SPECIAL REPORT: Domestic violence not just physical or sexual

DOMESTIC violence takes many forms and doesn’t have to be domestic or violent in the strictest sense.

Academics prefer to use the term “intimate partner violence” so as not to exclude dating relationships where victim and abuser do not share a home. Also, there is debate among support services as to whether the term “violence” should be replaced with “abuse”.

However, there is no desire to get hung up on language, so the services stress that domestic violence can mean any persistent behaviour that puts a woman in fear — for her life, health, or sanity.

Physical violence remains the most obvious form of domestic violence, the visible results making it more easily documented.

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However, many women take themselves out of that category, as they aren’t being punched or kicked, even though they are pushed, dragged, restrained, gagged, spat on, tripped up, and targeted with thrown objects. There may be less bleeding and bruising, but these are no less serious forms of assault and should never be discounted.

Emotional or psychological violence can be harder to quantify, but it is the main reason why women call the Women’s Aid helpline. Constant criticism, accusations and threats are common and the old thinking that only sticks and stones can hurt has now been discredited.

“Death by a thousand words,” is how Women’s Aid director Margaret Martin describes it. “Emotional abuse is so corrosive. Always being put down, never being called anything but the most awful names. One incident of that is not nice, but living with that all the time is devastating.”

A psychological abuser may keep his partner under surveillance, demanding to know where she is and who she’s with at all times, accompanying her every time she is in public and monitoring all phone numbers and text messages.

He may lie to her family and friends about her mental health or imply she neglects the children, or may cut her external ties altogether by making it too uncomfortable for friends and relatives to visit. He may also claim, convincingly, that he’ll kill himself if she leaves him.

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Sexual abuse can be very hard for women to disclose, because what was once consensual has become the ultimate act of degradation. Women talk of being expected to provide sex on demand, regardless of whether they are ill, exhausted, or have recently given birth. They may be raped if they resist. It can happen, or be threatened, in front of the children. They may also be forced into extreme sexual acts.

Financial abuse is a relatively new term, but as a form of abuse it has probably always existed. If she is entirely reliant on her partner’s income, he may not let her have any allowance, or else give her an insufficient amount, monitor where every cent goes, and make her beg for extra.

The payment of child benefit directly to women is considered a safeguard, but with most payments now going into bank accounts, rather than being paid over the counter, and most customers being pushed into online banking, all it takes is for an abuser to demand his partner’s password for him to access the money.

Women with a salary can also be affected, as an abuser may try to sabotage her job by hiding the car keys, destroy her work files, or bruise her so she is too embarrassed to go to the office.

He may make it impossible for her to continue working by refusing to help with, or help fund, childcare. He might put all utility bills in her name, so she has to pay them or insist all income goes into a joint account, which he alone controls.

“You’ll meet women who are well-dressed and who have accounts in different shops so, in theory, they want for nothing but they haven’t got the price of a cup of coffee or a bus fare in their pocket. They have no freedom, no choice, no independence,” says a support worker.

Stalking, particularly through social media, is a more recently recognised form of abuse, though persistent, unwanted contact by a former partner is not new.

The main difference now is the ease with which an abuser can use technology to keep his target under surveillance and in fear. Multiple text messages and phonecalls, which usually go from pestering to pleading to threatening, are a common feature, and Facebook and other social media sites can be employed.

“Twenty percent of women who call us have left their partner, but they can’t leave the abuse. It follows them,” says Margaret Martin. “We have women who have changed their phone number five, six, 10 times — it makes no difference. You can say, switch off your phone or computer, but if every time you turn it on, there are a dozen or 20 or 30 messages waiting from someone you don’t want contact with, that’s very intimidating.”

Research abroad has shown that men who stalk through social media will not just target the woman, but on average 35 of her friends, so even if she manages to password-protect her own web presence, he’ll get to her through others.

“He’ll find out what her mother’s doing or where her friends are meeting, and he’ll turn up or he’ll post messages to let her know he’s on to her.”

Some men have also posted intimate photographs and video online with devastating consequences. “In the past, if you could get hold of the negative of a photograph, you could limit the damage, but now, well, the internet is infinite.”

Day two

Tomorrow we look at the options and obstacles when moving on from domestic violence — physically, legally, and emotionally — and we talk to Women’s Aid and other groups about what more needs to be done to tackle the problem.

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