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Charities Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid and Compassion speak out on why nobody should turn a blind eye to domestic abuse

When she walked through the door of a women’s refuge, with two black eyes and in pain from months of domestic abuse, her injuries were among the worst they had ever seen.

More than 10 years later, she is back with the same Suffolk charity she says saved her life ... but this time as a professional helping others.

She was with her abuser for nine months. But the relationship quickly turned violent. “At first I thought he was lovely,” she says. “He was my world. We had the same opinions, liked the same things. He was so attentive. I would get calls all the time and I thought he really cared where I was and for my safety.

White Ribbon Day 2023 is on November 25
White Ribbon Day 2023 is on November 25

“He said he had been brought up in a care home. I saw a vulnerability. That’s all part of grooming. When the abuse started I thought how could this person I adored be like this? I thought it was all me. I blamed myself. An abuser will say ‘you made me do it’.”

Her experiences have given her unrivalled empathy with those she is now employed to help. “When I speak to the ladies they know I understand. “I was in refuge for three months then I was rehoused. It saved my life and my children. When I left the refuge I had a resettlement worker who was amazing. Moving out of refuge is quite a scary point.

“Now 12 years on I am really good friends with the girls I lived with. That bond will never go. I love my job because it shows there is hope for the other ladies too,” she says.

Compassion charity team members Tony Howard, Tracey Barton, Paula DeVaux, Kirsten Robins, Natalee Johnson, and Rebecca Ball. Picture by Mark Westley
Compassion charity team members Tony Howard, Tracey Barton, Paula DeVaux, Kirsten Robins, Natalee Johnson, and Rebecca Ball. Picture by Mark Westley

Her inspiring story is just one example of how organisations that support those who have suffered domestic abuse can turn lives around.

Later this month, on November 25, White Ribbon Day will mark the start of 16 days of action aimed at ending domestic violence.

Two Suffolk charities in the front line 365 days a year are Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid, and Compassion which is based in Sudbury. Both also reach out beyond their home towns.

Katherine Ahluwalia, principal operations manager of Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid, which runs services including a refuge in Bury. Picture by Mark Westley
Katherine Ahluwalia, principal operations manager of Bury St Edmunds Women’s Aid, which runs services including a refuge in Bury. Picture by Mark Westley

Each offers a range of services that can be a lifeline to women, men, and teenagers trapped in the clutches or the aftermath of abusive relationships.

Both want to spread the word that they are there, encourage people to take the brave first step of asking for help, and press home the message that no-one should turn a blind eye to suspected domestic abuse.

On average, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales, and women suffering domestic abuse are three times more likely to attempt suicide.

And with the shocking statistics that one in four women, one in six men, and one in five children will experience it during their lifetime both charities stress we will all know someone who is affected.

As Compassion’s project coordinator Paula DeVaux puts it: “Silence is collusive.”

In 2024 it will be 50 years since the opening of Bury’s first women’s refuge. “If you span those 50 years you can see how much more protection there is for people now.” says Katherine Ahluwalia, principal operations manager of Bury Women’s Aid. “The Domestic Abuse Act of 2021 has made a huge difference.

“We have our refuge in Bury, which is for women only and is probably what we are most known for. Our other services are for men too.”

They also have a base at The Malthouse in Elsey’s Yard, Bury. “This is our outreach centre, which is community based work, and that’s what we are most keen to tell people about,” says Katherine.

They moved to The Malthouse in June. Downsizing from bigger premises and making maximum use of the space has significantly cut their costs.

Suffolk women fleeing abuse are usually referred to refuges outside the county – and those coming to Bury are not local – to protect them from the perpetrators.

“Their safety is paramount … and with technology it is so easy to track people now. They are encouraged not to do as much social media and keep changing the settings on their phone.”

The women given sanctuary in Bury often resettle close by. “Children get a lot of support as well. We do a lot of therapeutic work. We get them into schools. They start to put down roots. The mums can see how beneficial it is.

