When staying at home is the most dangerous thing you can do

Right now, there are hundreds of women who are more afraid of their own partner than any virus. As calls to domestic abuse helplines have soared and the number of women murdered is now twice the national average, Anna Moore asks – how can we stop the pandemic’s other killer? 

For most of Rachel Williams’s 18-year marriage she was locked into ‘survival mode’, living day to day, always focused on extending her husband’s good moods and getting through his bad ones.

This meant obeying a barrage of rules that governed every inch of her life, from the length of her hair (it had to be short) to the length of her skirts (they had to be long). It included how she could work (as a hairdresser, but she wasn’t allowed to have male clients), while at home it meant keeping the house to impossible standards (her husband once hid crumbs of Weetabix under the kitchen bin, then punished her for failing to clean them away).

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‘Every day meant walking on eggshells,’ says Rachel, ‘but if I was living with him now in this lockdown, it would mean walking on broken glass. I just can’t think of anything worse. At least I had my work – time and space away from him – and in the evenings he used to go to the gym for training sessions. Lockdown would mean living 24/7 with a domestic terrorist.’

Yet this is the reality for a frightening number of UK women. Since lockdown, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have risen by 49 per cent. Refuges are running out of space. The Met Police are making 100 domestic violence arrests a day. Chillingly, the number of women killed has jumped to more than double the national average. In the first month of lockdown, 14 women were shot, stabbed, beaten or burned to death in the UK. This included Kelly Fitzgibbons from West Sussex, who, along with her two young daughters, was shot by her partner Robert Needham. He then turned the gun on himself.

Domestic abuse has always been with us but for the first time it’s making daily headlines. The Government has launched an awareness campaign (#YouAreNotAlone), MPs are calling for an urgent cross-party action plan and the Home Secretary has pledged emergency funds for frontline services. ‘Before COVID-19, lots of people didn’t understand that for so many women, home is not a safe place to be,’ says Rachel. ‘Lockdown has opened everybody’s eyes.’ Now happily remarried, Rachel, 49, is a vocal campaigner on domestic abuse – she is currently chairing her own weekly ‘Cobra meetings’ where MPs, survivors, police and frontline services come together on Zoom to exchange information in lockdown. She has supporters in high places – HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and actor Michael Sheen among them – but when she first met Darren Williams, she was just 21, a single mum to two-year-old Josh, living in Newport. Williams was 27, a 6ft 7in, 18 1⁄2-stone bouncer who seemed open and vulnerable – a ‘gentle giant’. ‘He’d had it rough,’ says Rachel. ‘He’d been brought up in a violent household and his brother had committed suicide. I thought, “I’m going to fix him.”’

The first red flag came months later, after a party when someone mentioned Rachel’s ex-boyfriend. Walking home, Darren began asking who this ‘boyfriend’ was, then shoved her into some nettles. The next day he apologised, saying he’d been jealous because he loved her so much. Rachel let it go, Darren moved in and soon she was pregnant with their son Jack.

Her second memory of violence was seven months into the pregnancy. ‘He lifted me off the floor by my throat and only let me go when my lips turned blue.’ Again, Darren begged for forgiveness. ‘He fell on his knees and cried like a baby. He went to anger management classes. I thought, “We’ll be all right – I’ll make it better.” But it wasn’t to be.’

This pattern of ‘violence and terror’ followed by ‘tears and remorse’ continued, and the ‘rules to live by’ piled up. ‘It’s a slow drip, drip,’ says Rachel. ‘Gradually, you lose your freedom but you don’t realise it because for every rule he gives a reason, and before you know it, that has become your normal relationship. Your body and mind are just trying to shield the children and get through the day. As time went on, Darren told me the only way I was getting out of the relationship was in a wooden box – and I truly believed him. What was the point in burdening other people when there was nothing they could do?’

