Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Going into a women’s refuge

For some women experiencing domestic violence and abuse, escaping an abusive home is the only safe option available. The first women’s refuges, or shelters, opened in the early 1970s within the UK. They gave women and children who were fleeing domestic violence a safe place to go. At that time there was little provision from any statutory services, so they often ran as charities. Refuges were seen as a last resort by those fleeing abuse. Since then refuges have become part of a much wider range of services for those experiencing abuse. For example, outreach workers and Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs) support women in their own homes. Refuges are still important however, for those who need to flee an abusive home urgently, and who need to be housed away from an area where a perpetrator can find them. 

For women who are eligible, housing benefit will normally cover the cost of a place in refuge. It can be harder for women who are working to secure a refuge place as the costs can be too high. They, and other residents, might also be at risk if the abusive partner follows them home from their place of work. In the past, the location of refuges was a closely guarded secret. However, today, some are known to the police and other services, others are part of their local community, whilst some still remain secret.

Women generally found out about refuges from other professionals such as the police, the housing department, a Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency, the Women’s Aid helpline or a doctor, but occasionally via a friend.


Min felt she was ‘screwed’ by the system as she could not afford to pay for a place in a refuge but felt her life was in danger (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 47
You didn’t go to a refuge at any point?

It was full.

Yes, you mentioned that. When abouts in the trajectory that you’ve told me, the story, when abouts did you try and go to a refuge?

When he broke in with the crowbar.

That day?

That day he had, there was a [unclear speech], you know, this, I was absolutely terrified he was going to break in again. Because, at the time, I didn’t know the guy he brought was a mental health nurse. I thought he was a thug for hire, because that’s what he looked like. I know this, I know this sounds really judgemental, but he was like a heavy, big, thickset, bouncer looking guy.

Well and also carrying a crowbar.

And he had a crowbar. I thought he was a – the 999 call is, “There’s a heavy outside my door, there’s a heavy.” It’s actually in the transcript. Because I didn’t, you wouldn’t think he was a mental health nurse, huh. But sorry, what was the question?

The question was when you tried to go to a refuge and it was full.

Next day, next day. It was full. And I’ll be completely honest with you, they weren’t particularly helpful [laughs].

Well that’s fair enough.

They weren’t particularly helpful, but hey, you know, maybe they were having a bad day or something.

In what way were they not particularly helpful?

They weren’t particularly helpful because, I may be wrong in this, but my understanding is, if you’re self-employed, and if you have your own house, they sort of seem to think you can sort yourself out. You know, it’s, but I may be wrong in this.

Hmm, hmm. And that’s how you think they saw you?

I don’t know if that’s how they saw me. But certainly my understanding is that, to get into a refuge - and I’ve been told this on more than one occasion, but it could be a myth - my understanding is, to get into a refuge you literally have to give up your house and sort of like, you know, go on welfare. And if you’re not prepared to do that, then you have to pay for the refuge. But if you don’t have any money, you’re a bit screwed. I was obviously in the bit screwed [laughs] category [sniffs].

So the refuge said that it was full and they didn’t offer an alternative or anything?

They should have done, but they didn’t. But and then a year later when I sort of had a conversation with them, they sort of said, “Oh, you know, we offer” - “No you didn’t. You know, there’s no point in telling me now you offer alternatives. It didn’t happen at the time.”
Tasha described how a support worker from her local Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency helped her to ring daily until she could secure a place in a refuge in a different town away from her abusive ex, following a serious assault to her and her new partner. The support she got was ‘brilliant’.

The refuge helped Tasha with counselling, with the children and finding a council house, all of which she described as a ‘big weight off her mind’.

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Age at interview: 40
So, but this is, at the end of it, you, that relationship, the relationship …


… had finished, because then he assaulted …

Yeah, because we had been split up for a year …

Right, OK.

… So it was like, no, you know, he’s not, he’s not going to win.


