Thursday, November 28, 2013

Stop the silence, end the violence...

This week is National Domestic Abuse Awareness week. Who’s wearing their white ribbon? Not many of you, I’m guessing. In fact, I’m also guessing that not many of you are even aware that NDAA week is going on. Domestic abuse, sadly, does not enjoy the same level of awareness and support as, say AIDS/HIV with their red ribbons and Breast Cancer Awareness with their pink ones.

This reflects that fact that Domestic Abuse is still a hidden problem, hidden both by the victims and the perpetrators, as well as those around them who stay silent either out of fear or an unwillingness to get involved
There have been some real strides made in the fight against domestic abuse, not least in what is now considered to be abuse. It’s not just the punches and the kicks, it’s the name-calling, the isolation, the preventing them from seeing friends and family, the financial control.  Here in Wiltshire we took part in the pilot for the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, otherwise known as Clare’s Law, after Clare Wood, who was murdered by an ex-partner with a history of violence. A history she knew nothing about. In Clare’s case, when she finally called the police, they took 24 hours to arrive. By that time, her ex-partner had murdered her and set fire to her body.

Here in Wiltshire, we are lucky to have a very proactive Police force who work closely with our Domestic Abuse Reduction Group. The county, historically, has higher than average levels of domestic abuse, in part because of the large military presence. Sadly, our ‘heroes’ are over-represented in domestic abuse statistics and the military is dragging its feet and not engaging with the support that is available both to perpetrators and victims. In 2009, the University of Bristol started to research the problems of domestic abuse within military families after professionals had highlighted the higher than average abuse figures. An on-line survey was made available to military families for a three month period. Only five people responded.
Further research was carried out that showed that 60% of domestic violence victims from military families didn’t seek help because it would have a negative impact on their partner’s career.

While public perception of domestic violence has changed radically over the years, and the ‘I gave my wife a good slapping to keep her in order’ mentality is no longer acceptable, still too few of us really understand domestic abuse, its impact on the victim and on their family. How often do people say ‘well I don’t understand why she stays with him’ as if that somehow makes her culpable? And domestic abuse is far from being a white, working class problem. It affects all areas of society and all types of relationships.

Here is my friend Kate’s story. She is a university-educated professional with a demanding job.  Kate obviously isn’t her real name.

When I first met my ex-husband he was kindness personified. I felt truly blessed to be with him. In the last 10 years though, he changed. He suffered long bouts of unemployment following the financial crisis which led to some serious financial issues. I remember an old saying. ‘When debt comes in the door, love goes out the window’. Suddenly, the kind, loving man I married changed. I felt I was constantly walking on eggshells, afraid to say anything in case it set off one of his moods. He went from calling me ‘darling’ to saying I was a lazy, bitch. He thought nothing of belittling me in front of my family and friends and sometimes, when we went out, I would feel physically sick when I saw the signs that he was about to kick off. It was all done very quietly, no shouting or anything, just insults and humiliation.

The first time he hit me was on the way back from a holiday in France. We had got stuck on the peripherique for an hour and as a result, we missed the ferry. It was the last ferry of the night so we were stranded in Calais.  Somehow this was my fault.  We drove off and parked up on the outskirts of the town. An argument started and for once I tried to stick up for myself. I got out of the car to have a cigarette but he followed me and told me to get back in. When I refused, he punched me in the side of my head. I was too shocked feel the pain. After that, he didn’t stop. He chased me round the car punching and slapping me. He hit me so hard that he ripped my earring out of my ear. He then grabbed me and threw me into the car. I sat, cowering against the door, bleeding from my ear and my mouth, while he ranted at me for ‘making him do it.’  The textbook actions of an abuser. Why didn’t I leave him then? Well I told myself that it was a one off. I made excuses for him. I loved  him.

They say the first hit is the hardest and every one after that gets easier. It was certainly true. After that, the physical abuse got worse along with the emotional abuse. He made me feel that I was unloved and unloveable. He wore me down, destroyed my self-esteem and made me doubt myself. Unknown to him I kept a photographic record of all the injuries and when he eventually tried to strangle me I realised that my life probably was in danger and I needed to get free of him. During the period of contrition that often followed his attacks, I told him that if he didn’t leave, I would go to the Police. Fortunately for me, he left. He now lives with another partner. I told her about his violence but she wasn’t interested. Friends often ask why I didn’t go to the Police and the answer is simple. I was too embarrassed. I’m a middle class, well-educated professional. Domestic abuse isn’t supposed to happen to people like me, is it?
Embarrassment is one of the biggest reasons why victims of domestic abuse don’t seek help. It’s a difficult thing to admit to.

Incidents of domestic violence have increased in the last decade and financial pressures on families certainly haven’t helped. The trigger points for domestic abuse incidents are July and December. Summer holidays and Christmas. It now accounts for between 16 and 25% of all recorded violent crime. Across the country an average of one call a minute is taken by Police control centres reporting domestic violence. One in four women and one in six men (let’s not forget that they can be victims of Domestic Abuse as well) will experience domestic abuse in their life time and on average two women a week are killed by current and ex-partners.
Then there’s the public cost; in social housing, mental health support, criminal justice costs, refuges and housing, not to mention an estimated £1.8bn in lost economic output. Recent figures put the cost to the economy of domestic violence at £5.5bn a year. So domestic violence affects us all.

Know the signs, speak out, support a friend, save a life. And wear a white ribbon.

National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000247 (24 hour freephone)
National Victim Support 0845 303 900

M.A.L.E (Men’s Advice Line and Enquiries) 0808 801 0327