Domestic abuse doesn’t just happen to young women – wake up

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 7 June 2016

Imagine the police arriving at an address where a husband is beating up his wife. What would you expect the couple to look like? A young woman with a couple of crying children and a man struggling to hide his aggression?

That’s true in some cases. But we also need to envisage a very different situation, according to a powerful new film that highlights the plight of older women in violent relationships.

In the two-minute film, made by Ridley Scott’s production company, an older couple played by Tessa Peake-Jones and Phil Davis are enjoying lunch with their daughter and grand-children. It’s a familiar scene, with everyone offering compliments after a beautifully-cooked meal in a welcoming middle-class home.

But something isn’t quite right.

‘You all right, Mum?’ asks the daughter, played by Suffragette star Anne-Marie Duff. Her mother shrugs off the question and it’s only after the family have gone that we see the hidden reality of a violent marriage – Peake-Jones’s character cowering on the stairs as her husband rants and hits her. She has become expert, we realise, in covering the bruises on her face with make-up.

Domestic abuse is being discussed more openly than in the past. We’ve been hearing the same statistic – two women a week are killed by a current of former partner – for decades, but now we are finding out more about the astonishing number of victims whose cases don’t, thankfully, get that far.

An estimated 1.4m women were affected by abuse in 2013-14, according to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data. Men suffer too, but the overwhelming majority of victims are female.

Many of those women are young, but that isn’t always the case. Do You See Her is the title of the new film, reminding us that women in their 50s and 60s are abused by husbands and partners - and that some have been suffering silently for years. One in five victims who access services has been experiencing abuse for 10 years, according to charity Women’s Aid. It may be that it’s even harder for women in this age group to talk openly about what’s happening, not least because of misplaced feelings of loyalty to their partners of many years.

Some women, like the grandmother in the film, don’t want to shatter the illusions of their grown-up children. Shame is a factor as well, especially for women who were brought up with traditional ideas about marriage, and older women may also feel that they have fewer options.

None of this amounts to a reason for staying in an abusive marriage, but it does mean we have to think about the kind of services offered to women leaving an abusive relationship.

Here is an even more extraordinary statistic: the oldest recorded victim of domestic abuse in London last year was 97. It may shock some people to realise that even a woman in her tenth decade is not safe, but it’s a reminder that we have very little idea of what happens behind closed doors.

That’s borne out by a new analysis of victims by the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), which shows that the age range of women affected by abuse in the city in 2015-16 ranged from 16 to the late 90s. Younger women aged 25 to 34 formed the largest single group, representing a third of recorded victims, but just over a fifth were between the ages of 35 and 44.

“Any woman, of any age, can be forced to live in the invisible prison of domestic abuse – including those with adult children and grandchildren”, says Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid. The point is reinforced at the end of the film in a voice-over by Louiza Patikas, who plays abuse victim Helen in The Archers on BBC Radio 4.

In the series, Helen is currently on remand in a mother-and-baby unit after stabbing her abusive husband Rob as she tried to leave him. Calls to the national domestic abuse helpline rose by 20 per cent in the 12 months up to February this year, something Neate thinks is partly down to the ‘Archers effect’.

One of the things highlighted by the short film is that long-term abuse is often entirely unsuspected – even by close family members. If they are unaware, it’s highly unlikely that the violence has come to the attention of the police, a circumstance borne out by one of the most shocking findings in MOPAC’s analysis of victims in London. There were 28 domestic abuse homicides in the city last year and most of the victims were previously unknown to the police.

Do you see her? Most of us don’t. If we’re going to stop this scourge, we need to get rid of stereotypes and myths, and recognise that domestic abuse affects women of all ages and backgrounds.

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