People are struggling to leave their abusers in the cost of living crisis. Image: Unsplash
Sarah met her former partner when she was deeply lonely, when she needed someone to be there for her. The relationship moved quickly. Within a few weeks, they were seeing each other constantly and, after a few months, they moved in together. He didn’t tell her he was already several grand in debt on the property, gas and electricity.
Sarah, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, says the relationship became a cycle of debt and threats as she worked two jobs to pay for everything, and he threatened to take his own life if she left.
“When you’re in that situation,” she remarks, “you’re broken down so low and you’re not yourself and you think that there’s nothing better and you can’t get out of that situation. You do what they want you to. It’s about trying to keep them happy.”
Sarah has escaped her abuser but she worries for victims of economic abuse in the cost of living crisis. She’s not alone. Her fear is shared by 80 women’s organisations who have signed an open letter calling for urgent government action to prevent domestic violence in the cost of living crisis.
“Women are being forced to make the unthinkable decision of staying in dangerous situations because they fear they are unable to survive economically on their own,” the letter warns. “The cost of living crisis is putting more women at risk of harm, destitution or death.”
Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of victims who live with or have financial ties to their abuser find it harder to leave because of the cost of living crisis, Women’s Aid found. This is supported by recent research by Refuge, which shows a spike in victims finding it harder to leave their abuser or returning to their abuser because of the cost of living crisis.
More than three quarters (77 per cent) of Refuge’s frontline staff, who support survivors of domestic abuse in refuge accommodation and community services, say that victims are finding it harder to leave their abusers in the cost of living crisis. And more than half said the ongoing situation is leading survivors to return to their abusers.
Emma Pickering, who leads Refuge’s economic empowerment team, says they have seen a “huge increase” of 87 per cent in referrals for support with complex cases. “Women are being forced to continue to live with the abuser,” she says. “They’re having to return back to an abusive relationship because they just financially can’t afford to cope on their own.
“We’ve seen abusers take women to court to say they’re not able to provide for the child to meet their basic essential needs, such as providing school uniform, heating and food, even though he is able to. It has a direct impact, and no woman should have to choose financial stability over her physical safety.”
Sarah had to go to court to fight debt while with her abuser, while working two jobs, and he started to get controlling. Everything she bought, she had to buy another for him. They couldn’t afford to go out drinking, but she was guilted into it. He promised they would find the money and discovered payday loans websites but that only meant more debt.
“I threatened to leave him,” Sarah says. “Every time he promised to buck his ideas up, and he did for a little bit but we’d always end up back in the same situation. I said we couldn’t live like this and we should go our separate ways. But then he said he was going to attempt suicide. He said: ‘I’ve got no one else. I’ve only got you, and if you leave I’ve got nothing to live for.’ So I stayed.”
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics on Friday – International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women – recorded more than 900,000 domestic abuse-related crimes in England and Wales in the year ending March 2022. It is a 7.7 per cent increase compared with the previous year. Women like Sarah, whose former partner was never charged with a crime, are not included in the statistics.
Even now, years after she escaped, Sarah struggles to admit she is a victim. “I’m a very strong independent person that has now raised my daughter on my own,” she says. “I’ve gone through all this and thought: ‘Well, I’m not a victim because I’m still standing and I’m still here and I’m still getting through stuff.’ I think it’s very much the same as mental health – because you can’t see it, people don’t believe it.”
Sarah is still struggling with debt and, now a single mother, the cost of living crisis is taking its toll. “I’m in a much better situation now and I’m just scraping by, so I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if I was back in that situation now.”
Almost all survivors (96 per cent) responding to a Women’s Aid survey had seen a negative impact on the amount of money available to them as a result of cost of living increases. Two in three said abusers are now using the cost of living crisis as a “tool for coercive control, including to justify further restricting their access to money”.
Women and their children are having to go without the basics, with 58 per cent of Refuge frontline workers saying that survivors could not afford enough food for themselves and their children.
Rachel – another survivor but not her real name – says she cannot afford to buy many perishables or let food go to waste. She eats pot noodles and walks long distances to avoid paying for public transport.
After fleeing her abuser, Rachel was diagnosed with PTSD, which exacerbated her disabilities and has left her unable to work. She is struggling on benefits, and the effects of the economic abuse she experienced continue to have a deep impact on her life.
Rachel explains that her abusive ex-husband actively prevented her from getting a bank account. All her wages went into his account, he refused her access, and she later discovered he was spending all her earnings without her consent.
Pickering explains economic abuse is about power. “If they’re telling you that you don’t have control over your own finances,” she says, “if they’re limiting your spending, your earning potential, that’s economic abuse, and you can seek support.”
As an immigrant on a spousal visa, Rachel was subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule, which meant that she could not access refuge, benefits, or housing support. Rachel claims her abuser was threatening to revoke her right to stay in the UK. The fear of detention and deportation was constantly hanging over her head.
Leaving seemed impossible, and Rachel remained trapped with her abuser until she was eventually able to get her own bank account and find private accommodation. As women’s organisations like Refuge explain, migrant women often fear seeking help, are barred from accessing social security, and are at risk of being criminalised for coming forward.
“I’m very grateful that I was able to leave before lockdown and before this cost of living crisis,” Rachel says. “But so many others are still trapped. Financial independence is crucial when fleeing, and it’s the only way out for migrant survivors like me. It’s my view that the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule needs to be scrapped altogether. As a survivor currently on benefits, I can’t wait any longer for the planned increase to come. This change needs to happen now so we can make it through the winter.”
Rachel calls for more funding for the organisations which have helped her and other women in their journeys to escaping abuse. According to the open letter, the women’s aid sector has been “plugging the gaps created by years of cuts to statutory services and social security cuts” while facing underfunding themselves.
The Women’s Resource Centre found 3 per cent of funding to civil society organisations in London went to women’s organisations in 2020. The centre also claims the women’s sector saves the state money. Not only do these organisations save lives but, on average, they save the NHS £500 million a year. Without adequate funding, the sector is not able to provide its life-saving services to victims.
The women’s organisations are asking for an emergency domestic abuse fund that all survivors can access to help with the costs of fleeing an abuser. They are also calling for the government to increase benefits by the rate of inflation, instead of victims having to struggle until April without sufficient support.
“Survivors and their children are struggling now,” Ruth Davison, chief executive of Refuge, says, “and they need urgent action to weather the storm of price increases this winter. No one should be left choosing between ongoing abuse and violence or poverty and hunger.”
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