According to Women’s Aid, around 1 in 4 women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime. Though shocking, these figures only tell part of the story. So why is domestic violence so common? And what happens if you’re the victim? We spoke to one woman about her experience…
Webster’s dictionary defines the Ripple Effect as: A spreading effect or series of consequences caused by a single action or event.
Domestic violence is like that.
Like a pebble dropped into a lake, the outward ripples and effects of spousal abuse aren’t confined to only the victim – just ask Liam Wilson.
Sitting on the floor and pushing puzzle pieces around, he seems like any normal four year old. With large blue eyes, a thatch of blond hair and a cowlick that stubbornly refuses to be tamed, he looks the picture of childish innocence. So it comes as a bit of a shock when he starts to describe a recent incident involving his mother and father.
“My daddy broke the light,” he says without his trademark dimpled smile, “then he hit my mummy.” At this point Liam climbs onto the couch and chillingly re-enacts what his father did to his mother. “So I hit my daddy because he was naughty. He made my mummy cry.”
He delivers this information in a detached voice, the way a person might describe a scene from a particularly graphic film. Unfortunately for Liam, this is no movie; his mother Emma has been involved in a violent relationship with her partner Simon for six years.
Liam is a child of domestic violence, and sadly, he’s not alone.
According to recent figures issued by the department of health, 750,000 children a year witness violence in the home, with around 300,000 of those children being injured in parental fights.
Although understandably evasive about the sort of abuse Liam has witnessed, Emma reluctantly admits that he has regularly watched her being ‘kicked’, ‘punched’ and ‘spat at.’ But whilst she insists that Simon has never intentionally harmed his son, Emma does acknowledge that Liam has sometimes tried in vain to protect her during rows. This picture is made all the more distressing when you consider that, at 3’ 2”, Liam is certainly no match for his 6’ 4” father.
So if Liam is protecting Emma, who’s protecting Liam?
“Domestic violence is still treated as an adult problem, but children are victims too,” says NSPCC spokeswoman Diana Sutton. “Sadly many will carry the emotional scars long after their physical injuries have healed.”
Someone else who recognises the damage that domestic violence can do is Lauren Rawlins. Like Liam, she also grew up witnessing violent rows between her parents. “My dad was like Jekyll and Hyde. Back then, it was socially acceptable. I remember lying in bed and putting a pillow over my head because I didn’t want to hear what was going on.”
Although Lauren believes that domestic abuse is less tolerated today, recent figures suggest otherwise. According to the Home Office, around 1.2 million women have experienced some form of domestic violence in the last year, whilst figures from a 2013 Avon survey revealed that, shockingly, many women are still unsure of exactly what constitutes ‘domestic abuse.’
“At first I kind of thought my relationship was normal,” says Emma, echoing the findings of the report. “Even with all the arguing it didn’t seem strange to me”.
Like many women in her situation, she explains that it took her a long time to recognise herself as a victim and – in a cruel twist of irony – confesses that her own parents had a volatile relationship. “I didn’t think I was being abused because no one ever told me it wasn’t normal. My parents used to fight all the time.”
Despite her circumstances, Emma adamantly refuses to see herself as just another statistic. Nor does she look like a stereotypical abuse victim. With no bruises and a voice that is both loud and gregarious, it’s only when she speaks about Simon that her smile seems to dim and her eyes become shadowed. “Sometimes I think he’s just looking for an excuse to hit me or kill me…whatever,” she says, with chilling indifference.
Despite a number of high profile media campaigns and widespread efforts to broaden the definition of domestic violence, Emma’s story is still a depressingly common one.
And the problem is only set to get worse.
Although campaigners insist that more government funding is needed to help publicize the issue, effectively tackling domestic violence may require more than just deep pockets.
“Domestic violence has been going on for centuries,” says Sandra Horley, Chief Executive of Refuge. “Factors such as poverty and unemployment may exacerbate the violence, but they do not cause it. Men abuse women because they get away with it – as a society we tolerate it and therefore indirectly condone it.”
But whilst charities believe that education is the key to helping improve awareness, efforts to get schools to provide children with lessons on healthy relationships have been roundly rejected by the Department for Education.
So, if educating the next generation is off the table, what’s the solution? And how can we ensure that Emma and Liam and the thousands of other families living with domestic violence are given the help and support they so desperately need?
According to Holly Dustin of the End Violence Against Women coalition, the real answer may lie in the ability to change attitudes.
“Abuse of women and girls is still a massive problem for our society. We need more than policy and procedures; we need nothing less than a revolution in the way we think about this, across every section of society,”
Emma, however, is not worried about changing attitudes, nor is she preoccupied with social policies or revolutions. For her, the only concern is how her son will be affected in the long term. “I pray every day that Liam will be nothing like Simon,” she says, softly.
According to Diane Sutton, “Domestic violence is still a hidden problem and many victims, especially children, are too scared to speak out.”
But what does Liam think?
“My mummy says I’m a good boy,” he announces proudly, and then gives a heartbreakingly sweet smile.
Put like that, it’s pretty hard to disagree with him.