Social Justice

'There was no way out': Survivors of domestic abuse forced to stay with abusers or face destitution

As charity Refuge calls for change to protect survivors of domestic abuse in the cost of living crisis, one woman shares her story in the hope that it will inspire others to have the courage to leave their abusers

domestic abuse/ trapped

Women are left feeling "trapped" with their abusers, and the cost of living crisis is making it worse. Image: Pexels

Louise was not allowed to work while trapped with her abuser. She had no money of her own and was given £10 a day for essentials like milk and bread. She had to show him receipts.

“The abuse was every day and got worse,” Louise, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, says. “It was physical, emotional, sexual, financial. The financial abuse prevented me from leaving among other things, because it made me feel trapped.”

Louise fled more than a decade ago and she wants to speak out to show other survivors there is life after abuse, but she fears for those struggling to leave their perpetrators in the cost of living crisis.

Refuge has warned that the ongoing crisis makes it more difficult for survivors to rebuild their lives, forcing them into debt and, in some cases, to stay with their abusers. People have nothing left to sacrifice and fear destitution.

Fran Ferrier, Refuge’s economic empowerment manager, explains: “The cost of living crisis has had a significant impact on survivors of domestic abuse. We can’t underestimate the impact. Survivors are struggling with the concept of leaving at the moment. It’s a scary prospect. 

“We know that survivors are being forced into making difficult decisions about whether they stay with an abuser or face potential destitution. In terms of economic abuse, the impact is heightened. We know survivors are quite likely to have debt in their name.”

Research from Refuge prior to the cost of living crisis showed that a survivor of domestic abuse left in debt had an average of more than £3,000 to pay as a direct result of economic abuse. One in four had debts more than £5,000. 

Refuge estimated that there was £14.4bn of debt related to economic abuse in the UK.

The situation is likely worse now. Recent research from Citizens Advice found that five million people are in the red, with an additional two million cutting back their spending to unsafe levels. Survivors of abuse are likely among them.

Louise has only recently paid off a debt her perpetrator put in her name. It took 10 years.

Ferrier says: “We’ve worked with lots of survivors who haven’t found out the extent of the debt they’re in until they’ve been able to leave and do a bit of investigating around checking their credit reports, because it wasn’t safe when they were still with the perpetrator.”

For survivors, it means financial independence is even further out of reach, and people are having to exercise control over their bank accounts which can be triggering. Louise says it sets her “right back” when she has to monitor her spending.

Refuge’s economic empowerment team saw an 87% increase in complex financial abuse cases between summer 2021 and 2022.

Over three quarters of Refuge’s frontline workers said survivors are finding it harder to leave in the cost of living crisis. The same proportion said it’s impacting survivors’ mental health.

For Louise, now in her 40s, the mental health impact of abuse was enormous. Her abuser would want to know where she was always. He set time limits when she was out. He held all their money, identification, and passports. He had total control. 

“I tried to take my life on a couple of occasions,” she says. “Before meeting this man, I was independent. I had worked from the age of 16. It was scary. I felt very alone. I felt like he controlled everything. There was no way out. 

“This was the only way I could see out. I didn’t want to be here anymore. It affected my self-esteem and confidence. I was depressed. I suffered with anxiety. I still do now.”

Louise has therapy and is in a much better place. “I’ll continue to have therapy probably for the rest of my life,” she adds. “But my life is back on track. I feel in control of my life for me and my children. It does affect you. You are very wary of who you have in your life or around your life. The traumas always live with you. It impacts your life forever.”

Louise found support with charities including Refuge, Women’s Aid and Changing Pathways, but she believes that the government and authorities should do more to protect women. 

“Emergency funds or grants should be provided,” she says. “There should be help for victims with their bills and essentials, daily needs, to help lift that burden. And there should definitely be more help, so they don’t feel alone.”

New government funding means that survivors of domestic abuse who do not have the financial means to leave their abusers are now able to apply for a one-off payment of up to £500 for essential items such as groceries, nappies or support with new accommodation to help them flee to safety.     

They can also apply for a further one-off payment of up to £2,500 to help secure a sustainable independent future, such as putting down a deposit for rental accommodation. 

James Cleverly, the home secretary, said: “Tackling violence and abuse against women and girls is a priority of mine. We know that victims of domestic abuse are often forced to flee with very little. These payments cover essentials like food, clothing and nappies, and will also help them keep a roof over their heads.”

But charities fear it does not go far enough. Previous research by the domestic abuse commissioner found that more than a quarter of specialist domestic abuse organisations were forced to cease some services due to a lack of funding in 2020 to 2021.

In 2022, less than half of survivors who wanted to access community-based services were able to.

Refuge is calling for the government to provide additional funding of £238m for community-based domestic abuse services through the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which is currently in the committee stage of the House of Lords.

“We know that there is a drastic underfunding of domestic abuse services in this country,” Ferrier explains. “Funding for national services is always a real challenge. While we can do great awareness-raising, what we always say is refer to the National Domestic Abuse helpline. And we need to make sure those services are robust and have longevity.”

Refuge has also been demanding changes to universal credit – it is currently paid as one lump sum to couples living together rather than individuals and there is a five-week wait for the first universal credit payments to come through, which leaves survivors in limbo.

“People who are claiming universal credit for the first time, especially survivors of domestic abuse, may be destitute. They may not have a penny in their bank account or even possibly a bank account of their own,” Ferrier says. “I think the government underestimates the circumstances that people are in. People don’t choose to be on benefits. It is a last resort.”

But even though there are policy changes which need to be made, support out there and survivors can thrive after leaving their perpetrator. 

“There is life after abuse,” Louise says. “It doesn’t have to be this way. I know it’s so scary and it seems dark, but with the help and support of organisations like Refuge and Women’s Aid, they can help support you. I think taking that power away from the perpetrator and just leaving is the first step potentially for the rest of your life.

“I feel so passionate about it because hopefully that my experience and words can maybe help another woman out there. I wish I’d met me then – as who I am now. I never thought I’d be this strong. I was a broken woman. It took a lot to get me to where I am now. I’m very blessed and grateful every day for the life I’ve got now. I want other women to know that they can do that and they are not alone.”

Contact the National Abuse Helpline on 08082000247. You can also contact local domestic abuse services and find more resources on the government’s website. Find out more about the signs of economic abuse on Refuge’s website.

Get help if you are struggling with your mental health. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Sunak's call to end 'sick note culture' and reform benefits is 'demonising' disabled and sick people
Rishi Sunak during his speech on the UK's 'sick note culture'
Benefits

Sunak's call to end 'sick note culture' and reform benefits is 'demonising' disabled and sick people

'It's a choice between dinner and devices': Millions of children held back by digital poverty
digital inequality/ child with device
Exclusive

'It's a choice between dinner and devices': Millions of children held back by digital poverty

My daughter has been trapped in hospital for years with a learning disability – and she wants out
learning disability hospital/ sarah
Disabilities

My daughter has been trapped in hospital for years with a learning disability – and she wants out

Millions missing out on £23billion in unclaimed DWP benefits – an average of £2,700 per person
unclaimed benefits/ dwp
Benefits

Millions missing out on £23billion in unclaimed DWP benefits – an average of £2,700 per person

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know