Fighting the last taboo

By Emily Pearce

Friday, December 21, 2012

 

Fighting the last taboo

At the domestic abuse exhibition are Fleur Gardiner, left, and Fiona Gwinnett. Picture by Peter Boam.

WIGHT LIVING ONCE, Alice’s boyfriend punched her in the face with so much force he broke his hand.

Then he joked about it with his friends and asked them to sign the cast.

Alice, 32, is one of several women who have spoken out as part of a campaign to tackle domestic abuse and gender-related violence against both men and women — a crime just as prevalent on the IW as elsewhere in the country.

The statistics, though in line with the national average, are truly shocking.

Last year, on the Island alone, 295 victims were identified as being at high risk of murder or significant harm from domestic abuse, while the IW Women’s Refuge outreach team worked with 401 women and 487 children.

In addition, 44 rapes were reported to police and the Island’s Independent Sexual Violence Advocate, who works with victims of sexual abuse, currently holds a caseload of 25.

"On average, one in four women and one in eight men suffer from domestic abuse — and they are only the reported cases, so in reality it will be much higher," said Fleur Gardiner, domestic abuse co-ordinator at the IW Council.

"There are specific problems on the Island, in that it’s a small community so people feel more anxious about speaking out and worry it will be harder to get away from an abusive partner.

"It’s also very rural, which makes it more difficult for people to get help.

"Young people, specifically girls aged between 16 and 18, are most likely to be victims of domestic abuse. And it’s not from older men — it’s from boyfriends of a similar age. It’s difficult to know why it’s happening so much with younger people, but certainly the rise of the internet and social media makes it easier for teenagers to be abusive to one another.

"Personally, I believe feminism has gone backwards to where it was even before the 1970s. I have spoken to young women who view sexual assault, being grabbed and groped, as par for the course and nothing to be too concerned about.

"I think internet porn has been very damaging because it’s so easy to access very extreme images, which often promote a very warped view of women.

"More and more young people are learning about sex this way, which is why early intervention and education is so important."

The issue of domestic abuse and gender-related violence is a particularly topical one at this time of the year, given the 20 per cent rise in domestic incidents in Hampshire and the IW over the festive period.

On the Island, events have been held throughout December to mark the international White Ribbon and 16 Days of Action campaigns to end violence against women.

A police appeal, Speak Out Today, encouraging victims and their abusers to come forward, has also been launched.

The Victim Support charity held a women-only self-defence class at Lower Hyde Holiday Park, Shanklin, and the Island’s Domestic Abuse Forum — made up of charities and public agencies, including the police, NHS and IW Council — opened a pop-up art gallery.

Held at the former Island Images cafe, in Newport High Street, the exhibition featured artwork and poetry created by domestic abuse victims and Carisbrooke College and Sandown Bay Academy students.

Before submitting their work for the exhibition,Year 10 students at Carisbrooke College attended domestic violence workshops and watched a play about the subject by the RedTie theatre company.

The school’s head of personal, social and health education, Gill Bushell, said the experience had been a real eye-opener for many of them.

"Some didn’t really know much about emotional abuse, and that telling someone what to wear or who they could speak to was unacceptable, controlling behaviour. I think they really learnt a lot and were able to express that through their artwork," she said.

"One of the most interesting things we discussed was this lack of self-esteem, among boys and girls, who feel they are under enormous pressure to dress and behave in a certain way, and to live up to images they are bombarded with by the media. Schools have such an important role to play in addressing these kind of issues."

One of the key aims of the campaign was to highlight the support services available on the Island. For many victims, who may feel uncomfortable about calling the police, the first port of call is the IW Women’s Refuge and its outreach service or charities, such as Victim Support and the Hampton Trust.

Demand for a place at the refuge is high — on average, two women are turned away every week — yet its future is precarious. It lives from year to year, waiting to find out if it will receive the £250,000 funding it needs from the council, government and charities in order to survive.

Fleur said: "We want to raise awareness about domestic abuse by encouraging people to talk about it because one of the biggest problems is getting people to talk about it. It’s still a very taboo subject, which makes it very difficult to for people to access help."

l If you have suffered from domestic abuse or know someone who has and would like advice, help is available from the IW Women’s Refuge and outreach service by calling 01983 825981.

Alice’s story

VICTIMS of domestic abuse are likely to experience 35 separate incidents before calling the police, and Alice was no different.

She suffered at the hands of two abusive partners, and was repeatedly beaten, raped, bullied and kicked in the stomach while pregnant.

In fact, it wasn’t until she fled to a police station after one particularly vicious beating and saw her name on a blackboard, at the top of a list of Island residents most likely to be killed, she finally decided to leave.

"Obviously, that was a real wake-up call. I knew I had to get out," said Alice, mother to an 11 year old.

"People have asked why I didn’t leave sooner but these men systematically broke me down. By the end of each relationship, I had no money, no confidence, I had been totally cut off from my friends and family and I couldn’t escape. If you are constantly told you are nothing, that you are worthless, you start to believe it. You believe you deserve to be treated so badly.

"My second partner, who I left the father of my child for because he promised to protect me, said he would kill me if I left. He threatened to kill my family, take my child away, and I believed him. That’s why I didn’t leave."

Alice eventually left her partner with the support of the police — who helped her secure a restraining order against him after officers were called to their house 18 times in a single fortnight — and the refuge outreach team but she has been left scarred and damaged by the abuse.

"I had post-traumatic stress disorder and find it impossible to trust men now. I met a really nice man but I had never experienced love before and it terrified me. I was always waiting for him to turn, like the others had, and I lost him."

Susan’s story

SUSAN, 38, was married to an abusive husband for nearly ten years — a drinker who would violently beat her in front of their four children.

The abuse continued even after she left him two years ago and she has now lost custody of her children.

"I couldn’t really get away from him because he still had access to the kids and he would come round to see them," said Susan

"Once, he kicked me in the back so hard my spine was twisted in three places and smashed my face against everything he could find in the kitchen — the bread bin, crockery, plug sockets — in front of one of my daughters. We had to throw the things away because she couldn’t bear to look at them anymore."

Her husband’s controlling behaviour started early in their marriage. He would allocate her a certain number of cigarettes for the day, follow her when she went out with friends, ban her from seeing her family and once held her hostage in the bedroom.

"Over the years, it got worse and worse. He told me it was my fault, that I had mental health problems, that if I told anyone he would take my children away. It was only after the refuge helped me I realised I wasn’t mad."

Susan’s children have been taken away from her and now live with their father after she was accused of assaulting them.

"My children are very violent towards me because they have seen so much violence growing up. Someone called the police to say I was fighting with them in the street and they were taken away," she said.

"How can it be right he has custody after everything he did? I will keep fighting for them."

Reporter: emilyp@iwcpmail.co.uk

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