“We help with rehousing, and support them for a long time afterwards. When you move out is when you are most vulnerable.”

Women often arrive with nothing, or a few possessions in a bin liner. The charity used to take donations of items like clothing, and presents at Christmas, but with less storage space they now ask for gift cards instead. They also link up with charity shops who select things for new arrivals to choose from.

“There is something about choice. These are people who didn’t have any choice before because that was all taken away from them,” says Katherine.

The kind of abuse they see most often has changed over the years with less physical violence - which can leave visible evidence - and more coercive and controlling behaviour.

“You can control people in so many aspects of their lives,” she said. “Economic abuse is a huge thing now, stopping people accessing work, or education.

“It’s what you stop people doing, causing isolation. shrinking their world, And tech makes it so much easier to control people.”

One of the ‘red flags’ women are told to beware in a new relationship is the gift of a mobile phone. It could be tracked.

Women’s Aid and Compassion both run a range of programmes, in person and online, for those experiencing or escaping abuse. The programmes, developed by experts, help people to understand their situation, recover, and rebuild their lives.

They include The Voice, the Freedom Programme, Who’s in Charge for the growing problem of child to adult abuse, and Escape the Trap, designed for young people who are increasingly being coerced into toxic relationships.

Raising awareness of danger signs of potential abuse is a priority for both charities. They include a relationship moving too fast, and being bombarded with apparent care and affection. “We tend to call it love bombing … but they are grooming you for an abusive relationship,” said Katherine.

“They make themselves the centre of your world. When people look back they will say it was all too good to be true. One of the main tactics is to lower your self esteem. So one of the things we concentrate on is self care, to raise self esteem.”

Paula says: “If you think a relationship is moving too fast the big test is to slow it down. If they get grumpy that’s not right. Follow your gut instinct.

And Compassion’s lead programme facilitator Natalee Johnson adds: “If something makes you feel uncomfortable say so, and if that’s your right person they will be OK with that.”

Alongside its programmes, Women’s Aid offers peer support groups – coffee mornings and SODA (survivors of domestic abuse). “Talking to others with the same experience is so empowering. It’s what unlocks the isolation,” says Katherine.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from - it’s about being with people who have been through the same trauma and healing.”

“We also give one to one support with an outreach worker. It’s like a journey people come on with us … recovery and growth.

“When women come into their first group they are so self conscious. When you see them at the end of that journey, they have completely changed from the person who walked through the door.”

Making it easier for people in other towns to access their services is a key ambition, to overcome barriers like poor public transport and the cost of living.

They have already started a pilot scheme in Haverhill,, and are looking at Newmarket and Stowmarket too. Their programmes also have a creche.

Asking for help can be one of the hardest things because many – particularly men - feel there is a stigma attached to suffering domestic abuse.

Compassion’s Paula says: “Just to make a connection is a huge first step for anyone and a really brave step.”

Both charities believe education is key. “People don’t necessarily know they are being controlled or abused, which is why education is so important,” said Katherine.

Women’s Aid goes into schools and colleges to teach children and teenagers about healthy relationships – not just with intimate partners but with parents, siblings and friends.

“It’s getting them talking, thinking, peer challenging each other, leaning what is a good relationship, what is healthy and unhealthy,” she said.

Paula says: “If we educate our young people to know what love should look like we can derail the next generation of perpetrators.

“So many victims and perpetrators say ‘I wish I had learned this at school’. One in five children witness domestic abuse that will inform their expectations.”

Compassion was established in 2001 and provides a vital source of support for all victims of domestic abuse, both current and historic.

Its services include one to one befriending, free legal advice via a law clinic, an online drop in support group and free group work programmes.

“Over the past two years over 800 people have either approached or been referred to Compassion for support,” said trustee Tony Howard. “Feedback from programme participants evidences that the interventions transform the lives of those who attend.”

