The National Rural Crime Network (NRCN), a union of 7 police force areas across England. recently commissioned some independent research into the experience of domestic abuse in rural settings. This research has led to the publication of the NRCN's Captive and Controlled report, published with the aim of stimulating debate in rural areas around this often neglected or silent problem. Its findings are stark, disturbing and lead to an urgent call for action from government, the police, society and us all.
We've summarised a few of the key findings of the report below - you can find out more and read the full report here.
1. Abuse lasts, on average, 25% longer in the most rural areas
Exiting abuse is harder, takes longer and is more complex for rural victims as there are significant additional barriers in rural communities compared to urban areas. Whereas an urban victim may be able to move within a local authority area, keep their children in school and retain their job, all of these are more challenging for rural victims. There may also be animals to care for, they might have skills that are difficult to employ in a new life. Services are also much harder to access and societal structures make escape less likely, resulting in rural victims being half as likely to report their abuse.
2. The policing response is largely inadequate
Whilst the service provided by the police is improving, feedback from victims shows the response in rural areas is not as good as that in urban areas. Some of this is due to a lack of female police officers being available in rural areas, as well as fewer officers with appropriate domestic abuse training. And the further the victim from a visible police presence (i.e. building) the less likely they are to call the police. Additionally, as in urban areas, policing can increase immediate risk, but the visibility of a policing intervention in a rural community can be all the greater.
3. The more rural the setting, the higher the risk of harm
Given a rural victim of domestic abuse will live with their abuse for almost 25% longer than their urban counterparts, and that the pattern and escalation of abuse seems to be replicated, it is inevitable rural victims suffer more harm, be it emotional or physical. The more rurally you live, the harder it is to get support, the less effective that support is, and therefore the greater risk and harm sits in the most isolated settings.
4. Rurality and isolation are deliberately used as weapons by abusers
Financial control, removal from friends, isolation from family are all well understood tools of abuse. However, we now have clear evidence that abusers specifically move victims to rural settings to further isolate them, or systematically use the isolation to their advantage should they already be there. The more rural the greater the impact of this isolation, which is now geographic and tangible, sitting alongside financial and social isolation. It not only facilitates abusers controlling their victims whilst in the relationship, but makes it harder for victims to escape that abuse. Physical isolation is the arguably the best weapon an abuser has; and has a profound impact on making the victim feel quite literally captive.
5. Close-knit rural communities facilitate abuse
Strong community spirit is one of the joys of rural life, but it can be equally powerful in keeping domestic abuse hidden and in facilitating abuse – not knowingly, not willingly, but by virtue of the way communities are in rural Britain. It is almost impossible for a victim to seek help without it being known to others, call the police without further community questioning or even share their fears with others in confidence. Without knowing it, the community is facilitating the abuse, allowing the abuser to act almost with impunity. There is also evidence that abusers deliberately ‘recruit’ the community to their cause, which unwittingly becomes a mechanism for controlling and isolating the victim yet further. This can have a direct impact on the effectiveness of the response provided to victims.
6. Traditional, patriarchal communities control and subjugate women
In-depth interviews with victims and survivors revealed a consistent and telling reality – that rural communities are still dominated by men and follow a set of age-old, protected and unwritten principles. Men tend to hold the rural positions of power: head of the household, landowner, landlord, policeman, farmer. This patriarchal society makes women more vulnerable to coercion and control, prevented from speaking out and accessing support. Whilst there is evidence that this is changing slowly, it needs to be understood, confronted and challenged.
7. Support services are scarce – less available, less visible and less effective
Victims were clear that domestic abuse support services are much harder to find and much harder to engage with than in an urban setting. These services are also less effective in supporting rural victims and survivors once they manage to make contact, specifically because there is less understanding of abuse as it manifests in rural areas compared to urban (for example, the significantly more complex needs around starting a new life). Refuges are not always the safety net they can be in urban settings, as the nature of rural domestic abuse results in victims not needing crisis support in the same way, as their abuse is longer, slower and has a less ‘urgent’ profile. Their needs are very different and should be distinctly understood by commissioners and others.
8. Retreating rural resources make help and escape harder
The availability of public services in rural areas more generally is on the decline, limiting the support networks and escape routes available to victims. A recently evidenced reduction in rural GP practices and challenges of effective broadband are good examples. This equally extends to services like buses and trains, whereby it remains very difficult (and getting worse) to travel within rural areas without a private vehicle. Abusers use this to limit victims’ movements, rendering already inaccessible services all but impossible to contact. This decline in services has built up over time and reflects evidence already in the public domain around less public pound spent per person in rural areas compared to urban, the consequences of which may not have been fully understood.
9. The short-term, often hand-to-mouth funding model has created competing and fragmented service provision
Clearly commissioners, policing and support services set out to do their best for victims, but this sometimes isn’t enough. Some of this stems from a lack of understanding of the abuse and the scale of it, but in most places, we saw a fragmented landscape of service provision, which meant service providers are spending a disproportionate amount of time chasing funding, rather than supporting victims, or developing their services. In some areas, commissioners were not working effectively together, with overlapping services and inefficient use of precious resources.
10. An endemic data bias against rural communities leads to serious gaps in response and support
Rural victims are half as likely as urban victims to report their abuse. This under-reporting means much less is known about the needs of rural victims, of what good interventions are, or how to effectively prevent rural domestic abuse. It also means demand-led services, like policing and domestic abuse support, are gearing their service towards urban areas and urban victims. This in turn leads to fewer services in place to support rural victims, and those victims therefore further subjugated and less likely to report. So the cycle continues. In the modern world data is everything, and there is simply less data on rural victims, resulting in less being done to address the problem effectively. The same is true for rural communities in the most general sense, with vast swathes of data and decision-making being based on an urban clientele.
If you or someone you know is being affected by the issues raised in this article, please contact us here.