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Report shines light on hidden world of rural domestic abuse

A new report has shone a worrying light on the problem of domestic abuse in rural areas.

The National Rural Crime Network’s (NRCN’s) survey uncovered a world which for too long has remained hidden. A world in which victims of domestic abuse living in villages or on farms suffer for longer, are less likely to report abuse – and those who do often struggle to find the support they need.

It found that victims were left isolated – and in some cases perpetrators had even deliberately moved to rural areas with the purpose of moving partners further away from their support networks of family and friends.

Small village communities were sometimes complicit in facilitating the abuse by helping to keep it hidden.

One victim told the enquiry: “I found it so hard to find anyone in the village to talk to. They are all perfectly nice people on the surface, but after he shouted at me in the pub that night it was like everyone took a step back from me.”

Dorset was one of the seven police areas the NRCN looked at and my office was involved in helping promote the survey and encouraging people living in rural parts of our county who had experienced domestic abuse to take part and provide information anonymously about what had happened to them.

Domestic abuse can affect anyone, from those living in the biggest cities to those living in the smallest hamlets, but until now not enough has been known about the experiences of those in rural areas.

Abuse also takes many forms. As well as the more visible types of abuse – physical attacks and violent rows – it includes coercive behaviour such as controlling someone’s finances, access to their friends and family, or mind games that reap horrendous damage on the victim’s mental health.

I would like to praise the NRCN for carrying out this important work investigating an often sadly overlooked area. This was the biggest ever survey giving residents the chance to have their say and influence national policy.

I would also like to thank those people who took the time to contribute. Going through any kind of abuse is horrific and traumatic, and relieving that experience – even anonymously – can be incredibly stressful.

The report concludes with a clear call to action for national government, local agencies, and of course Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners, to make sure these hidden victims of domestic abuse are considered when devising policies and services.

Supporting victims of crime and protecting people at risk of harm are two of the main priorities of my Police and Crime Plan for Dorset, and so tackling domestic abuse and helping victims is an incredibly important area for me.

Victim Support, the independent charity I commission, has received more than 1,200 referrals from victims of domestic abuse, while our new Complainant Liaison Officer has been set up to help vulnerable victims of crime – including domestic abuse – who are nervous about attending court. And the Cut Your Strings campaign was created to raise awareness of the damage done by coercive and controlling behaviour – which many people sadly still don’t know is illegal – and how victims can get help.

But there is far, far more that still needs to be done. I will be examining the details of this report closely along with Chief Constable James Vaughan over the coming months to make sure that rural victims are not overlooked when planning how we deal with domestic abuse.

The report also calls on the government to make sure its policies on domestic abuse are ‘rural proofed’.

I welcome the government’s new Domestic Abuse Bill – particularly the measures which would prevent abusers cross-examining their victims in the family courts and proposals to create a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to act as a champion for survivors.

However, it has been pointed out by victims’ charities that funding has been cut as a result of austerity. This has been felt perhaps even more acutely in isolated rural areas as it has in the big cities, and if the government wants to be serious about tackling this issue they need to make sure proper funding is available.

The problems set out in the report are also far bigger than just policing – or even government policy.

The report reveals uncomfortable truths about traditional societies in which female victims – and although anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse most of the people they spoke to were women – are often left unsupported by their own communities.

I live in the countryside, and I know there is much to love about the rural way of life. But we all need to think about the challenges set out in this report and recognise that tackling the ‘norms’ that allow domestic abuse to take place is everyone’s responsibility.

If you have a friend or family member you think may be experiencing domestic abuse, please – talk to them. It will take time, but helping them recognise there is a problem is a very important first step.

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