New data from Refuge warns that cost of living crisis is forcing survivors of domestic abuse to stay with abusive partners

A week away from the Chancellor’s highly anticipated fiscal statement, expected on the 17th November, Refuge, the country’s largest single provider of specialist domestic abuse services, is sounding the alarm on the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on women and theirchildren experiencing domestic abuse.

A new survey of Refuge’s frontline staff, supporting survivors of domestic abuse every day, in refuge accommodation and community services, has found that over three quarters (77%) said that survivors are facing finding it harder to leave abusers, forcing women to choose between remaining with their abusive partner or risking destitution. More than 50% of Refuge frontline staff surveyed said that the cost-of-living crisis is leading survivors to return to their abusers.

Throughout the year, alongside partners across the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector, and the wider third sector, Refuge has been highlighting the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, and warning that survivors are being forced to choose between heating and eating, but now Refuge is concerned the cost-of-living crisis risks costing women their lives and is calling for urgent action.

In addition to the impossible choices survivors are being forced to make, perpetrators are also taking advantage of the cost-of-living crisis to increase economic abuse and control. Some perpetrators are restricting food and heating and attempting to gain custody of children on the basis that survivors simply cannot afford to maintain a warm home and enough food.

Over three quarters (77%) of Refuge’s frontline workers also said the cost-of-living crisis is impacting survivors’ mental health. Refuge’s services staff shared that survivors are being pushed into debt or further debt as income from work and/or benefits is not enough to pay for essentials.

Refuge’s specialist Tech and Economic abuse team have reported an increase in referrals from all of Refuge’s frontline services of 79% for all tech and economic cases for June, July and August 2022 when compared to the same months in the previous year 2021.

In those same months there has been an increase of 87% in cases where there is complex economic abuse – a shocking statistic that Refuge’s economic abuse team directly links to the cost-of-living crisis.

Children are also having to live with abusers for longer, as their mothers can’t afford to flee. Women and their children are also having to go without the basics, 58% of frontline workers said that survivors could not afford enough food for themselves and their children, almost half (49%) said survivors couldn’t afford school uniform and other basics for their children.

The impacts of the cost-of-living crisis are particularly acute for disabled, migrant and younger survivors. Universal Credit rates are lower for women under 25, so they have even less money to try and meet the increasing costs of essentials. No recourse to public funds is another huge issue, and some migrant women really feel that they have almost no choice but to stay with their abuser. For disabled women the hidden costs of having a disability are particularly a concern and we know thecost-of-living crisis is having an even bigger impact on them.

As an immediate response to the cost-of-living crisis, Refuge is calling on the government to make two changes that will help survivors bearing the weight of this crisis; urgently reform the benefit system and create a specialist fund.

Refuge recommends:

  • Universal Credit, working tax credit and other ‘legacy’ benefits are increased in line with inflation.
  • Create an Emergency Domestic Abuse Fund that all survivors can access to help with the costs of fleeing an abuser

Ruth Davison, Refuge CEO, said: “This crisis is urgent. Refuge is  warning, loud and clear, that survivors of domestic abuse are being forced to remain with their abusers. This puts their lives at risk.

“We have long been aware that lack of access to money can be a significant barrier to a woman’s ability to flee their abuser or seek specialist support but the degree to which our frontline staff are now hearing that women are balancing the danger of living with their perpetrator and the struggle of managing alone is staggering.

“As we enter the winter months amidst soaring energy bills and the increased cost of living, we have launched an appeal and this year we need to raise £1 million to keep our essential lifesaving and life changing services running.

“We understand this year, many of our supporters will not be able to afford to donate, we understand these are unprecedented times. We urge the government to act now, women’s lives depend on it.”

One anonymous Refuge frontline worker said: “It feels like survivors of domestic abuse have been completely forgotten about in this crisis. I have clients whose financial situation is so difficult since fleeing that they are considering returning to their abuser. They are reliant on food and clothes banks, they have cancelled and cut backanything and everything they can, to be able to afford to pay their bills. This is having such a detrimental impact on survivor’s mental health and wellbeing.

“Some women are really worried about losing access to their children, they tell me that perpetrators are using this cost-of-living crisis to further their abuse, something we know as post-separation abuse. We are doing everything we can with the funding we have to support survivors; we are giving out more foodbank vouchers, more regularly and to more residents who are repeatedly requiring them, but this has led to foodbanks raising with us that they cannot repeatedly give out vouchers.

“We need the government to really understand this crisis and take it seriously.”

Abigail, a survivor of domestic abuse, said: “Simply put – I wouldn’t have been able to leave my abuser if this crisis was happening when I was trying to flee 10 years ago. I felt trapped as it was. One of the elements of abuse he used against me was financial. Alongside the physical and emotional abuse this economic abuse had a big impact when it came to leaving, he controlled everything.

“His name was on the house; I was completely reliant on him financially; it was so hard. He’d made it so I didn’t have work, a social life, he never paid child maintenance and I was left in a lot of debt from him. I was completely isolated.

“It’s so difficult for survivors to speak out in the first place without having the barrier of the cost-of-living crisis; my perpetrator would whisper in my ear ‘you won’t cope without me’- it impacts you emotionally and physically. I started believing it. You live with trauma constantly when experiencing abuse, but the trauma afterwards can be so much worse, and no one realises – I’m still dealing with this.

“When you find the courage to leave it’s not easy and it’s so frustrating when the system lets you down – this cost of living crisis is still impacting me. I was left in thousands of pounds of debt from my abuse after I fled which I’ve finally paid off, but it took years, with the economy as it is now, I know I wouldn’t ever have been able to pay that debt back. I would’ve been forced to stay with him. He doesn’t contribute to the cost of raising our child, he owes me thousands of pounds in ChildMaintenance, but I know I’ll never get that money, as the system is rigged in his favour, every day is a struggle.”