Trapped in a house with her abusive and manipulative partner, Mina knew lockdown was going to be the final straw for her.
“Covid was a pressure cooker which made everything more extreme and happen more quickly,” the 30-year-old told HuffPost UK.
“I could feel myself slipping away and I knew if I didn’t leave, I would die,” she said.
Mina already had plans to escape to a refuge, but she faced an obstacle she hadn’t counted on: Money.
Her salary as a teacher meant she would be expected to pay £350 a week for a space. But, like many women in her situation, Mina was being financially controlled, as well as suffering emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
“I knew I was finally ready to be rid of him,” said Mina. “But even though I had not had access to my own money for nine years, I earned too much to go into a refuge.”
Covid was a pressure cooker which made everything more extreme and happen more quickly."Mina, who escaped from domestic abuse during lockdown
Mina, who lived in the West Midlands, couldn’t get housing benefit as she had her teaching job, but her former partner had taken financial control over her earnings from an early stage.
Her story is not unique when it comes to women facing difficulties in accessing refuge accommodation. Refuge spaces are always in demand and the pandemic has made the situation worse.
But funding a refuge place is an issue affecting those suffering abuse – particularly if they are working, but being subjected to economic abuse by their controlling partner.
“Refuges presently operate in a way that disadvantages women in full time employment who are not in receipt of housing related benefits,” explains Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, chief executive officer of charity Surviving Economic Abuse.
“Many working women cannot afford to pay for a refuge place and have to give up employment so that they can claim state benefits which will fund a refuge place.
“It can therefore be harder for women who are working to secure a refuge place as the costs can be too high, therefore creating an incentive to leave employment.”
Refuges presently operate in a way that disadvantages women in full time employment who are not in receipt of housing related benefits.”Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, Surviving Economic Abuse
Dr Sharp-Jeffs told HuffPost UK this means some women in a domestic abuse situation face a terrible choice, and it impacts their ability to fend for themselves after fleeing the abuse.
“This system of perverse incentives undermines the ability of survivors to maintain economic stability after leaving an abusive partner and leaves women with the ‘choice’ of retaining their employment and staying with the abuser or giving up work in order to access safe accommodation.”
She added the situation has been further exacerbated during pandemic-related lockdowns when there have been fewer housing options available as even more women may have felt compelled to leave their employment or remain with their abuser.
“Lack of refuge spaces, both during Covid-19 and normal times, could mean that women have to flee hundreds of miles away from their homes leading to loss of employment due to distance from the workplace.”
Mina came to the UK from the Netherlands for university and met her former partner soon after her arrival.
It was a whirlwind romance and she admits he was “very charming” and “reeled me in very quickly.” They moved in together only weeks later.
“I was not very confident and easily led,” Mina told HuffPost UK. “Before I knew it, he had picked out a house for us to live in and started suggesting which job I should do and orchestrating any major moves in my life.”
Mina remembers alarm bells ringing at his behaviour at an early stage, but she ignored them. “His reactions were disproportionate – he would go mad about things, but initially his anger wasn’t aimed at me but at technology or other people.”
The first time he raped her was only a couple of months after they met following an argument. “The gaslighting then came very quickly. People who I cared about, he would say: ‘They don’t really care about you.’”
Mina was at university as well as working around 40 to 60 hours a week juggling three different jobs. Then at home, she would have to do all the housework too. “He made me work all those hours and every month, I would deposit my wages into his account.
“He said it was because he was better at finances and told me I was doing the housework as I was so bad at it and needed to get better.
“He completely manipulated me. But outwardly, he was very outgoing and charming in public.”
Only months later, the physical violence began and Mina was punched in the stomach and face. When people at work saw bruises on her face, she lied and said it was an accident.
“I was always defending him.” she said. “There is an incredible amount of shame. I felt that if I admitted I was suffering abuse and still stayed, then I would be the biggest idiot in the world.
“I knew for myself I was the biggest idiot, but I did not want anyone else to think that about me.”
Whenever Mina came close to leaving, her former partner would use crazy, flamboyant gestures to win her back. “The more awful things got, the more I would jump at any sign of affection as I was just so starved of it.”
Mina left him twice, but he won her back within weeks with false promises.
The more awful things got, the more I would jump at any sign of affection as I was just so starved of it.”Mina, a domestic abuse survivor
She finally found the courage to believe in herself when a friend took her aside and expressed concern about her self esteem. Mina broke down in tears. “Gradually, I started believing in myself. I already knew it wasn’t right, but I realised I didn’t deserve this.”
By this time, Mina was working as a teacher. In November 2019, she confided in her boss who gave her a burner phone and urged her to keep in touch.
“I had no money and no access to a phone,” admitted Mina. “I had five laptops while I was with him and he broke them all. He broke my mobile phone a few years earlier and I had no access to funds as he held all my accounts by then.
“When my boss gave me the mobile phone, I hid it in a box of clothes and would text her. I was terrified he would discover it. But it also made me feel I was not entirely alone.”
Mina already knew she needed to leave, but in February 2020, she became ill with Covid-19.
Once she had recovered, even though she was a key worker, her former partner wouldn’t let her go to work telling her she was too weak. He began working from home too and life became unbearable.
Mina was banished to a room in the house with bare floors and dodgy electrics.
“I would make him angry for not doing something the way he wanted or quickly enough. The repercussions would be no shower, no food and locking me into the room and telling me I wasn’t even allowed to go to the toilet.”
Faced with an impossible choice, Mina decided to return to her native home in the Netherlands – even though it meant leaving behind a job she loved.
“My first choice would have been to go into a refuge,” she admitted. “But I couldn’t afford it, so one of my bosses who helped me a lot suggested: ‘Why don’t you go to your family?’”
