How the UK's cost-of-living crisis is preventing women from fleeing abuse

Cost-of-living crisis prevents women fleeing abuse
5 min read
20 December, 2022
A worrisome winter combination of a cost-of-living crisis with ongoing social uncertainty has forced many British women to stay with their abusers. With support networks struggling to identify or fund programmes, safe spaces for women are shrinking.

“The fear of how I would feed and keep my children warm and the anxiety of where we would live – given our flat was in his name – prevented me from leaving. I accepted his violence over destitution, which locked me in a cycle of abuse,” Farah told me when I first met her and whom I recently supported to move on to a safer life finally.   

The cost of living for many women trapped in domestic violence is the fragile line between life and death. 

"The lack of financial safety means women stay trapped longer with abusers, risking their lives and potentially that of their children. Without the provision of a multi-agency support system, they are unable to rebuild their lives"

In making her decision to leave, Farah tried to justify her partner’s behaviour. “It wasn’t as bad as a few years back, but then he lost his job during the lockdown, and things got worse," she said. "He would make us wash our hands every hour, and wake me up screaming in the middle of the night to make him something to eat. 

"Every day I would wake up to find the contents of the bin strewn over the floor, fervently cleaning it all up before he woke. In the last year, food, bills and rent have gone up and his frequent slaps and pushes moved to punches and kicks.  It became too difficult to hide the bruises on my face, arms and body.” 

Domestic violence is a choice on the part of the abuser. Farah, whose name has been changed to protect her, was subjected to a decade of emotional, physical and financial abuse before she made the decision to leave her violent husband – for good this time. 

The only way she could afford to leave her partner was through her brother’s support. He had bought a house outside of London to move into when he returned from abroad, in the interim Farah’s brother offered it to her to start a new life.  

Other family members provided her with essential living funds, an advocacy agency grappled with untangling her from her joint Universal Credit account, and a social worker enabled the children to transfer schools and facilitated counselling for the family. 

The lack of financial safety means women stay trapped longer with abusers, risking their lives and potentially that of their children. Without the provision of a multi-agency support system, they are unable to rebuild their lives. 

Farah held back for so long, afraid of the unknown financial consequences, the cold and her ability to feed her young children – with the cost of living pushing her further into helplessness. 

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She reminded me of a woman I helped to flee from domestic violence over 25 years ago. On a bitter December day, we ran outside, with the woman wearing only her flimsy clothes, her breast milk seeping through her blouse as she clung to her newborn, grabbing her younger children and shuffling down the road into the waiting taxi. 

At the time, a friend and I supported domestic violence victims; together we helped this woman escape her abuser while he was not at home.

It was much cheaper to book a taxi then and the food was less expensive. The woman we helped had no mobile phone bills to contend with, they could only access public telephone booths, and neighbours who passed messages to us. 

Warm clothes could be sourced easily, there was an absence of fuel poverty, and the notorious universal credit didn’t exist. 

Social workers, nurses and health practitioners were not as overworked as they are now and didn't need access to food banks to help with their own cost of living. It was not perfect, but far better than it is now.  

Even without access to the internet, there was a support system of women-led community projects and a thriving advocacy voluntary sector.   

That’s gone now under years of austerity, slashing lifelines for many. 

There are countless women trapped in abusive relationships, many of whom are financially dependent on their partners or husbands, either because they are raising young families or because their abuser has prevented them from working to maintain control over them.

Even those who are working are facing heavy financial pressures from escalating costs and don’t feel able to leave without the funds to survive alone, especially if they have dependent children.

For women whose first language is not English, the burden is increased, and fear keeps them rooted in the daily nightmare of coercive control and violence as they may not know how, or who to contact for help. 

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The national domestic abuse charity, Refuge, offers lifesaving support to thousands of abused women and their children and provides safe houses for those escaping domestic violence.

The statistics on their website are shocking – the police are contacted every 30 seconds about domestic abuse incidents. The charity is also calling on the government to prioritise women’s safety online through the Online Safety Bill.  

An anonymous Refuge frontline worker said: "It feels like survivors of domestic abuse have been completely forgotten about in this crisis. I have clients whose financial situation is so difficult since fleeing that they are considering returning to their abuser. They are reliant on food and clothes banks, they have cancelled and cut back anything and everything they can, to be able to afford to pay their bills."

As families and friends raise a glass together over the festive season in the safety of their homes and spaces, there are women whose Christmas punch won’t be in a glass. 

Rabina Khan is a former Councillor and Special Adviser. She is a London-based writer, and an Aziz Foundation Scholar and also works for a national charity empowering girls and women.

Follow her on Twitter: @RabinaKhan