TWO women who each escaped an abusive partner – and have gone on to help others like them – are speaking out for domestic violence awareness week.
Bridgette Smith and Vicky Harrington are both counsellors at Billericay’s Wolf Urban, and will be offering free advice for women at their drop-in service in the town for the week – which started yesterday, November 20.
The pair have both worked in Essex’s refuges and are passionate about helping the thousands of women – and men – living in an abusive relationship.
Mum-of-one, Vicky, who now lives in Westcliff, said: “We are both survivors of domestic abuse which is the driving force behind our passion to support, inspire and empower women and children to live free from fear and violence.
“I have worked as a counsellor in a domestic abuse outreach centre as well as a domestic abuse practitioner within the Crisis refuge. Within the refuge I supported high risk victims fleeing domestic violence, in short if they remained they were at risk of imminent serious harm.
“I witnessed victims arriving feeling scared, their self-esteem in tatters and in shock with their belongings in bin liners and children in tow.
Sometimes they had visible injuries, often though it was the invisible scars, the emotional and mental torture they had endured which tormented them and takes time to heal.
“I cannot describe the feeling of supporting these women, watching their children develop and flourish, on their courageous journeys from having lost everything to building their self-esteem, valuing themselves and going on to achieve their dreams however big or small.”
Mum-of-three, Bridgette, who has since married her “best friend” added: “Twenty years ago I fled domestic violence and went to live with my two children in a women’s refuge.
“For me, this was the best thing I ever did because I was safe and I had an amazing team of women to support me. I was also supported by Essex police, the courts and I had and the best solicitor who helped me get all the protection orders that I needed to keep me and my children safe.
“After leaving him I continued to live in the refuge, but I was still very frightened of him. One time he threatened to throw acid in my face and I can still remember he would describe to me exactly how he was going to do it! I was also terrified that he would take the children away from me, so I signed all our joint money, possessions, cars, company business over to him as I was too afraid to battle. The only thing he was happy for me to keep was the debts!”
“My life is very different today and I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones because I wasn’t killed! Two women a week die as a result of domestic abuse every year.”
Essex has six refuges (the first of which, a Women’s Aid refuge, opened in 1977.) Basildon’s refuge accommodates about 70 women and 120 children at a time and the county’s domestic abuse outreach centre takes about 5,500 telephone calls per year from victims looking for advice in Essex.
But what is the biggest misconception around domestic violence today?
Bridgette said: “People think it’s easy to leave an abusive relationship. Victims often stay because they have nowhere else to go or maybe they are ﬁnancially dependant on the perpetrator.
“Sometimes victims don’t recognise that they are even being abused. I worked in two refuges in Essex for over 15 years which was an incredible journey, I have co-produced two documentaries about the effects of domestic abuse on children. I have helped many women to recover and courageously start a new life.
“I remember supporting one women to open her own bank account after many years of being ﬁnancially controlled. But I still think there is a long way to go in raising awareness when it comes to domestic violence, although awareness gets better year on year.”
Vicky added: “In my experience there are mainly two misconceptions around domestic violence and its victims. Firstly, as Bridgette stated society simply does not understand why a woman stays in an abusive relationship, we regularly hear the question, why doesn’t she just leave? This judgemental attitude is a barrier victims come up against time and time again and even encourages them to remain silent.
“Secondly, domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, class, age, profession or culture. It does not discriminate.”
Indeed, while the vast majority of victims of domestic violence victims are female – men too suffer.
Basildon Refuge offers support to men with counselling for men and the refuge also has a male counsellor too.
But what is the biggest barrier facing victims?
Bridgette said: “I have seen many women unable to ﬁnd space at a refuge. We even held a waiting list for women waiting to leave home and come into the refuge.
“Sometimes victims would just be waiting at the police station for many hours until a refuge space could be found, I always found this very sad.
“The biggest barrier facing people who have lived with a violent partner is keeping safe and having to relocate. Survivors can often feel isolated.
“But the one thing I would say to anyone living in an abusive relationship is there is a way out. Don’t give up hope. Both Vicky and myself are living proof of that.”
Wolf Urban was established by Bridgette last year.
She explains: “I set up Wolf Urban because I wanted to make a difference to women and children’s lives with a new holistic approach with nutrition coaching and counselling to build self-esteem.
“Our most recent project, the Little Goddess, was launched in October. At our workshops the girls aged seven to ten years old learn to believe in themselves, by talking about their feelings and expressing themselves through art, meditation and nutrition.
“I am very passionate about this workshop for young girls to grow their self-esteem and learn how to value themselves because there is no doubt about it, to live in this world a girl has to be strong. And that feels especially relevant during domestic violence awareness week.”
Wolf Urban is offering free advice for women at its drop in service in Billericay, and therapist Keely Ward will also be offering free life coaching sessions. And to support as many people as possible, all therapists are reducing their counselling fees for this week too. For more information go to www.wolfurban.com or call 07876 350613.
Where to go for help and support
- Women’s Aid and Refuge have a 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline: 0808 2000 247
- SupportLine provides confidential emotional support to children, young people and adults on any issue including domestic violence: 01708 765200
- The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) provides a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence: 0207 186 8270
This feature was first published in the Echo newspaper on Tuesday, November 21, 2017: www.echo-news.co.uk