One of the most notorious misconceptions about domestic violence is encapsulated in the inevitable question that bystanders and victim-blamers often ask victims: “Why didn’t you leave?”
Leaving an abusive relationship is an extremely difficult and fraught process for many women for many reasons, some of which include: if they have dependents (children and pets); if they lack the financial resources; and if their isolation by their abuser is so absolute that they are almost completely cut off from family, friends, and community. Domestic violence advocates have also repeatedly pointed out that victims are most at risk of being killed when they are trying to leave. Add that to the tendency of many cultures and communities to victim-blame women who leave their husbands, the idea of escaping an abusive relationship becomes a remote prospect at best.
While staying in an abusive relationship seems counter-intuitive and self-destructive to those on the outside, a victim must be ready to leave before she will do so and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. All friends, family, and communities can do is to hope that that she will be ready to leave before the violence maims her or takes her life.
This starter list offers 16 ideas to help keep a woman as safe as possible if she isn’t ready to leave or while she is getting an escape plan together. While not all of the suggestions in this article are applicable to every domestic abuse victim and her situation, we hope that this will be a useful starting point. If you have any other suggestions and tips, please do share them in the comments section.
Written by Regina Yau.
Tip For Staying Safe #1: Get Informed About Your Situation
Domestic violence is complicated and many victims may not even realise that they are in an abusive relationship. They are unaware of red flag behaviour exhibited by their spouse/partner simply because their abuser may not use physical violence against them. If you suspect that you are being abused or if someone to whom you have mentioned your spouse/partner’s behaviour points out that such behaviour is abusive, start getting informed about domestic violence – how to track the patterns in your relationship to recognise abusive and controlling behaviour. At the very least, knowing what gaslighting means, for example, would confirm that you’re not crazy – he is. Then start recording it all as best you can.
Tip For Staying Safe #2: Protect Your Self Mentally and Psychologically
Not every domestic violence victim experiences physical violence but virtually all victims will experience psychological, mental, and emotional abuse including (and not limited to) gaslighting, belittling, and verbal threats. This wears down at your self-worth by creating insecurity and fear – ideal conditions in a victim for coercive control. One of your first steps in protecting yourself is to develop simple ways of reminding yourself of who you are and your worth so you can eventually gather enough inner strength to leave. It could be telling yourself daily that you are a worthy human being or (if you are able to) going to the library to read your favourite books when your abuser is at work or secretly continuing with a hobby that you may have given up when he came into your life. Take back your own self bit by bit.
Tip For Staying Safe #3: Cover Your Digital Tracks
If you are allowed internet access at home or can have it at work or via your phone’s data package, be sure to be careful to cover your tracks whether you are doing research about your situation, looking up help (e.g. visiting a domestic violence organisation’s website), or searching for information for items and services you’ll need in your escape plan. The most basic include:
- Clearing your browser history on your computer at the end of every session.
- Clearing your phone or tablet’s browser history at the end of every session. If you use an Android device, go here for tips. If you use an iPhone, go here for tips.
- If you visit the website of a domestic violence organisation, be sure to familiarise yourself with where their safety button is – this is an icon that you can click which will immediately take you to an innocuous website in case your abuser ambushes you.
Tip For Staying Safe #4: Use The Right Apps
If you have a smart phone, consider downloading a safety app for women which has been designed to help victims in various ways ranging from automatically alert your support network if you are in danger to helping you find shelter should you have to leave in a hurry and have nowhere to go. Virtually all of them are free and most are compatible with both iPhones and Android phones. However, if you are a parent, do NOT download apps that allows you to track your children as abusers have been known to use these apps to track their victim’s movements.
Tip For Staying Safe #5: Keep Help on Speed-Dial… and Stealthy
If you have a mobile/cell phone, make sure to put the following numbers of speed-dial/in your address book:
- The national domestic violence helpline (if your country has it)
- The local domestic violence shelter helpline
- The local police helpline number
- The number of a close friend, co-worker or family member who would be willing to come get you when you decide to leave or to intervene when the abuse escalates.
As abusers frequently monitor their victims’ technology usage, list those numbers under innocuous names such as “hairdresser”, “bank”, “Boss’ Back-up Number”.
For those who fear that their phone may be taken away from them, memorise all important numbers.
Tip For Staying Safe #6: Keep Your Phone on You at All Times
Also remember to keep it fully charged at all times. You will never know when a situation will erupt, so it is crucial to have it on hand, especially if you recognise the signs of escalation leading to another episode of physical abuse. If you can, keep a cheap, spare, burner phone hidden as your back-up in case your abuser takes away from main phone. Have all important numbers programmed into it and make sure that it is fully charged. Check it from time to time to ensure that it works.