But then when the assault took place I just couldn’t, I didn’t feel safe, so I actually phoned Woman’s Aid, and then they got me in touch with [Local Domestic Violence Service], to go into the refuge. So, yeah, I stayed there and obviously the counselling that you get when you’re in there, and the help and support with like the children was just, just brilliant, finding a new place to live. They just took care of everything. Like, service-wise. It was just like a big weight off your mind because obviously you got that to contend with and looking after the children plus you’ve got to inform all different people in as I say, fill out forms …


… and stuff, and …


... just stuff like that they helped with, which is a big help. So yeah, as I said, they helped me get the, my council house. Yeah.
Kanya had been ‘kicked out’ by her partner and entered a refuge. She felt relief at telling her abuse story for the first time, and receiving help with re-housing and all the paperwork involved from an ‘amazing’ support worker.

Philippa found a refuge in a town away from her abusive partner, where she stayed for nine months with her children. She appreciated the one-to-one and group counselling, activities and care for the children, but she found it hard to live with a mixture of people and a lot of coming and going.

Philippa described life in a women’s refuge. She is glad a national network of refuges exists and that the locations are kept secret.

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Age at interview: 54
And how were you ... how long were you at that refuge for?

Nine months. 

Nine months and what was your experience of being at the refuge like?

It was really difficult, really hard. People come and go all the time. You, there’s such variety of people's circumstances. The staff are fantastic but the relationship of living with other people was really hard. So I appreciate everything the staff did, you know there was one to one counselling and there was group counselling and there was activities and the children were well looked after. But we lived in a house with three bedrooms, so there was myself and the girls in one, and then there was another family in another, then there was a single room for a single person. And you have to get on as best you can with a mixture of people and some people only stayed a night and some people stayed for months. So that was really hard. 

I'd lived on sweets, we sold sweets in the shop so I lived on sweets, I drank a lot of wine, smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of coffee and I didn't have very much else. So I wasn’t living a healthy life…


…but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. 

And did that, I mean did you, obviously when you left and went into the refuge were you able to kind of have the opportunity to change the way 

Yes. There's no alcohol allowed in the refuge so I couldn’t drink there, although we could go out to the pub but we couldn’t have it in the house so that was good. So we had a proper kitchen and our own fridge so it meant I could actually start doing proper meals again. 


So that was really helpful. 

And how did that, how did that feel to kind of be able to return to that?

Really strange but very nice. 

So you had contact with Women's Aid, what was helpful or not helpful about, about what they provided?

I think the fact that they have refuges all over the country meant that I knew that that would be somewhere I could actually go. 


So, you know that really helped in terms of the first situation where I had to get out and find somewhere to stay for the night. And then knowing that I could be somewhere that was not known to him, with my children when I did finally leave, in a place that he didn't know, that made me relax. So you know, nobody knew where it was, it was a P O Box, even my parents didn't know where it was. They knew the town but they didn't know where it was because it's supposed to be secret. And when, and when he contacted them and said, I think he got his solicitor to send my dad a letter to say that he had to disclose it, my dad could say I don't know where she is, I don't know where the children are, you know truthfully. 


So I was really grateful for the fact that it was secret, because that really helped, gave me time to make me feel relaxed again, be normal, but feel safe. 
Refuge workers were able to reassure women about their decision to leave their abusive partner, since years of controlling behaviour typically led women to doubt themselves.

Impact on children

A stay in a refuge with other women and children brought its own stresses. Jane felt that entering a refuge was a ‘backward step’ but found it helpful to talk to other women in similar circumstances. Her children disliked being crammed into one room on bunk beds in an unfamiliar place that was 20 miles away from their schools, a journey they had to make twice a day. 

Sara’s children stopped bedwetting once they were in the refuge and away from their father. For Sara this was an amazing, positive sign. However, Sara herself likened the refuge to a ‘prison’ where she could have no visitors, and no-one knew where she was, in an unfamiliar area with new schools for the children. Sara would like to see an ‘advice guide’ for women entering a refuge listing all the things to sort out like applying for housing, benefits and child custody.

Sara finally recognised her husband’s behaviour as abusive when she was in the refuge, but continued to miss married life (read by a professional).

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Age at interview: 40
And then I rung to go into a refuge and then basically went to the refuge which was like prison. 

Was that locally in this area?