It was only after a particularly horrifying attack, where Darren strangled Rachel then slit his own wrists, that the fear of staying became greater than the fear of leaving. Rachel made a police statement, Darren was arrested and charged with ‘common assault’. On 19 August 2011, he was out on bail with no restrictions when he walked into Rachel’s workplace – the hair salon – and blasted her with a shotgun, while also telling her he loved her. She was shot in the legs after curling up to protect her chest, and had black eyes and boot marks embedded in her arms. Darren fled to local woods and took his own life. ‘I remember being told he was dead,’ says Rachel. ‘I was in hospital, off my trolley on morphine but it felt like this massive boulder had been lifted off my shoulders. If he was still alive, there’d have been no escape. I’d have been running for ever.’

Tragically, Rachel’s son Jack killed himself only a few weeks later. He was 16, struggling to make sense of it and relations with his mum had broken down while she was in hospital. ‘His text messages changed from, “I’m praying for your legs” to, “It’s all your fault”,’ says Rachel. ‘Jack was the tragedy and that’s why I’m so passionate about campaigning. If I had understood domestic abuse when I’d first met Darren, I’d have left before he got his clutches into me, before I became his “possession”.’

Michelle, 51, feels exactly the same. Like Rachel, she was 21 when she met her husband while travelling in India. Michelle was a free spirit, having quit her job to travel alone. He was a German police officer on holiday, nine years older, handsome and charming. ‘You think you’ve met the person of your dreams,’ she says. ‘I cut my travel short and moved to Germany, then became pregnant very quickly.’ Although, within two years, he was disconnecting the house phone whenever he left for work, she had no idea that this constituted abuse.

Domestic abuse thrives on isolation so Michelle – in a German village with minimal language and no friends or family around her – was vulnerable from the start. Her partner changed almost immediately. ‘He’d told me he loved my sparkiness and spontaneity but that wasn’t true – he wanted the opposite,’ she says. ‘He was so organised and particular. He told me how useless I was at the most basic things, that I was stupid, repulsive. There were a million rules for me and none for him.’

When their son was born, this escalated. ‘It’s a bit like workplace bullying – each incident alone sounds pathetic but cumulatively it’s devastating. When we’d first met, I’d been brave, mouthy, confident – now I felt confused. Instead of fighting back, I tried to make things better and smooth everything out.’ Their first family Christmas is a typical example. ‘He was very controlling around finances and gave me a Christmas allowance, which I’d spent on food and presents,’ says Michelle. ‘On Christmas Eve we went to buy a tree – he expected it to come from my allowance, which was all gone. He was so angry that he didn’t speak to me again for three days. On 27 December, our son’s first birthday, we had visitors and they noticed all the presents under the tree still unopened.’

Month by month, his control tightened. When he left for work, after disconnecting the phone (this was before mobiles) he’d take the car keys, leaving Michelle isolated in the snowy German winter. He did not attack his wife, though an underlying threat was always lurking. ‘He’d get hold of my arm and throw me out of the kitchen if I’d stacked the dishwasher the wrong way, or he’d pick our 14-month-old son out of the high chair and throw him on to the bed for “eating like a pig”,’ she says. ‘Sometimes, he’d bring a gun home from work and sleep with it on the bedside table. I can remember at one point wanting him to hit me so that I would know for sure that what he was doing was wrong. If he was violent, I’d have something to tell people, instead of “he ignored me because I folded his clothes badly”.’

Michelle’s husband grew more abusive after the birth of their son

It was only when Michelle did mention some of her husband’s behaviour to a local couple that she knew for sure it was unacceptable. ‘They told me that this wasn’t right; it was very wrong,’ she says. Eventually, Michelle moved into this couple’s home before returning to the UK and raising her son alone. Ten years later, while applying for a job in the domestic abuse sector and reading up on the definition, Michelle realised that she’d been a victim herself. ‘It had left a deep wound but, back then, there was much less awareness. No one spoke about controlling partners or coercive control. I hope that’s changing.’ Michelle now works for SafeLives, a UK domestic abuse charity that puts the voices of survivors at the heart of what it does.

