If you are worried that someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, sexual violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, or any other form of violence against women, it can be difficult to know what to do, but there are ways you can help.
If you think this person is in immediate danger, or if you witness abuse, you should always call 999.
If you live in Wales you can call the Live Fear Free helpline on 0808 8010 800, which can provide you with information and advice if you are worried about yourself, or someone else. More information about the helpline and what to expect when you call them can be found here.
If you are able to, let the person know that you are available to talk to confidentially. You may want to outline why you are worried about this person and then take the conversation from there. Don’t be offended if the person doesn’t open up straight away, they might not be ready yet, but knowing that there is someone they can rely on may encourage them to seek help when they are ready. It can take time for to recognise that a relationship is abusive, and even longer to be able to act on this realisation.
Suggestions of questions to ask:
- What can I do to help?
- How is it affecting you?
- How have you been coping with the abuse? What can you do to make yourself safer?
- What are you afraid of if you leave / stay?
- Do you know when it’s going to happen? Is there a pattern?
- What’s your worst-case scenario for yourself / your children?
- What do you already do to protect yourself / your children?
- Which of the things you do to protect yourself / your children work in practice, and which don’t?
- What external resources are there to help you cope? (E.g. support networks of friends and family, access to money, access to alternative accommodation and so on). Can these be increased?
- Can I help you find out about what other choices might be available?
- Which options would be most realistic for you? What do you see yourself as actually being able to do? (Focus on those.)
As a concerned person, it can be frustrating because abuse survivors will not always take the course of action that you favour. You may find yourself wondering ‘why do they stay?’ or ‘how could they put up with it?’
It is important, however, to remember three very important things:
- You are not the person who has to live with the consequences of any decision – they are.
- Leaving is an extremely difficult decision to make involving both emotional and practical considerations. Moreover, most victims are in the position of attempting to make this decision within a context of an abuser who begs them to stay and promises to change.
- Leaving a violent relationship often only means the end of the relationship – not the violence. For victims with male abusers, leaving increases their risk of being seriously injured or murdered.
- Blame them for the abuse or ask judgemental questions like “what did you do to make them treat you like that?” or “why don’t you just break up with them?”
- Focus on trying to work out the abuser’s reasons for the abuse. Concentrate on supporting you friend and on what they can do to protect themselves.
- Be impatient or critical if they are confused about what to do, or if they say that they still love the abuser. It’s difficult for anyone to break up a relationship, and especially hard if they are being abused.
- Maintain a friendship with both the victim and the abuser. If you try to support both the abuser and the victim, you’re not going to be much help to either. Your friend needs to be able to talk to someone who believes them, who will not pressure them to ‘see it from the other person’s point of view’ and who under no circumstances will try to encourage them to get back together with the abuser. Placing yourself in the position of investigator or mediator is not going to help the situation.
Above all, be patient. Your friend may need to talk about their situation numerous times, they may try to improve their situation or give the abuser several ‘last’ chances.
Help your friend or relative to build their self-esteem. Remind them of their good points, challenge them if they put themselves down or blame themselves, praise them for every step they take and let them know they have your support.
The importance of helping them to break the isolation should never be underestimated. Listen to what they say and let them guide you as to how best to support them. However, do remember that these situations can be dangerous, so whatever you do, be sure to keep yourself safe.
On a practical level you could:
- agree a code word or action that if they say to you or you see, you know they are in danger and cannot access help themselves
- offer to keep copies of important documents and other items so that if they have to leave in a hurry, they don’t have to waste time collecting important belongings.
- find out information for them, or find out together, about local services or help available in your area. Offer any practical help you are able (and feel comfortable) to give, such as the use of your telephone or address for information or messages.
Finally, get some support for yourself – call the Live Fear Free helpline if you need to talk.
You have to be strong if you’re going to be able to help them. Most domestic violence services are happy to help with any worries you may have or provide suggestions as to other actions you might take. Most importantly, don’t give up on them. You might be their only lifeline.