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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.
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.


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