Rachel Williams is one the SafeLives survivors involved in campaigning and helping to shape policy. Sarah*, 35, is another. Sarah’s relationship followed a familiar pattern. At first her partner – someone she’d met through work – was charming and attentive. After two dates, he declared his love; within four months they were living together and in six months Sarah was pregnant. ‘It felt like it was meant to be,’ she says. ‘But before our daughter had been born, he started to plant little seeds, criticising my friends and family, telling me I shouldn’t be going to certain places. I wanted it to work so much; I was terrified of being a single parent.’

After the birth, life became much harder. ‘He’d tell me that I was useless, that I wasn’t coping,’ says Sarah. There were rules she had to follow – from her socialising to her appearance. ‘I had to dress very conservatively and my hair changed from blonde to brunette.’

Sarah left the relationship when she saw her partner treating their 18-month-old daughter the way he treated her – shouting in her face to ‘shut the f*** up’. He soon began to stalk Sarah, parking outside her new flat, appearing anywhere she happened to be (she later discovered he’d put a tracker on her car). He also began to threaten her with 13 hours of intimate footage he’d recorded when they were still together without her knowledge. He sent some of this footage to her father. When she approached her ex’s former partner – the woman he’d been with before Sarah – she discovered he had abused her too, and even strangled her. Sarah went to the police, her partner was charged and convicted of stalking and served 26 weeks in prison. It led Sarah to join the police herself.

‘People think that domestic abuse is new,’ she says, ‘but abusers were here before lockdown and they’ll be here after. It has increased the risk by stripping back the safe places like work or the GP’s surgery. How can you phone a helpline when your partner is in the room? How can you ask for help when you need to stay two metres away from everyone else?’

SafeLives has published specific guidance for women in fear during lockdown. Women’s Aid has an online chat and Refuge has a webform with a quick exit button that takes you back to Google. There’s also the 999 silent call service if you can’t speak: dial 999, hit the number five twice and the police will act on it. Domestic abuse charity Hestia recently teamed up with Boots pharmacies nationwide to offer safe spaces in its consultation rooms, with access to contacts for help and advice.

For the rest of us, for friends and neighbours, SafeLives has launched a Reach In campaign (see below) with advice on how to help. Communities delivering food and supplies in the pandemic should also be alert to signs of domestic abuse and reach out with a simple, ‘Are you OK?’ If we don’t all look, we won’t see.

Worried about someone you know? SafeLives’ advice on how to ‘reach in’:

  • While there’s a huge community effort to make sure everyone has food and other essentials, we also need to be vigilant for signs of fear, injuries, shouting and distress.
  • Not everyone identifies with the label ‘domestic abuse’. Instead, you could try saying, ‘You seem a bit down. Has someone upset you?’ or ‘I’m worried about you and want to help’.
  • Keep in touch but remember a victim’s calls and texts may be monitored. Offer to shop for them and try to find out if there’s a time their partner is out of the house.
  • Agree on a secret code a victim can use if she’s frightened, eg, ‘I need a pint of milk’. If someone is in immediate danger, dial 999.
  • Call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 if you’re concerned for yourself or someone else.
  • Find more information at safelives.org.uk

A message from HRH The Duchess of Cornwall:

Rachel Williams with the HRH Duchess of Cornwall at a SafeLives reception at Clarence House in February. Image: Mark Large/Daily Mail/SOLO Syndication

Camilla has been a supporter of the domestic abuse charity SafeLives for several years. ‘It provides a lifeline to women, men and children who are suffering, or who have suffered, from domestic abuse,’ she says. ‘When I first visited them, I listened to the harrowing stories from these remarkably brave women and and I knew that I wanted to do something to help. I very much hope that, after reading their stories, you will want to help too. During these exceptional times, it is even more important that we all look out for each other. If you think someone you know might be at risk, then please follow the advice from SafeLives and ‘reach in’. It could really make all the difference.’

*Name has been changed