No it’s [name of town], somewhere I didn't know. And I do feel like refuge is like a prison, because I said I had ... it's not like I could see my family all the time and not telling people where you are. And I think even though when you've been with someone who's abusive you still miss that person there which is really strange. And I was really low because I was like I went into marriage thinking that's it for life, you know. I know marriage isn't perfect and there would be trying, testing times, but it was just like the sex thing just started and just continued and then the whole thing with the money just continued. And even my word, like when I come out of hospital he said, because he used to use scripture and say, during the marriage, you submit to your husband. And I said but Christ says to love your wife as you love the church. And he was like but first you submit and I remember him using that one time when he was on about sex and he said, “You're suppose too submit to me." And very much you must do, you know kind of pointing the finger. 

So you went into this ... were your children with you in the refuge?


How long did you stay there?

Three months which is quite short apparently. 

But it wasn’t where you had local friends or family. 

No, no. but the children both stopped bedwetting after two weeks and for me that was like an amazing sign of like wow.
For some women like Kanya and Ana, entering a refuge meant separation from their children when they stayed full-time or part-time with their father.

Ana felt the refuge was a haven where she felt ‘free’ but her children spent half the time with their dad who had a negative influence on their behavior (played by an actor).

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Age at interview: 32
I went straight into the refuge.

Right, okay. Yeah. And how long were you there for?

I was there for less than a year, just under a year I think.

Right. Okay, and then you’ve got your own place after?

Yeah, yes, it was, it was a journey.

I’m sure.

You know, it was, it wasn’t easy because the children didn’t know, and at that point, they still had contact with their dad…


… and they had a lot of contact with their dad. They had like half the time with him.


We actually didn’t live in the main house, we lived in one of the flats.


So we had a bedroom, had one bedroom with all our stuff. So I guess for me, it was a haven.


I remember saying to [name], “I feel, I feel free.”


Obviously it wasn’t the end, you know.


But I said, “I feel free.” Unfortunately, my children didn’t feel the same.

No. Mm.

They found it, they found it hard and that reflected on the stuff he was telling them when they would go and see him reflected in their behaviour, which is still ongoing, unfortunately the issue.

Many women said that access to a support worker was minimal, often one hour a week. In some refuges there was neither an office nor staff on site. Accommodation was cramped and often dirty.

Jessica said ‘by going through the [refuge] door you lost your identity’, but she encouraged her local Domestic Violence and Abuse Agency to incorporate a simple ‘welcome pack’.

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Age at interview: 46
It was a new refuge they hadn’t stocked it up with any of the things that we needed. We were left there two of us on a Friday, with no toilet rolls, no towels, no telephone, no nothing. We were, two of us left there. The other person had just been rescued from a house from her mother and she just had the clothes she was wearing. I was better off. And it was just awful. And we didn’t get a lot of support because the staff kept leaving. And things happened in the refuge, just, the fuse box nearly caught fire, the sewage system got blocked. We had black fly infestation [laughs]. It just was awful. And you think you’re sharing a house with other people, but nobody’s interacting with anybody. And you could be in the house and not know if anybody else was in the house. And it was really strange place to be.

And also you, by going through the door you lost your identity, because you were living in a hiding, you became a nobody. And that’s really awful as well. You know, one minute you are  a wife, mother, and then you are, become a nobody. You sort of, a bit like being on a desert island with nothing. 

The experience in the refuge, the support when you first leave.


I think it’s vital that you have people to talk to when you need to and since [local domestic abuse agency] have put into action something I suggested which was when somebody goes into the refuge there’s a box of tissues [laughs] which is vital, which means you are loved and supported and a little goody bag with like soap and flannel and a towel, and toilet roll. And a little package of food.


Because you go in with nothing. And, I mean, just that box of tissues, just means so much to you. That you know, that somebody’s supporting you. And that’s what [local domestic abuse agency] produce now.

And that’s because of what you said?

Yeah. Yeah, they’ve put this little package together.

Well done.



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.
Getting a refuge place in the area they wanted, usually away from their abusive partner, was sometimes problematic. Lindsay was terrified when her ex traced her at the refuge and turned up with a shotgun. Behaviour could be challenging in a refuge, where everyone had experienced abuse.

