Opening eyes

We need to work harder in our region to raise awareness of older women experiencing domestic abuse, argues Hannah Bows

It’s a well-documented fact that one in four women will experience domestic violence and on average, two women per week are killed by partners or ex-partners in the UK. However, until recently, the primary focus has been on young victims of domestic violence and the experiences of women in mid-life and older have been ignored. It is less well known that women aged over 40 are more likely to be killed by male violence than younger groups – ongoing research by Karen Ingala Smith via her Counting Dead Women campaign shows that in 2013 and 2014 the majority of women killed by men (usually in the context of familial relationships) were aged over 40.

However, both research and practice in the north east are responding to these issues. In response to the disproportionate number of women aged over 50 killed in domestic homicides in the region, Durham Constabulary ran a specific campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence in the 50 and over age groups, and has made women in this age bracket a priority group in its County Durham Domestic Abuse Strategy with the county council.

And in May, the first refuge for women aged 45 and over was opened in Teesside by Redcar-based Eva Women’s Aid. The reason for the new refuge is the recognition by Eva that women aged over 40 may have different service needs to younger age groups.

Image by Bo Jing, under Creative Commons licence

Image by Bo Jing, under Creative Commons licence

It’s something I’ve explored in my own research which interviewed women aged 45 and over living in the north east who have experienced domestic violence in mid or later life. My research found that the women (who ranged in age between 45 and 70) were often unaware of domestic violence services or felt they were for younger women only. Age was a barrier to accessing these services in a number of ways – participants felt embarrassed or ashamed to be experiencing abuse “at their age” and many had experienced domestic violence for so long that they had come to accept it as normal.

Some of the women at the older end of the spectrum had grown up in generations where women had much fewer rights and were accepted to put the wishes of their husband first. Being a grandmother and the responsibilities of helping care for their grandchildren, which several women did so that the parents could go to work, also made it difficult to leave abuse relationships for fear of the impact this would have on the family arrangements.

I found that many women had lived in their homes a long time and were reluctant to leave, particularly if it meant moving into a refuge with lots of younger women and children. Some women also had careers which they worried would be negatively impacted – for some women, they felt their reputations might be affected when staff and colleagues found out about the abuse, particularly those in management positions who felt their staff may lose respect for them.

The opening of the Teesside refuge is a positive first step towards raising awareness and supporting women in mid and later life to find the support they need. But there is much more work to be done. We need more research which looks at different groups of mid life and older women and from specific communities, such as South Asian for example. And we need specific support groups for women of different ages – one, perhaps, for 45-55, one for 55-65 and so on. However this level of research and action won’t be feasible until more women over 45 have the confidence to report abuse to services or police. Ultimately we need to work harder to raise awareness of this issue in the north east and beyond.

Hannah Bows is a researcher at Durham University. You can follow her on Twitter.

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