Making the public more alert to signs of abuse is an important issue for the charities. Anyone who sees a person regularly - GPs, teachers, family, friends, colleagues, service providers like hairdressers and supermarket till operators - even vets because animal abuse and domestic abuse can be linked - could notice something is not right.

“Domestic abuse is an undercurrent of our society. And it affects everyone. Given the statistics it is highly unlikely there isn’t someone in our lives who is experiencing domestic abuse of some kind,” said Paula.

“We really need the public to be aware of coercive control. It’s everybody’s responsibility to be aware of domestic abuse. We need people like teachers and GPS to be more aware.

“Friends might not be asking questions regarding coercive control. People are looking for a black eye.”

“It costs nothing to ask someone if they are OK. You could literally save their life. They may say they’re fine at first. It’s that asking twice … yes, but are you really OK?

Natalee Johnson, Compassion’s lead programme facilitator, said: “Anyone who is a front line professional is working with domestic abuse. Even if people say they’re OK it could make them think.”

Katherine says: “You can say you don’t seem yourself. Is everything OK at home.Then you can follow it up with I’m always here if you need to talk. Leave the door open so they can talk when they’re ready,”

“We also want to go into local businesses, train up HR and managers on the signs to look for, what to do when someone discloses, and how to signpost them to help get the professional help they need.”

The cost of living crisis is also having an impact, making it easier for abusers to shame victims into not spending money on themselves.

It also affects donations, and the amount of time volunteers can afford to give. The charities’ teams are supported by dedicated trustees, and both hope to grow their numbers of volunteers who could include retirees, part time workers, and students

Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner helps to fund both charities, and they also look to other grant sources, donations and fundraising to carry on their desperately-needed work.

To contact Compassion go to compass-ion.org. To contact Women’s Aid go to burystedmundswomensaid.org.uk or call 0330 551 9495. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline number 0808 2000 247 is free to call at any time, day or night.

Sarah’s story

Sarah (not her real name) was in a relationship with her abuser for about five years. “At first It felt like a normal relationship, a lot of love and care,” she recalls.

“Then slowly things started to happen that looking back are clear red flags. I think a lot of people experience abuse in their lives but don’t realise it is abuse.

From the beginning he was cheating on me, then trying to convince me it was normal. Then manipulating, lying, sexual abuse. He made me feel like what was going on wasn’t so bad for me to call it domestic abuse.

“I have mental health issues and he would play on them. He would make me feel very vulnerable and unsafe then use that power against me.

“I ended up feeling so unsafe, in such a low mood and depressed, and I stopped going out. I didn’t leave the house for the next six months. I lost all my friends and never saw my family.”

The issues continued even after she was no longer living with her partner.

For years she tried to deal with it on her own, and struggled to get the support she hoped for from official mental health services.

Then she made contact with Compassion and was phoned by Natalee Johnson, now their lead programme facilitator.

“I was in such a bad place I wasn’t leaving my house. I still struggle to look people in the eye. Speaking on the phone was also difficult for me. But something felt this was the right help for me.

“Natalee was able to offer me one to one support just to enable me to get through those few months until the online programme started.

“I really needed that human interaction. It made me feel it was OK - I’m not alone. I can go out now,

Doing The Voice programme was a huge help to Sarah. They really made you feel that no matter what your story, you belong here. It really helps you understand and helps with healing. At first you’re saying I am strong, I am here. At the end it’s ‘I am amazing’.

Self care is a key aspect of The Voice. “In an abusive relationship you don’t do any self care really,” she said.

“At one time I wasn’t even brushing my hair or cleaning my teeth. I didn’t do that for six months. Now doing it every day shows me how far I have come. I’m a different person.”

And she made a plea for everyone to be alert to signs that someone might be suffering domestic abuse, but struggling to accept that it’s real.

“With mental and coercive abuse you have someone telling you it’s all in your mind. Just ask what’s going on, are you OK? Because you could change someone’s life. You could save someone’s life.

“I am so grateful for Natalee and the therapists and Compassion. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am. My life changed in a year from that one phone call.”