What happens to a woman who leaves domestic violence? A layman’s impression might be that she gets on with her life and tries to forget what happened to her. But a question today in the House of Commons showed that this is just not the case. The SNP’s Lisa Cameron asked Theresa May about a constituent of hers who had left her violent partner:
‘A constituent of mine has informed me that she was repeatedly raped and beaten by her ex-partner, requiring an injunction. Much to her horror, her bank would not close their joint account unless she attended with the perpetrator. When banks are left to their own discretion, women’s lives are put at risk. Will the Prime Minister ensure policy to protect survivors is included in the pending domestic violence Bill?’
Aside from the stupidity of the bank in question, this also highlights how much of a factor financial control can be in domestic abuse cases more generally: domestic abuse is not about the violence so much as it is about a perpetrator’s attempts to control their victim totally. They might use physical violence or they might steal all their partner’s money to prevent them from being able to leave, or indeed make any financial decisions on their own.
That’s why closing a joint bank account, which may have been one of the main weapons of control in an abusive relationship, is both important and also hugely traumatic in itself for a survivor of domestic violence. One woman I met who had escaped her abusive husband said that just seeing his handwriting on the long form she was required to sign confirming that she wanted to leave the account made her relive the trauma of being totally controlled, and set her mental health back considerably as a result. She was also terrified that her abuser would be able to find out where she lived as a result of the exchange of forms, as both halves needed to sign the same document. Another had to wait months until her ex partner signed his form removing himself from the account. He was using the account as a means of controlling his victim, even after she had fled from the relationship.
A consultation on the pending domestic violence bill is, according to Theresa May today, coming ‘shortly’, and measures to protect women who have left their partners but are still being taunted, harassed and indirectly controlled by them from a distance will need to go much further than the criminal justice system, as many women do not even report their ordeals to the police – or, if they do, find the police either do not believe them or believe the perpetrator’s claims that he’s learned his lesson and can change.
And this shows how wide-ranging a good domestic violence bill will need to be: it cannot just be about physical violence, nor can it be about what happens up to the point at which a woman leaves (that point being the most vulnerable for a women, with the vast majority of homicides occurring when a victim is trying to break free from their abuser). Indeed, given the level of trauma that victims are having to deal with, it can’t just be about helping women get their finances back on track. If the sight of an ex-partner’s handwriting is enough to make a survivor mentally ill, then the bill also needs to acknowledge the huge mental health burden as a result of domestic violence. Many councils have closed their waiting lists for support for abuse victims – as well as refuge places closing for those needing safety in the immediate aftermath. There is currently a curious indifference towards women fleeing the men they hoped they’d love them, and a dimwitted decision by one bank is just a tiny part of that.