Physical violence and impacts on women’s health
It is not just being injured by a partner which can cause physical harm to women. Research shows that domestic abuse can be associated with a range of poor health issues including gynaecological problems, irritable bowel syndrome and gastro-intestinal issues. Some of the women we spoke to described the effects of domestic violence and abuse on their body, such as being unable to eat properly or experiencing long-term health problems. Julia explained that for her:
‘It had been 20 years of just constant battles. So I had chronic fatigue syndrome’. Things got so bad that they ‘got to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed’.
Physical violence was generally carried out with anger or extreme rage, frequently accompanied by verbal abuse. A common feature was that men generally justified their actions, showed little remorse and blamed it on the woman’s behaviour.
Physical violence increased over time
Physical violence often began with a small act, such as a slap or being grabbed by the hair, and escalated during the relationship, sometimes leading to a full assault that required hospital treatment. Philippa’s partner of thirteen years began by being controlling. Philippa used to feel guilty going out with friends, as he did not like it, and she felt sorry for him. It escalated to serious physical abuse over time, involving ‘constant beatings’ after which her partner would look at her and say ‘Did I do that?’ Some women said that violence continued after they had left the relationship. Tasha had years of increasing abuse from her partner. Because of his controlling behaviour she lost friends, lost control of her finances, endured emotional and sexual abuse, but avoided escalation to physical assault by appeasing him and trying not to upset him. After they split up, he violently assaulted her and her new partner. Physical violence as a form of control
Many women were in controlling relationships in which their partner set the ‘rules’. If the woman did not behave in the ‘right’ way, then their partner would become physically violent. Women frequently said their partners were careful to avoid injuring them in areas that could be seen, such as the face or arms. Chloe said her partner was ‘clever’, never doing anything that left obvious evidence. If injuries were visible, women were not allowed out of the house for a while or were threatened that worse was to come if they told anyone. After being beaten up, Linda received threats to harm her daughter if she went to the police. She managed to slip away to the police station without her husband knowing. Khalida had to ‘ask permission’ to go anywhere outside the house, and her in-laws visited all the time to ’keep an eye on [her]’. But if she tried to question her husband about his whereabouts, he became physically violent. Women described living in fear of their partner’s next violent outburst. This fear was a powerful form of control. Men would get women to comply with their demands by threatening further violence. When Tanya’s husband starting directing his violence towards the children Tanya knew it was time to leave. How women responded to physical violence
Physical violence was often the trigger for women to leave, since serious damage to themselves or their home often led to the involvement of outside agencies such as the police or health professionals. Jacqui was concerned that her partner had seriously damaged her back after one particular attack. It was this incident which finally prompted her to get help and so she eventually went to A&E (Accident and Emergency). Before this, however, she would make up stories to excuse her injuries and to avoid telling people about what was really happening to her. Nessa tried to hang on to the belief that her partner loved her, despite his physical abuse. She felt ‘silly’ telling anyone. Many women felt so low in confidence that they believed it when their partner blamed them for his violence, feeling they had caused their partner to get angry and that they ‘deserved’ the attack. Jane said that after being slapped she hoped her husband was just having an ‘off day’ and that ‘things would get better’. If women stood up for themselves, this usually led to increased violence. Alonya was regularly ‘punished’ if she did not perform household tasks to her partner’s satisfaction, but when she challenged him, he became extremely violent. He blamed the attack on Alonya and called his sister for support. Sometimes women stood their ground with a positive outcome. When Mandy was violently attacked by her partner she ‘made damn sure it didn’t happen again’. Violence towards property and belongings
Women gave accounts of their partners regularly punching walls with their fist, breaking windows or doors when angry, usually combined with verbal and physical abuse towards them. Mandy spent a night locked in a hotel bathroom to protect herself from her partner’s anger. He was shouting and screaming at her, punching and head-butting the walls. She realised that this ‘might be me one day’.
Some women, like Ana, talked about their partner smashing up mobile phones or laptops to stop them connecting with the outside world. Violence often erupted when women told their partner that they wanted to end the relationship. Women frequently said that it they were the one to leave, of if they were away for any reason, their partners would damage their property in retaliation. Linda went to a work conference for two days, and returned to find all her clothes had been cut up and her University teaching files shredded. Later, when he left her, her partner smashed up the family home and stole all her personal information, her financial details and her computer.