#WhyIStayed: Why do women like Janay Rice stand by their abusive partners?

It's a flawed question, but the new hashtag does illustrate the complexities and trauma of domestic violence

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As the chief executive of a national domestic violence charity, there are certain questions I am asked with depressing regularity. 

"Why does she stay?", "Why doesn’t she just end the relationship?", "If the violence were really that bad, surely she would just leave?"

These were the questions levelled at Janay Rice, the partner of American football star Ray Rice, following the release of a video in which he is seen punching her unconscious in an elevator.  The couple were engaged at the time of the incident — they married shortly afterwards.

It can be difficult for people to understand why a woman would stay with a violent partner. Domestic violence is incredibly complex: it works slowly and cumulatively, like water dripping on a stone. It thrives on secrecy. Myths about domestic violence and negative attitudes toward victims are stubbornly persistent — and as a result, many people think that domestic violence is "not really a serious crime" and that victims are somehow to blame for their abuse.

Indeed, when a video of Ray Rice’s assault on his partner was first released, his team, the Baltimore Ravens, tweeted the following: "Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident."

Over the last few days, women have turned to social media to rebut these ugly victim-blaming attitudes. Using the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft, they are telling the world in both chilling and poignant detail exactly why it is so hard to escape domestic violence.

Because the truth is there are a huge number of practical and psychological barriers to leaving an abusive partner.

Abusers manipulate their victims carefully and purposefully; they switch readily between charm and rage, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This behaviour is incredibly confusing and can make women question their own judgement. A woman may start to believe her partner when he tells her it is all in her head.

Fear can be a paralytic force: many women stay with their abusers because they are terrified of what he will do if she tries to leave. As one woman tweeted:

"#WhyIStayed I was afraid he’d kill me."

This is a well-founded fear. Domestic violence takes a staggering death toll, killing two women every week, and the vast majority of domestic homicides happen when a woman is trying to separate from her abuser. When we consider that domestic violence is all about power and control, this horrific statistic makes sense: if a woman tries to break free from her abuser by leaving him, he may resort to ever more drastic forms of violence to regain control – even if that means killing her.

Victims of domestic violence are frequently isolated by their abusers: systematically cut off from friends and family, driven away from social networks, trapped both physically and emotionally.  As another woman wrote on Twitter:

"#WhyIStayed because he isolated me from friends and family and I had no one to turn to when the abuse started"

It can be incredibly hard for women to reach out for help in situations like this. The grinding impact of emotional abuse can chip away at a woman’s sense of self. She may begin to believe her abuser when he tells her, day in, day out, that she is worthless, that no-one will believe her, that no-one cares about her but him.

The impacts are cumulative. One woman tweeted:

"#WhyIStayed It’s not one day he hits you, it’s everyday he works hard to make you smaller."

And another:

"#WhyIStayed He taught me that I was worthless, couldn’t do any better."

Some women may not be able to support themselves and their children financially on their own. Refuges and other support services are being closed across the country as a result of ongoing funding cuts – reducing the number of escape routes available to women and children.

Of course, the reality is that many women do leave their abusive partners. We need only look at the #WhyILeft conversation to appreciate the enormous bravery displayed by countless victims of domestic violence:

#WhyILeft I realized that no-one should ever “love” me like he did.

#WhyILeft I finally stopped valuing my worth through his eyes.

#WhyILeft I chose to live.

Domestic violence will not end unless we stop asking "Why does she stay?" and instead ask the right questions: "Why does he abuse?" and "What can we do as a society to end domestic violence once and for all?"

Refuge is calling for a public inquiry into the police and state response to domestic violence. Sign the petition here: http://bit.ly/2women2many