Domestic violence and abuse is defined by the UK government as "Any incident of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality".
Can you imagine a world in which someone is hiding, too frightened to move? A world where a simple trip to the shops leads to broken bones? Can you imagine a world where the threat of violence is an everyday occurrence? Sadly this isn't a war zone but the everyday lives of many women.
How can I get help?
Domestic violence is an abuse of human rights, an abuse that occurs within a relationship where there should be love and trust. It is a horribly common problem which can happen to anyone, young or old, rich or poor, male or female. Anyone can fall victim to domestic violence and abuse. It has devastating, far-reaching effects on the lives and health of those victims, on their children and on wider society. There are lots of ways to get help if this is happening to you, or to someone you know.
What counts as abuse?
Any form of physical or sexual abuse from your partner or your ex-partner is a form of domestic violence. But the reality is that any form of threatening or intimidating behaviour from them is domestic abuse. It is a way of controlling you and it is a crime.
If you are assaulted or threatened, humiliated or intimidated by your partner in order to make you behave in a particular way. If you feel as though your every move is being monitored, and this frightens you. If you feel you no longer have any independence and no way of getting the emotional, social or financial support you need. These are all forms of domestic violence and abuse.
How can I get help if I am affected by domestic violence?
There are many organisations that help people experiencing domestic violence and abuse. The government, the police, the health service and several charity organisations all have options for you, and places you can turn to for help. You can get advice, practical help, or support, depending on what you need. Here are some of the possible options for you.
If you live in the UK
Phone the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. This is free, confidential and always available. The person you speak to can give you information about help available to you, can discuss your options with you and help you make a choice. They won't force you to do anything you are not ready to do (such as phone the police or leave your partner). You may need somebody to talk to, and they can listen on the phone, or they can advise where you can go for counselling. They can refer you to a local support worker. If you wish to leave your partner, they can refer you to a place of safety (a refuge). They can refer you for legal advice.
Go to your GP. Your GP can help with any of the physical or mental ill effects of domestic violence, and offer support and treatment. They can refer you to the person in their team specially trained to help those experiencing domestic violence. This person may be able to help and support you, and help you to make a safety plan, or they may get help from the local MARAC. MARAC stands for Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference. It is a group of people who represent all the organisations who help those who experience domestic violence. This includes people from the police, social services, schools, women's aid/refuge, housing associations, health service and victim support service. They co-ordinate so that the relevant services for each person work together to protect and support them.
Police Domestic Violence Officers. Some officers are trained specially to offer advice and support to people experiencing domestic abuse. Your local police service may have additional information available.
Contact Women's Aid or visit their website. Women's Aid is a charity which helps women and children who experience domestic violence. There is a huge amount of useful information on their website. It includes recognising domestic violence and abuse, ways to get help, a "survivor's handbook", ways of keeping yourself safe, a website for children and young people affected by domestic violence ("The Hideout"), a forum for survivors, legal advice, and a wealth of other information.
If your abuser might consider getting specialist help
There are a number of possibilities. There are an increasing number of projects in the UK working with the perpetrators of domestic violence to try to prevent abuse. Your GP may know if there is a local one. The Respect Phoneline - 0808 802 4040 - is a charity which aims to provide help for perpetrators of domestic violence.
If you live outside the UK
Other helplines and agencies. There are many other sources of help worldwide, including support specifically for male victims of domestic abuse. An internet search or a local telephone book should reveal something for your area.
What is domestic violence?
In 2013, the UK government agreed to define domestic violence and abuse as: "Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality."
- The definition of "coercive behaviour" was expanded to explain it is: "an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten."
- The definition of "controlling behaviour" was expanded to explain it is: "a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour."
Types of abuse
- Physical abuse - hurting people physically, by kicking, punching, beating, slapping, strangling, burning, biting, etc.
- Sexual abuse - forcing people to have sex when they don't want to, or to perform sexual acts they are not comfortable with.
- Financial abuse - taking control of somebody's money and not allowing them choice. This makes it more difficult for the person to get away from their abuser and to get help.