On Easter Monday, Mina texted her boss at the school asking if she could come in the following week as she needed technology to arrange to leave.
She then lied to her former partner that her sick note had run out and the doctor wouldn’t give her another so she needed to go into school.
On the morning she left, he had refused to give her money for a bus or fix her bike, so she secretly packed some clothes and sentimental items and walked the two hour journey to work.
Her boss arranged hotels and travel for her to return to the Netherlands and wrote a letter explaining why she was travelling during the national lockdown.
Shortly before she fled, Mina managed to get back one of her bank cards from her abusive partner after he threw it at her in a rage. However, there was only about £1 in the account. Mina’s boss drove her to the bank where she was given a £1,000 emergency payment after explaining her situation.
Her employer also arranged to keep her job open, meaning she was paid for a few months after she left.
Mina is now back in the Netherlands, reunited with family and working in a school. “Initially, I didn’t want to leave the UK as my career and life were there.
“But I am now happy and did not know life could be this good.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, without coronavirus, he would have followed me to try to bring me back.
“I was isolated for so long, but now, despite the pandemic, I never feel lonely.”
Mina was supported by the charity Women’s Aid throughout her ordeal. She says the charity listened to her even when she wasn’t ready to leave. “Just having someone to talk to without being judged helped.
“Women’s Aid also provided information and phone numbers on the day I finally left and got in touch with refuges, although that was not a possibility for me.”
Mina feels scared for women who are still with abusive partners now during yet another lockdown, particularly if they are told they need to pay for a refuge but can’t.
“The refuge situation does frustrate me,” she said. “Abuse can be economic and financial as well as emotional or physical, especially if they are with a controlling partner. But women are still being told they have to pay £350 plus to leave.”
Lucy Hadley, head of policy and campaigns at Women’s Aid, told HuffPost UK: “Women who are in work face a number of serious barriers to accessing a refuge space.
“Refuges rely on two forms of funding: Housing funding covers the costs of running a refuge, including rent and eligible services charges, such as building costs, facilities and maintenance.
“The other type of funding is support funding which enables refuges to provide vital support services, such as staff, counselling and children’s services, to help women rebuild their lives.
“Many women in refuge rely on housing benefit to cover the housing costs of their refuge stay. However, women with incomes are ineligible for housing benefit.
“So, there are real issues with how they can fund their refuge stay. For many, the costs of rent will simply be too expensive.”
Sarah Davidge, data manager at Women’s Aid, told HuffPost UK that economic control is a huge part of domestic abuse.
“Domestic abuse is about control and isolating someone and restricting their freedom and choices,” she said. “That is exactly what lockdown restrictions are doing. Perpetrators are very clever and will adapt and use anything for control and manipulation.”
Davidge said some perpetrators are using the virus to abuse people by either refusing to abide by restrictions and bringing people back to the home, coughing or spitting on them or forcing them to live under overly strict measures and constantly making them wash their hands.
Women’s Aid’s most recent report The Domestic Abuse Report 2021 revealed that 57 per cent of all referrals to refuges were declined, most often due to lack of space.
For Kim, currently living in London with her abusive partner during the latest lockdown, finances are one of the reasons she feels she can’t leave. But for her, it is because she feels guilt as the main earner.
The 29-year-old, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, revealed to HuffPost UK: “I earn most of our income and he has so many mental health issues that I feel like I can’t leave him stranded.
“I planned to leave this toxic relationship long before lockdown, but due to the situation between myself and him and then the pandemic, I’m still here.
“I know he is manipulating my emotions and I am so unhappy, but I just can’t bring myself to put myself first after putting him first for such a long time. I doubt myself every day and feel like earning income is the only strength I have left.
“I am respected by my colleagues, yet I am completely controlled at home, including with finances. I spend all my earnings on him, his addictions and our bills.
“I am so caught up, I don’t know how to untangle myself.”
I know he is manipulating my emotions and I am so unhappy, but I just can’t bring myself to put myself first after putting him first for such a long time."Kim, who is currently living in a domestic abuse situation during lockdown
Helen Victoria, founder of Living Liberté, a social enterprise which aims to prevent future abuse by educating young people in the West Midlands about spotting the red flags of abuse, was in an abusive and controlling relationship herself between the ages of 15 and 23.
She is currently supporting Kim and other women trapped in abusive relationships. “Finance is a key player in why some of them feel they cannot leave,” she said.
“Some are financially controlled by their abusers, leaving them with no confidence or resources to be independent.
“Others have had to give up their work due to the abuse they received for wanting to earn for themselves, leaving them in debt or entirely dependent on their partner.
“For some, their abusive partner relies on the victim’s income and they feel manipulated to stay in order to not feel ‘selfish’.
“People say money doesn’t matter, but to someone suffering abuse, it is highly significant. Without economic resources and appropriate support, freedom just isn’t possible.”
People say money doesn’t matter, but to someone suffering abuse, it is highly significant."Helen Victoria, Living Liberte
Kat, who supports women through Women’s Aid’s live chat service, says that demand is busier than ever.
“If a woman is self isolating, we are hearing of abusers going out and flouting the rules and spitting on them and mocking them for following the lockdown measures.
“The longer it goes on, the more bleak it feels. Being in an abusive relationship is like being in lockdown and abusers are thriving off it.”
For Mina, now free of domestic abuse, the message to women facing the situation she was once in is one of hope. “However bad your situation and how lonely you feel, you are not alone.
I can’t see anything but possibilities and when I lock the door, I know no one is coming in unless I give them permission.”Mina, a domestic abuse survivor who fled during lockdown
“There is always a way out. It may not be straightforward and it will definitely be the hardest thing you do.
“But it is not too late and the rewards you get on the other side are incredible.”
If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
- The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
- In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
- In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
- In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
- Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321