The Law is Failing Domestic Abuse Survivors

woman walking away from domestic abuse

Trigger Warning: Domestic abuse, violence against women

It didn’t occur to me to go to the police when my boyfriend tore up my favourite dress in front of me. It didn’t occur to me to go to the police when he locked me in the house and confiscated my keys. It didn’t occur to me to go to the police when he hit my head off a door so hard that it left me with concussion and a perforated eardrum.

In my six year relationship with an abuser, I never once googled domestic abuse law or women’s refuges, because it didn’t occur to me that I was a victim of domestic abuse. When violence against women is covered in the news, it’s always the most extreme cases of acid attacks, broken bones, and murder. The 2009 Women’s Aid advert featuring Keira Knightley was released the year I was assaulted for the first time, in my kitchen. The violent attack it portrayed didn’t even strike a chord with me because I was already been convinced I had deserved my own.

Domestic abuse is not a mugging; identifying it takes careful research and understanding of the complex methods required to keep a victim in their place. It means mentally unpicking everything that happened over the course of your relationship and examining it for coercion and cruelty. Abuse has its own mundane routines and the deep breath you take before opening the front door, wondering what’s in store tonight, doesn’t make headline news or a compelling police statement.

We all know the other factors that make abuse difficult to report; it happens in the supposed safety of your own home and there are usually few or zero witnesses. Most ‘evidence’ supplied by friends and family will be, at best, anecdotal observations about how withdrawn you’ve become. “I thought you were just growing up,” my mum confessed sadly when we talked about my transformation from textbook extrovert to melancholy personified.

“I had given this man nearly eight years of my life and in return, he was sentenced to nine months of community service to “pay back society” and a £500 fine to pay back me.”

It took 15 months from the moment I walked into my local police station to the Friday afternoon I got a call at work to let me know my abuser had entered a guilty plea. We were due in court for a trial on Monday morning. When I phoned my mum, she pulled over her car to cry in a layby.

In a recent high profile case, a Shetland man was convicted of the abuse of his wife of 30 years. On one occasion when she’d managed to escape, he caught her and drove her home in the boot of his car. It didn’t surprise me to learn they had six children together; pregnancy is a common control tactic that keeps a woman vulnerable and dependent on her abuser. Almost a third of domestic abuse cases begin with pregnancy.

When I heard his conviction reported on the radio, the tone of the story was celebratory. He’d been sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. That didn’t put me in a celebratory mood. It’s a simplistic comparison, but I see it as less than 10% of the sentence she had endured.

Because that’s what an abusive relationship is, a sentence. As you are discouraged from contacting friends, continuing your education, accepting job offers, or doing anything that might make you strong enough to leave him. You move further and further away from the life you want and who you fundamentally are as a person. If and when you manage to escape, it’s a hands-and-knees crawl to normalcy. I’m trained as a journalist but didn’t start printing off CVs the night I broke up with my abuser, finally free to use my degree. It’s been three years of flinching at normal human contact, winning back alienated friends, and learning that quality time with my family is not a privilege that requires lengthy negotiations with my partner.

“Abusers are the judges passing sentence, the police taking statements, and the jurors listening to evidence. They are everywhere.”

It may surprise you that, despite everything, the conviction rates in the UK are pretty high; 75.4% in England and Wales, and slightly higher at 80% in Scotland. Both legal systems now also recognise coercive and controlling behaviour in their own right without someone laying even a finger on you. Sadly, this legislation came too late for me and my experience was boiled down by the Crown Office to a handful of incidents. I had given this man nearly eight years of my life and in return, he was sentenced to nine months of community service to “pay back society” and a £500 fine to pay back me.

I don’t say this lightly, but now I’ve been through the court system, I can see why people don’t do it. I don’t wish to discourage anyone; the relief and closure I feel now would have been nearly impossible without this experience — but I was extremely lucky to have a group of his friends who volunteered to give statements and confirm my story. I realised I was going to win my case when I phoned my liaison officer with more details to add to my statement and he said, “Don’t worry about it. We have enough.” I often think of people in the exact same situation, clawing together enough material for charges that will stick, but their abuser tied up loose ends that little bit better.

Abuse doesn’t vary across income, education level, postcode, or culture. The statistics are the same across the board, which means abusers are the judges passing sentence, the police taking statements, and the jurors listening to evidence. They are everywhere, taking pity on abusers who maintain a solid front and charming persona.

I don’t believe for a second that because of an inconvenient court case and slap on the wrist, my abuser sees what he did to me was wrong. Prison would be a hyper-masculine environment for him to nurse his grievances against me, and women generally. We need a specific programme for male abusers to help them unlearn their disdain for women, their entitlement and their lack of empathy. Though expensive, it would cost nothing compared to domestic abuse, which sucks £5 million out of the economy every week in England alone.

Domestic abuse isn’t a spectrum, but a line that is crossed. I am hopeful, as our legal systems progress, that it won’t take broken bones for a person to realise they are being abused, but that the deep breath taken in fear at their own front door will be enough.

If you currently are, or think you are, in an abusive relationship and would like to seek help, Refuge charity can help. Please also speak to a trusted friend or family member who may be able to help and support you. Most importantly, remember that you do not deserve the abuse you are suffering, and that it is not your fault.

If you are a man and are looking for help out of an abusive relationship, please contact Men’s Advice Line for advice and support.

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