Hilary Abrahams is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Violence Against Women Research Group at the University of Bristol. She has worked extensively on the support needs and service provision for families where domestic violence is an issue, including a major research project evaluating the housing and support schemes funded by the Safer Communities Supported Housing Fund. Here, Hilary answers some questions about her new book, Rebuilding Lives after Domestic Violence: Understanding Long-Term Outcomes, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Yours is the first study in 30 years to follow women from the refuge into their new lives, and to cover such an extended period. Why is it important to look at long term outcomes, and why do you think it hasn’t been done before?

Domestic violence and abuse can devastate the lives of those who experience it; life becomes unsafe and unpredictable, social contact is lost and confidence and self esteem disappear. And in taking the decision to leave and start again, there are many other practical and emotional problems to face – building up a home, regaining control over their lives and the loss of a close relationship, however dangerous it had become. None of this is easy – it takes a long time to rebuild a life.

Refuges provide an essential breathing space for women to recover from the initial impact of leaving and receive support as they prepare to move on. But support needs to continue to be available within the context of their new lives as they try out new ways of being and learn to live independently. As one of them said to me, ‘It’s not just in the refuge, it’s a few years down the line’. Looking at how women adjust to life after leaving an abusive relationship, the support they want and the obstacles they face, can assist in the provision of effective and appropriate services to help women to reintegrate into the community and, as many of the women in the book are doing, make a valuable contribution to society.

In the early days of refuges, the priority was the provision of emergency accommodation for women and children, and research was focused on showing why this was so desperately needed and on raising public awareness of domestic violence. It was always accepted within the refuge movement that most women would need some form of support after leaving the refuge, but with scarce resources, help had to be targeted to where it was most needed. Emergency accommodation is still essential and refuge provision and women-only services are still under funded, under provided and under threat. But there has been a more general recognition of the value of services for women within the community and over a longer period, and growth in the provision of these services. Research is now broadening its approach to look at these wider areas of activity and I see this as a natural progression which builds on the work of earlier researchers.

How did you come to meet the women featured in the book, and how did you keep in touch with them? How has the long scope of your study benefited them?

Back in 2000/02, I talked to women living in three refuges run by members of the Womens Aid Federation of England and a few years later I was part of a major study carried out for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) which talked to women during a stay in a refuge and soon after they were re-housed. Contact with women was made through the workers in the refuges and safe houses involved. Many of the women, when they talked to me about their hopes for the future, suggested that I came back and saw them again in a few years time to see how they were getting on. So I then specifically asked all of them for their permission to contact them again, if I was able to get funding to run another research project. Consequently, when The British Academy granted me funding, I already had a list of possible respondents.  

I did not keep in touch directly with the women for a number of reasons – it could raise false expectations if I was unable to get funding, it could be seen as exploitative or intrusive and, most importantly, it could have put their lives in danger if they were back with their abuser or had a further abusive relationship. But the Centre where I am based at Bristol University (Centre for Gender and Violence Research) has evolved out of a group primarily concerned with domestic violence and has a long and proud tradition of activism and involvement with the women’s movement. It was natural, therefore, for me to retain links with all the refuge groups I had worked with, updating them on my research and forwarding any information I felt could be of use to them.

When I found that I had funding to carry out the research, I was able to go back to each of the refuges I had worked with and work with them to see who it might be safe to contact.

The women who responded to my letter were very clear about why they had chosen to reply and what they saw as the benefits to them of taking part. They saw our meetings as giving them an opportunity to reflect on their individual journeys: for most, it became a celebration of their new lives and achievements with someone who had met them at a low point in their lives and knew just how far they had come. Equally important was the realisation that their experiences, thoughts and opinions were worth listening to and could be used to help other women.  Because they had met me before, they trusted me to bear accurate witness to what they wanted to say and the long-term nature of the project meant that they were able to talk not only about their time in the refuge and what this had meant to them, but about the long-term effects of abuse and the struggles and dilemmas they had faced in rebuilding their lives.

What did you find were some of the more enduring effects of domestic violence for these women?

For some women, the physical effects of abuse – deformed bones, deep scars, constant pain – will never leave them and the mental scars are no less damaging and long lasting. But, for most of the women, physical and emotional health had improved rapidly once they were away from the abusive situation and there was a reduction in the coping strategies and behaviours they had used to numb the mental and physical pain of the abuse. There were still times when sadness and depression were evident and women talked of a diffused sense of fear and anxiety which was always there in the background of their lives. Probably the most enduring consequence of the abuse was the lack of trust which resulted in a wary approach to individuals and agencies.  When love and trust have once been betrayed, it is extremely difficult to place faith in others or, indeed, in yourself, when you seem to have got it so wrong before.  This makes it hard to build new relationships within the community and especially to find the courage to commit to another intimate relationship.

What were some of the factors that facilitated their successful transition to independent living?

Maslow argues that human beings look for certain things in their lives, over and above the need to sustain life.  They look for safety, to link to others and to feel a sense of confidence and self-worth. Domestic violence destroys all of this and a successful transition to independent living requires this structure to be reinstated. Women need to regain a sense of safety, rebuild links to others and regain self-esteem and confidence. For many of them, refuges are the places where this regeneration can start; they offer safety, a sense of community and the sort of support that can grow self worth and confidence and bridge the space between leaving the abuse and independent living. And it is important to say that women felt very strongly that these services needed to be provided by women, in women-only spaces. 

In moving back into the community, the same factors gave the key to making a successful transition. Firstly, safe, appropriate housing ‘a place of my own’, then practical and emotional support while they settled in and gained confidence in their abilities. This needed to be there for them in the long term, although at a much lower intensity. And when these two factors were in place, the third necessity was to build long term relationships within the new community.

In the book, you talk about leaving a domestic violence situation as a ‘process’. What do you mean by that?

Taking the decision to leave an abusive relationship is a complex one, involving considerations of risk and safety, the availability of resources and the gains and losses involved. And the situation is made even more difficult by the effect domestic violence has had on confidence and self-esteem. Some women leave temporarily, to give themselves a respite from the abuse; others may still be hopeful that the relationship may work and leaving may provide the shock needed to improve the situation.  These women may need to leave and return a number of times before they are finally ready to move on. Some may return because of the financial and social difficulties they see facing them, but leave again at a later date. For all of these women, the process of leaving may provide space to reflect on the relationship and her needs and gradually increase her confidence in her ability to live independently.

For some of the women I met, leaving had been a ‘once and for all’ action, driven by anger, or fear of imminent death. Others had experienced this ‘process’ of leaving and returning until they felt they were ready to finally leave. They valued the way support had continued to be available to them and that workers had not ’given up’ on them because they had returned to their abusers.

The message of your book is one of hope. What positive lessons can be derived for those working in support services? For other victims of domestic violence?

I think there is one clear message both for service providers and women who experience domestic violence and abuse – don’t give up! Leaving an abusive relationship is not easy, neat, simple, or straightforward, but with courage, determination and appropriate support, new and better lives, free from violence, can be built and maintained.    

At the end of our last meeting, I asked all the women if there was a message that they would like to send to other women who were experiencing domestic violence.  Their responses, intensely personal and deeply moving, showed how they had moved on in their lives, established new non violent relationships and were now able to reach out to offer hope and encouragement to other women who were suffering as they had done in the past.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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