- Emotional or psychological abuse - destroying a person's feeling of self-worth or independence. This can be by:
- Verbal abuse (blaming, shaming, shouting).
- Keeping a person away from their friends or family.
- Threatening or intimidating behaviour.
- Controlling behaviour.
- Elder abuse - when harm is done to an older person by a family member or partner. This happens in a relationship where there is an expectation of trust, and often to somebody with a disability or illness.
- Certain cultural practices such as:
- Female genital mutilation - this is against the law even when the girl or woman is taken abroad for the procedure to be done.
- So-called "honour" violence - when women are punished for bringing shame on the family by doing something which is not permitted in their culture. For example, inappropriate dress, seeking divorce, having a boyfriend from another group of society, pregnancy outside of marriage.
- Forced marriage - marriage forced to take place without the consent or free will of the person getting married.
Domestic violence happens right across society, whatever gender, race, sexuality, social class or age people are.
Domestic violence is also sometimes referred to as "intimate partner violence" (IPV).
How common is domestic violence?
Domestic violence and abuse is a common problem. One in four women and one in six men will suffer it in their lifetimes. These numbers give some idea of the scale of the problem. From a 2011-12 survey in England and Wales:
- Two women are killed each week by a male partner or ex-partner.
- At any one time 100,000 people are at risk of being murdered or seriously harmed due to domestic violence.
- 1.2 million women a year suffer domestic abuse.
- 4 in every 100 women have been stalked every year.
- Around 1,500 cases of forced marriage are reported each year.
- 66,000 women are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation.
- Domestic violence costs the taxpayer around £36 billion every year.
Worldwide, up to 70% of women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some time in their lives.
Whilst domestic violence can affect anybody, it affects women more often than men.
What questions should I ask myself?
If you have had to change your behaviour because you are frightened of your partner, it is likely you are suffering from domestic abuse.
Questions to ask yourself
If the answer to one or more is "yes", you may be in an abusive relationship. (These questions may apply to a close family member rather than a partner.)
- Are you ever frightened of your partner?
- Does your partner put you down in front of other people?
- Have you ever changed your behaviour because you are scared of what your partner might say or do?
- Does your partner stop you from seeing your friends or family? Or do you avoid your friends and family because you are embarrassed about how your partner treats you?
- Has your partner ever hurt you or your children, or threatened to do so?
- Has your partner ever damaged or destroyed any of your possessions?
- Does your partner have a bad or unpredictable temper?
- Has your partner ever forced you to have sex, or perform sexual acts, when you didn't want to?
- Is your partner jealous or possessive? Does your partner accuse you of having affairs or flirting when it isn't true? Does your partner check up on you, read your emails and messages, or follow you?
- Does your partner threaten to commit suicide, or self-harm, or harm someone else if you were to leave?
- Does your partner not allow you access to money when you need it, or your phone or transport? Are your finances rigidly controlled, or do you have to account for every penny?
- Does your partner ever suggest that any of these things are your fault?
- Are you frightened that your partner might catch you reading this?
Who is affected by domestic violence?
Domestic violence has far-reaching effects on the victim, both physically and mentally. It also has strong links with child abuse, and its cost to society as a whole is enormous.
Effects of domestic violence on the person being abused
Possible effects include:
- Physical injuries.
- Death, by suicide or homicide.
- Miscarriage during pregnancy, as well as premature labour and fetal distress in the infant.
- Unintended pregnancy.
- Lost opportunities - jobs, hobbies, children, friends, experiences. Lost relationships with family, friends or children.
- Low self-esteem.
- Anxiety or depression.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Substance abuse
- Poor health generally (women suffering domestic abuse often go to their GPs with vague symptoms for which there is no obvious cause).
- Increased risk of acquiring HIV.
There is a strong link between domestic violence and child abuse/neglect. The UK Department of Health says around 750,000 children a year experience domestic violence. In households where there is domestic violence, about three quarters of it is seen by children. About half of these children are abused themselves. Children in these families have a higher risk of being sexually abused.
Effects of domestic violence on children
Depending on their age some possible effects are:
- Physical injuries.
