Domestic abuse victims must be supported when trying to rebuild their lives
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Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, on 25 November, I led a debate at Westminster Hall – drawing on my own painful ongoing experiences – calling for a duty of care to be placed on employers and political parties to ensure that survivors of domestic abuse are not exposed to further harassment in their roles.
Because domestic abuse does not always stop at the end of a marriage or relationship; it can continue and impact survivors long afterwards.
My experiences shatter the misconception that if a woman is experiencing abuse and just leaves, then all her problems will be over. This is not the reality for so many.
At its core, post-separation abuse and harassment is about power – attempting to control and punish in almost any way possible. This can include using physical means such as: violence, intimidation, threats, stalking, remote monitoring, emotional abuse, and manipulation.
It also can include using less discussed methods, such as pursuing vexatious or abusive litigation — in other words, stalking by way of the courts. Or it can involve indirect abuse which levers societal or communal power and uses proxies to humiliate and discipline, which is often a key feature of honour base abuse and harassment.
When I escaped and began to rebuild my life, including putting myself forward to represent my local area, it was with hope for the future. Perhaps stupidly, I thought I could move on. Little did I know then that just two years after being elected as the United Kingdom’s first hijab-wearing MP, I would have to endure an eight day trial, which brutally forced me to talk about painful and private experiences.
As a survivor myself, I know that the stigma of structural and systemic bias is too often against us
While I was found innocent of all charges, I fear that the ordeal of that trial, which cost the council significantly more than the amount I was accused of defrauding it of in the first place, will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Just this summer I had to present myself to Accident & Emergency and subsequently be signed off sick, only for a process overseen by those connected to my ex-husband to be conducted to try to remove me as the sitting MP. It goes on and on and on.
But my story is far from unique. I have been contacted by women and survivors from all over the United Kingdom. I feel a tremendous duty to them, especially in my role as chairwoman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Abuse and Violence.
Despite steps forward such as the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, there is still insufficient understanding and awareness, and this is continuing to have serious health consequences for individuals and society.
The cost of living crisis and the ongoing funding shortfall for services means that victims of domestic abuse and coercive control face further barriers when trying to leave, recover and rebuild their lives after abuse. This is particularly the case for Black, minority ethnic and migrant women.
It is extremely difficult to come forward and seek help. As a survivor myself, I know that the stigma of structural and systemic bias is too often against us. Indeed, the wall of silence and institutional gaslighting that I feel I am experiencing is chilling.
Kate Kniveton, Conservative MP for Burton, courageously came forward about her own experiences. During my debate, she said that those of us in public life should help to eradicate stigma and shame by raising awareness, so that perpetrators of domestic abuse can no longer be sure that their activity will go unnoticed.
What happens in public life has a ripple effect in society. That is why there must now be a duty of care to ensure inclusive, democratic, and safe environments. I believe all employers and political parties must play a leading role in this, and I am pleased that my Early Day Motion 560 on this issue has received support from colleagues from parties across the House of Commons.
Because, ultimately, I want a society where survivors are not thwarted by ongoing harassment and abuse, but are are believed, listened to, and treated supportively.
Apsana Begum is the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse
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