Anita Roddick: None of us can afford to ignore domestic violence

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The Independent Online

So what goes on in the head of a man who is compelled to punch and slap and kick his pregnant wife or girlfriend, to risk the death of his unborn child? To turn on someone he pledged to love and cherish? And why do so many of us look away when we hear these stories?

Let me tell you Amanda's story. Six weeks into her pregnancy, Amanda's ex-partner began a vicious run of violence that was to last throughout her pregnancy, and beyond. "He would try to suffocate me by covering my mouth and nose until I begged him to get off. He would constantly torment me mentally too, and tell me that the baby I carried was worthless."

I, for one, was outraged when Refuge approached us at the Body Shop with a horrifying list of statistics about domestic violence in the UK. It affects women from every social background, religion and culture. It can occur at any stage in a woman's life. However, 25 per cent of women experiencing domestic violence are assaulted for the first time during pregnancy, often with tragic outcomes.

It's about power and control. When a woman is pregnant she's at her most vulnerable, and the abuser can feel threatened and pushed aside. He can becomes jealous of the unborn child - and so there are two victims. This further increases the imbalance of power in the relationship. Because the abuser is able to exploit her vulnerability, she is even more dependent on him than ever. She may be unable to take steps to leave.

One in nine women in the UK is severely beaten by a partner each year. Can you imagine the fear and intimidation that leads victims of abuse to be beaten an average of 35 times before they first work up the courage to leave call the police?

It is over three decades since Refuge opened the world's first women's refuge, but despite years of research and work on destigmatising the problem, prevention and intervention, domestic violence is still one of the biggest human-rights issues affecting women. Refuge is providing a desperately needed safety net, but the real work ahead is getting to the guts of the problem and putting stigma where it really belongs: on the abusers.

It also means examining what in our society allows a disease like this to bloom so unchallenged.That means facing some grim truths. Don't look away when I tell you this:

* Two women in England and Wales are killed every week by a current or former partner.

* One in four women are abused in their lifetime.

* Every minute, police in the UK receive a domestic assistance call, yet only 35 per cent of domestic violence incidents are reported to police.

* In 90 per cent of domestic abuse incidents, children were in the same or the next room, and in about 50 per cent of all cases of spousal abuse, children were also targeted.

* A study of 127 women in refuges in Northern Ireland found that 60 per cent had been beaten while pregnant, and 13 per cent lost their babies as a result.

Perhaps you are not one of the millions of abused. Do not think you are not also paying the price. One study estimated the cost of providing services for abused women and children at £90 per year per household. That's £276m for the Greater London area alone. Domestic violence also takes a heavy toll on health and social services, to the tune of over £1bn per year. It costs untold millions in lost work days.

The Government has made some strides in addressing the problem, particularly David Blunkett's recent consultation paper on how government, local authorities, and businesses are working together on solutions. But real change demands a new way of thinking by all of us. The first step you can take is to refuse to ignore the problem. Ask yourself: if someone were being beaten in front of you, what would you do? Why is that different when the beating is happening behind closed doors? Is violence ever just somebody else's problem?

Research by the Body Shop nails the myth that "domestic" violence only happens at home. Four out of 10 people say they have witnessed a person being verbally or physically abused by their partner in a social situation - whether at home, in a restaurant or a pub.

The Body Shop has launched our own domestic violence policy with resources and support for employees who experience domestic violence at home. Our new Help Stop Violence in the Home campaign with Refuge is running in over 300 shops and aims to collect hundreds of thousands of unused mobile phones. Each mobile translates to £2.75 for Refuge's programmes.

Refuge is launching a new hard-hitting "Don't Ignore It" cinema advertising campaign. It depicts a women experiencing extreme abuse while dining in a restaurant with a group of friends. As the violence escalates, her dining companions remain oblivious and she is made to suffer in silence. The advertisement is a metaphor for the way society has still not done enough to stop domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a crime that is happening to countless women as you read this piece. In the UK, 19 million adults say they personally know someone who has suffered at the hands of a violent partner. That is a statistic we cannot afford to ignore.

Refuge's 24-hour national helpline is 0808 808 9999. For more information on the Help Stop Violence in the Home campaign, visit www.uk.thebodyshop.com

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