- Sexual abuse.
- Behavioural difficulties.
- Learning difficulties.
- Slow speech and language development.
- Not doing as well at school as they should.
- Not making friends.
- Drug and alcohol abuse.
- Loss of a parent.
- Change in their relationship with their mother.
- Insecurity - they don't feel safe in their own home.
- An increased risk of becoming the perpetrator of violence against an intimate partner in the future (by 3- to 4-fold).
What financial impact does domestic violence bring with it?
It is estimated that the cost of domestic violence in the UK is £3.6 billion a year. This is made up of:
- The cost of the role of the criminal justice system - police, courts, prisons.
- The cost to the NHS - the costs of treating physical injury and mental health problems including hospital care, GP appointments, prescriptions and ambulances.
- The cost of housing.
- The cost to social services.
- The cost to employers.
In the USA the cost has been estimated to be US$ 5.8 billion annually.
What can I do to help someone likely to be experiencing domestic violence?
Because domestic violence is so common, there is a good chance you may know somebody who is, or has been, affected. They may confide in you, or you may recognise some of the signs. For example, they may:
- Have unexplained injuries.
- Have become withdrawn, low or anxious.
- Stop seeing you as often.
- Not seem to have access to money.
- Frequently miss work or social events.
- Appear afraid of their partner/relative or anxious about what their partner/relative might do or say.
- Receive regular phone calls from their partner checking up on them.
- Talk about their partner's jealousy or possessiveness or unpredictable behaviour.
- Be regularly criticised or insulted or put down by their partner/relative in your presence.
Encourage your friend or relative to talk to you. Express concern, and if they haven't confided in you, start with nonspecific questions or comments to show you care. "Is everything OK at home?" "You seem worried about something. Can I help at all?"
Often it is difficult to understand why someone you care about stays in an abusive relationship. Try to understand, and support, not to judge them or become irritated. Some reasons people stay in an abusive relationship are:
- They are frightened of what their abuser may do. (A lot of murders relating to domestic violence happen after the person has left an abusive relationship.)
- They are worried their children will be taken away, or about the consequences for the children.
- They can't afford to live on their own.
- They have lost the self-confidence that they can manage on their own.
- They are embarrassed or ashamed of what has been happening to them.
- Cultural reasons.
- They don't think anyone will believe them.
- They don't think anyone can help them.
- They still love their partner.
You can help by being there to be supportive and non-judgmental. Don't tell them what to do, but help them work out the best solution for themself. All the advice options in the section "How can I get help if I am affected by domestic violence?" (above) offer help, advice and support to friends and family of victims of domestic violence. You can phone, or browse their websites to see what would help in your situation, and you can point your friend towards someone who can help.
Further reading & references
- Home Office: Policy. Violence against women and girls in the UK; GOV.UK, March 2013
- Improving safety, Reducing harm: Children, young people and domestic violence; Dept of Health, November 2009 (archived content)
- Multi-agency statutory guidance on female genital mutilation; HM Government (April 2016)
- Protecting people promoting health. A public health approach to violence prevention in England; Dept of Health, October 2012
- Domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking - Chapter 4: Focus on violent crime and sexual offences, Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW); Office for National Statistics (ONS), February 2017
- Feder G, Davies RA, Baird K, et al; Identification and Referral to Improve Safety (IRIS) of women experiencing domestic violence with a primary care training and support programme: a cluster randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2011 Nov 19;378(9805):1788-95. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61179-3. Epub 2011 Oct 12.
- Buller AM, Devries KM, Howard LM, et al; Associations between Intimate Partner Violence and Health among Men Who Have Sex with Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS Med. 2014 Mar 4;11(3):e1001609. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001609. eCollection 2014 Mar.
- Domestic violence and abuse: how health services, social care and the organisations they work with can respond effectively; NICE Public Health Guidance (February 2014)
- The World's Women 2015. Trends and Statistics. Violence against Women. Chapter 6; United Nations Statistics Division
- Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women: taking action and generating evidence; World Health Organization, 2010
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Jacqueline Payne
Dr Mary Harding