It was something which always went on behind closed doors. Neighbours might hear the verbal abuse or the sound of blows being struck, but it was best not to get involved. The victims would keep quiet for the sake of the children or through fear of further beatings.
But no longer. A research team from three British universities, which has been given unprecedented access to emergency and social services files, has found that battered women are seeking help in their hundreds of thousands.
The researchers believe that the total cost to Britain is more than pounds 1bn a year. In the first official study aimed at quantifying the economic burden of domestic violence, they have reckoned the public cost at pounds 90 per household per year.
The findings will alarm Paul Boateng, the health minister, who has convened a special seminar on domestic violence at the Department of Health on Thursday. The report will also land on the desk of Joan Ruddock, the minister for women, who is currently working with the Home Office to devise a new government domestic violence strategy, which includes raising public awareness of the issue and making it easier for women to come forward and report attacks without putting themselves at risk.
She said last night: "Domestic violence is a crime and cannot be tolerated. To put a financial cost on such unacceptable behaviour fails to recognise the emotional and physical hurt placed on women and children. We are determined to tackle this scourge of society."
The study, called Counting the Costs, was commissioned by the Children's Society and Hackney Safer Cities. It took a year and was carried out by social scientists from Brunel University, the University of Kent and Middlesex University. The Independent has obtained an advance copy of the report which will be published by Crime Concern next week.
Members of the research team focused on the east London borough of Hackney, where they were allowed to examine thousands of files relating to the victims of domestic violence.
The team leader, Dr Elizabeth Stanko, of Brunel University, said: "We have to get away from the idea that domestic violence is something hidden; public services are dealing with it day-in and day-out. It is only hidden in the sense that virtually no public agency could account for how much they spent on domestic violence. We had to do that file by file."
Among the study's most worrying findings was that 5,000 children in Hackney alone were directly affected by domestic violence during the year. It concluded: "The absent services for children whose mothers are facing violence and abuse ... are an obvious gap in public service provision."
Researchers found that domestic violence can take many forms. Some women were beaten until they miscarried or lost consciousness. One man tormented his wife by forcing her to communicate only in written notes, which he would often burn in front of her.
One woman told researchers that she would not tolerate any more violence. "No one will ever do that to me again and walk away," she said. "I have constant panic attacks and most men who know me are wary of me as I tend to be aggressive." But older women said they had suffered in silence. One septuagenarian said bitterly: "It's all too late now. In old age, sexual violence becomes mental cruelty. Weak shits remain weak shits."
As part of their research, the team interviewed 129 women in GPs' surgeries. They found that in the past year, 25 per cent had been victims of non- physical abuse, 20 per cent had been given punches or slaps, and 11 per cent had suffered more serious physical abuse.Reuse content