Tip For Staying Safe #7: Identify Your Allies and Get Back-Up
Even if you think that no one would ever believe you about your abuse, much less give you support, there is almost always at least one friend, family member, co-worker, service provider, or neighbour who has noticed (and recognised) the signs and is waiting for you to finally ask for help. Find out who that person is and ask them for support and intervention should a situation turn violent. Depending on your ally, their support could range from calling 999/911 for you to being on standby to come get you to providing you with a temporary place to stay. This option may not be available for all victims/survivors but it would be a feasible one for many.
Tip For Staying Safe #8: Have a ‘Safe’ Word/Phrase
In violent or emergency situations, you may not be able to text or say much. Have an agreed ‘safe’ word or phrase with your close friend/co-worker or family member who agrees to have their phone on standby to receive any emergency calls/texts. Keep it short and simple.
Tip For Staying Safe #9: Call Your Local Domestic Violence Hotline
Even if you are not ready to leave, find out the number of your local domestic violence organisation and call them to talk about your situation from time to time. Three (3) good reasons to do this:
- If you need help identifying whether you are suffering from domestic violence, they can help you do that.
- If you need someone to listen to you after another bout of abuse, most helplines are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Calling them will get you on their radar and they will be able to act more quickly when you finally call them for help with escaping or seeking temporary shelter.
If you can, make that call using a phone your abuser is not aware of using a prepaid phone card.
Tip For Staying Safe #10: Map Your Escape Routes
Check out all possible escape routes in your house or apartment. Better yet, take time to set up a plan of escape including the numbers of people willing to help you get away if worse comes to worst. If there is a good chance that your abuser will be away from home at some point, it may be your chance to escape with your kids and/or pets should you decide to do so.
Tip For Staying Safe #11: Identify “Safe Zones”
While your abuser is at work or away, take a bit time to mentally list out the safest spaces in your home. These would be rooms where no weapons or potential weapons are kept including guns and knives and these “safe zones” would also be as far away from rooms like kitchens and the garage where weapons are available. There should also a physical escape route via a door or a window that can be opened and climbed out (this applies to ground/first floor rooms). The door should be lockable from the inside in case you need to keep your abuser out.
Tip For Staying Safe #12: Practice, Practice, Practice
When your abuser is not at home, start practising getting out of your house/apartment and getting to your “safety zones”. If you have kids and pets, get them to practise too so all of you will know what to do when the time comes for you to escape. If you have younger kids who can already talk, play it like a game. If you have older kids, impress on them the importance of keep this all a secret. If you feel that you cannot run the risk of your kids accidentally telling your abuser about the practice sessions, then practice alone while they are at school so that you can shepherd them through the routes when the time comes.
Tip For Staying Safe #13: Pack A “Leaving Bag”
Yes, you aren’t ready to leave yet but it doesn’t hurt to pack a “Leaving Bag” – basically a small sports bag or suitcase with a couple of changes of clothes for you (and your kids if you have them), spare burner phone, driver’s license, passport, birth certificates, medication for chronic health conditions, toiletries, and other small essentials. This bag should be small and, after packing, light enough for you to move quickly. Check out this page for a more comprehensive list of what to pack.
Tip For Staying Safe #14: Save Some Emergency Cash
Abusers often financially control their victims in various ways including refusing to let them have a job and/or bank account and controlling the household expenses. If this is happening to you, work on hiding away whatever cash you can, preferably in the emergency “leaving bag” that you’ve packed to just up and go when you’re finally ready to leave. Having some cash means you can pay for travel and temporary accommodation at the very least. If you trust a family member or friend to keep funds for you, you can also stash some cash with them.
Tip For Staying Safe #15: Create Plausible Reasons For Leaving The House
Figure out reasons for leaving the house at different times of the day and night that your abuser will accept. For example: Leaving the house at 8.00pm for a grocery run or heading out at 7am for your morning run or taking the kids to a play-date at 11am on a Saturday. This way, if you need to leave while he is home, you can do so without him being too suspicious.
Tip For Staying Safe #16: Log Evidence
Documenting your abuse is extremely important, not just because it will help you realise that you are not in the wrong and neither are you going crazy, but also as evidence in case you need to show the police and the court. If possible, keep a journal of all violent incidences, noting dates, events and threats made. You can also start a file containing pictures you’ve taken of your bruises and wounds after beating, your medical records, and every incident of violence. Keep multiple copies of that file in different places (e.g. different thumb drives stashed in different places with different people).
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