaching out then at that point.

And I think I just screamed it to anybody that would help me. That I need help, I need help. And I think they pointed me in the right direction. I think somebody, I don’t know if it was somebody from Shelter actually that rang somebody through Freedom and then they rang me.

Right, so someone from Shelter rang them and then, so they actually rang you back on your …




Was that helpful, that they did it like that? Would you have followed it up do you think if …

I don’t think I would have followed it up because I was, I would have been too frightened. I think I was, at that moment I was in fight or flight, I was definitely panicked about everything and everybody and every, you know I was quite frantic at that point and I knew I needed help [knocking] but I didn’t know how to get it. 

So the fact that they sort of rang for you …

They rang for me. And I think that finally, I started my, I started to realise that I’m going to get some type of help. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know if it was going to help me but I was definitely going to run for it. 

And you went to the Freedom?


Yeah. Was there a space almost immediately for you? 

Yes, there was, yeah. And I sat in that group that day and I listened to a women’s story and I just cried. And cried, and cried and cried and cried. And finally it felt like I’m going to get some help. Yeah. Yeah.

And you, have you continued?

I have. I have continued. I’m doing a mentoring course that, well, I’ve just finished my mentoring course with the Freedom programme as well. 

Meaning? What does that …

Helping other women within the Freedom, I co-facilitate the Freedom programme now, so I sit on the side and I help women if they’re in distress or if they need to talk to somebody. I signpost women as well. Yeah, so yeah, I’ve, I’ve come full circle. Hopefully [laughs].
Jacqui’s GP gave her a card to contact a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency and she wishes the doctor had actually made the call, as it took a while for her to ‘pluck up enough courage’ (see ‘Getting help from doctors and other health professionals for domestic violence and abuse’). Yasmin had little freedom from her controlling abusive husband and was upset that her doctor, health visitor or her children’s teacher did not pick up on signs and ‘analyse’ or ‘dig’ into her situation.

Yasmin’s medical history showed repeat bouts of depression, unwillingness to talk, and non-attendance for her children’s routine checks. She was also absent from school events.

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Age at interview: 32
I think my main, main thing should be if they analyse the problem they should dig.

Dig. Mm.

In my history, in my medical history, I did see … two different doctors mention the lady is very depressed but refused to open up. They could say … have parenting classes …


… have some, ‘Oh, we have this group running’, or we have this … they … we have red books …


… but I don’t see any use of red books.


Unless a mother want to.


And I think they should make use that red book. They should see the child is going regularly basis, Mum taking the children…

What’s the red book?

The red book when the child born.

For the child. Yes, that you fill in.


Yeah, yeah.

Every time you weigh, every time …


… they have teeth or …

Yes, yes.

I think … GPs, health visitor, and teachers … teach, I think second one is teacher. She knows how the child is doing in education. She know and, and the school should have … a little … workshop for the children to see if they are living in that abuse or controlled environment.
Some women wished friends or family members had intervened (see ‘Getting help from family and friends for domestic violence and abuse’). Women said then even if they had not wanted to hear this at the time, it might have made a difference in the long run. Penny said: ‘No-one suggested he was a bastard and I should get out’, and she only took action eventually when she was warned by her partner’s ex. As she said, however, it’s ‘difficult’ for friends because:
‘Nobody wants to interfere with a relationship that‘s sort of happening. And friends don’t say, “Actually, get out, he’s treating you rubbish”…. on the whole. But it would be, I think it would have been nice if friends had been brave enough to say, “He’s not treating you very well”’.

Support needed after leaving relationship

Leaving an abusive partner was a dangerous and vulnerable time for women and many only managed to leave with support from friends and family members. Women who did not have support locally described their difficulty in getting immediate help. Both Kanya and Ana had to return to their abusive partners as they could not get anywhere to live after leaving. As migrant women on ‘spouse visas’ they could not access public funds to pay for housing or a place in a women’s refuge. For Khalida, leaving her 33 year marriage was like ‘coming out of jail’. Her brain felt like ‘mush’ after a lifetime of abuse. She felt her needs as an older woman with health problems were not adequately assessed by anyone. She is still struggling to find suitable housing.
Min, said the worst thing was having to wait for services.

Min feels that ‘queuing’ to access services might force women to stay with abusive partners (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 47
What was the main thing that was missing, do you think, for you?

Availability, immediate availability.


Any kind of support service. Do you know what the worst thing is?


It’s the queuing system. When you need support, you need it now. You don’t want to wait six months, you don’t want to be in a queuing system, you don’t want to have like a telephone interview, you don’t want to wait for a letter. You need it now. There has to be a way of funding, there has to be a way of sorting out immediate access to have when it is needed, at the root of the problem. Not somewhere in the future when you’ve actually glossed over it or you’ve decided you can actually live with the devil you know. It needs to be accessed and accessible at the point where you ask for help. That’s quite short.
More support needed from police and legal aid

Many women stressed the limitations of the help available via the police, the lack of links with other services and difficulties in accessing legal support. Women who called the police were frequently assessed as not ‘in danger’ unless they were ‘about to be murdered’. Alonya wished the police ‘understood more’ and found them narrow-minded in their thinking.

Victoria urges women to look for information, see their GP, apply for legal aid, and try to gather ‘proof’ of psychological abuse (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 42
I mean what advice would you give other women who are currently in an abusive relationship?

Get out. Look for all the information. Go to your GP. Go to your GP and I guess they can, they can contact other services.

Did you do that?

Hmm no, I didn’t, I didn’t do that. I didn’t feel, I felt like they could only help me so much, that it was down to me. That’s the impression that I got, that there was only so much help.


And physical - mental abuse has only just kind of been recognised, hasn’t it, as part of domestic abuse?

Recognition, yeah, yeah, definitely changed.

So I applied for Legal Aid and they wanted more and more proof. And then a lot of a health visitor I talked to the other day said Legal Aid is still not quite acknowledging, it’s like you need more and more proof when it’s mental, when it’s psychological. If it’s physical abuse then you’ll be granted. But because mine wasn’t physical abuse, mine was mental and psychological abuse, I had to pay myself for the legal.

So it wasn’t even now recognised as?

Legal Aid, I just thought, “I haven’t got the time. [Name]’s withheld [Son]. I haven’t got time for Legal Aid to go on and keep sending me letters saying more and more proof.” We, we could have been like five years down the line until Legal Aid could have said, “Actually, you’ve given us enough proof now. You can go to court,” and by which time, oh my God, five, another five years in that desperate, horrible situation. I, there’s no way I could have – you know, it wouldn’t have been good for me or [Son].


Now it’s done and dusted. We can, we, we’re moving on. we’re so much happier. There’s still wounds, there’s still scars but we’re on our way.

Last reviewed February 2020.

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