Daily Express

Living with the enemy

With domestic violence on the rise during lockdown, ELIZABETH ARCHER speaks to a survivor who is campaignin­g to help those trapped at home with their abuser


AS A survivor of domestic abuse, Gemma Evans knows how terrifying the current situation must be for people in abusive relationsh­ips. “When I was trapped in a controllin­g relationsh­ip, my only release was being able to walk my children to school,” says Gemma, 37, from Hetton-le-Hole, Durham. “For that short period of time I was able to breathe easy, but lockdown means abusers have 24/7 access to the victim.There’s no escape.”

Gemma, who now runs a support group for survivors of domestic abuse, tells how one woman in her group has been terrorised by her ex-partner in recent weeks.

Although she has a restrainin­g order against him, he is now sitting on her doorstep day and night, knowing she has to be in the house, causing her great distress.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg for many people. Domestic abuse killings doubled in the 21-day period after lockdown was announced compared to the same period last year, while domestic abuse charity Refuge reported calls to its helpline had risen by 49 per cent.

In May the government announced a £76 million package in the Domestic Abuse Bill, which has been three years in the making, but that money will not be available in time for victims of domestic abuse during the current crisis. In fact only £2million in emergency funding for domestic abuse charities has been released, an amount Fiona Dwyer of Solace Women’s Aid described as “pitiful”.

Gemma is campaignin­g with theWomen’s Equality Party for the government to introduce an emergency domestic abuse bill and cross agency funding package as she knows only too well the danger of being trapped in a violent relationsh­ip.

In 2012, Gemma began dating a man she met at a local pub, who she had several mutual friends with. She found him charming and charismati­c and was flattered by the attention he showed her.

“He would surprise me with a box of chocolates and there was always a nice text message to wake up to,” says Gemma. “I was swept off my feet.”

Within six months, Gemma moved into his home with her two boys, Strand and Davis, then two and four. But their relationsh­ip began to affect her work as a self-employed spray tan trainer.

“I used social media to advertise my business, but it began causing problems in our relationsh­ip,” she says. “He’d say things like: ‘You’re always on that phone’, and that he was going to delete his Facebook account. Gradually he persuaded me to delete mine as well.”

Without access to social media, her business dried up and she struggled to make payments on the house she jointly owned with her ex-husband.

Gemma declared herself bankrupt and her ex-husband bought out her share of the house.

“Looking back, I want to scream at myself. But I was so in love,” says Gemma. Meanwhile, her partner became increasing­ly aggressive. “If I made dinner and he didn’t like it, he’d throw it across the living room. I had drinks poured over me and glasses smashed over my head.”

The psychologi­cal abuse also escalated.

“I would put the kids to bed but he’d get them back up and say: ‘Don’t listen to mammy, she’s crazy.’

“Every moment of my day was controlled by him.When I walked the kids to school each morning, he would make sure I was back in the house afterwards.”

Despite this, Gemma didn’t realise the relationsh­ip was abusive because she thought abuse was a punch or a slap.

GEMMA grew distant from her family who disapprove­d of her relationsh­ip.

At the same time, the violence escalated. Once, her partner dragged her through the house by her hair. Several times Gemma tried to leave but every time she escaped, her partner threatened to kill himself and she returned.

“Once I stayed away from him for over two weeks and managed to rent a house but he sent me videos of him slitting his wrists, telling me it was my fault because I’d left him.” Eventually, on the day after Boxing Day in 2013, Gemma woke up to him strangling her. Hearing her screams, the neighbours called the police. Her partner was arrested. Gemma was given a panic alarm and the locks were changed, but unknown to her, he had a skeleton key and could gain entrance through the back door.

“When I went to work he was coming into the house. I’d come back and find things moved around in the house and I thought I was going crazy. I wasn’t sleeping because I was so petrified of what he might do, so I agreed he could move back as long as he got profession­al help. I couldn’t see what damage he was doing to me.”

Then in February 2014, three months before his court trial, he pinned Gemma to the floor, holding a knife to her throat.

“He said he was going to end my life and take his own at the same time. He mentioned my two children and said ‘your kids will grow up with their dad’.”

Gemma managed to push him off and press the panic alarm under her bed. Seeing she’d called the police, her partner was furious. “His last words to me were: ‘They’ll put me away for this.’”

He left the house and killed himself.

Now, six years later and after specialist counsellin­g, Gemma has finally come to terms with what happened.

“At first I was angry at myself for letting the abuse happen, then angry at him for doing it. I was relieved because I knew he couldn’t hurt me any more but also I felt guilty.”

Her experience has made Gemma determined to help other people in abusive relationsh­ips, which is why she is so passionate about calls to help domestic abuse charities. “It’s a long road to recovery but there is help out there. You just need to ask for it.”

If you are in an emergency situation, dial 999. If you can’t speak but need urgent help, press 55 to let the operator know.

● Victims of domestic abuse can get help by calling the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or by visiting nationalda­helpline.org.uk

‘It’s a long road to recovery but there is help out there. You just need to ask for it’

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HOME HELL: Domestic abuse killings doubled during lockdown
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