Anna talked about the ‘hell’ of everyday life when living in a refuge, which was ‘almost as bad as living with a perpetrator’.

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Age at interview: 47
What about the refuge? Couple of refuges you were in, I mean, what was, how was that, being in there?

Hard. Really hard. The second refuge was [sighs] it was, it was almost as bad as living with a perpetrator. It was hard. And going by that second refuge if I ever had the choice of doing it again, no I wouldn’t go into a refuge again.

What was it, what was it like?


How was it?

Not all the women are from domestic abuse and they would take over the role of being a perpetrator. And I was having to get the young children up and out on the bus stop by ten to seven to get into town to get them back to over the other side of town…


… because I wanted the consistency at the school they has started because to, it would just be too many changes.


And we would get home about six in the evening from school.


Bearing in mind I’d have to do the tea stuff, if there was space in the kitchen. You have the other children. [Name of son]’s difficulties were becoming a bit more noticeable. But in hindsight now I understand [laughs].

Yeah. You understand why.


So, I mean, in terms of the support that you were provided from specialist services, is there anything that could be improved? That could have helped you?

[Sighs] I don’t think refuges with women and children work [laughs]. I don’t think they do. I think many women in one house do not work [laughs]. Not all women have experienced what you’ve experienced, have got no idea and it just, didn’t work. 

It wasn’t, wasn’t right for you.

It wasn’t right. You know, so, I’d only be able to do the clothes washing in the evening. That’s if the machine was available. So, no, it just didn’t, and then you’ve had other families where the mother didn’t see to the children and they’d, social services then involved…


…and you’d have to give statements to the police. It just, no, I wouldn’t do it again. And I’m glad that wasn’t our first experience because I think if I’d had had that bad experience after I had immediately …


… left him, possibly I could have gave up and gone back. I did leave that refuge early to go and stay with a lady that I’d befriended at my stay there who had …


… got already rehoused.

Right. OK.

And I did leave early and go and stay with her until the house that I’d been offered was ready because I couldn’t cope with it any more.
Migrant women had particular difficulties entering a refuge and having to deal with unfamiliar systems for housing, money, benefits and work, shopping and cooking, having left controlling partners who had denied them independent access to the outside world.

Yasmin and Khalida, both migrant women from Pakistan, had a difficult time in refuge. Yasmin knew little about how to live in the UK, she had no money or belongings, and lived in fear of her partner finding her and killing her and the children. She had constant flashbacks of her partner threatening her with a knife and felt her life had sunk to ‘below human life’, yet no-one recognised it.

Yasmin had been allowed no freedom in her marriage. During nine months in a refuge she learnt how to survive in a practical sense but felt un-supported when she left.

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Age at interview: 32
And where are you getting your support from now? Are you getting any?

I don’t get any support now.


The time I left the refuge I didn’t get any support at all.


So they tried and help us in nine months to show me how to get the bus, how to get … Google Maps and check which bus to go where, and check … show me how to look the maps. Get admission forms filled for my children to go new schools. Walk them with that confidence nothing going to happen. Stop looking behind your shoulder all the time. They, they taught me lots of stuff, but … when you’ve lived your life more than twelve … nearly thirteen years … nine months are not enough to change old habits.

Yes. Yeah. Who helped you get the court … molestation order you had …?

The refuge people, they provided a solicitor.
Ana, a migrant woman from Europe, married to a UK citizen, tried to flee from her controlling and physically abusive husband, who had attacked her when she was pregnant. She rang the National Domestic Violence Helpline and discovered she could not access funding for a refuge place because she was on a spouse visa and not eligible for public funds. It took her another seven years to change her status, leave her husband and enter a refuge. Many women had to deal with ongoing harassment and threats from their ex-partner after leaving the refuge and they felt that support after leaving was missing. Tasha, for example, was offered a place back in the refuge but she resisted as it felt like ‘going into hiding’ rather than getting advice on how to stay safe.

Refuge workers helped women to find somewhere to live once they left, and supported their applications for social housing. Many women described moving around temporary accommodation for some time, before finding a permanent place to live.

Last reviewed February 2020.

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