Is mobility a solution to domestic and family violence?

Published 23 April 2020 / By Vidya Ramachandran

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.


When I worked for a frontline domestic violence service, I took my freedom of movement for granted. Meeting clients in person allowed me to learn more about their circumstances, while they could speak freely and honestly without anyone listening from the next room. Meetings were held in offices, in homes, in a multitude of semi-private, mutually convenient settings. In hindsight, I imagine that a significant proportion of my working hours were spent on the move – squished into Tube carriages, boarding a series of buses, power-walking down suburban streets, half-eaten sandwich in hand.

It was essential that I moved, as many service-users did not have the same privilege. It is well-established that victims of domestic violence are often subjected to tremendous control. For some, pre-lockdown, connecting with support services was still plausible. Frontline workers make effort to see clients wherever they can go, whenever they can spare the time. For others, making any contact with the outside world has always been next to impossible. I came across several women in London, who, after managing to flee, did not know exactly where they had lived, having been forbidden to leave their homes for several years.

The lockdown and increased violence

In this age of lockdown, when frontline agencies are shuttered, and essential services conducted remotely, it seems inevitable that the number of women in that position will only rise. Feminist academics have long pointed to the family and the home as sites of violence [1]. The aggravating impacts of lockdown are already visible. In Wuhan, calls to police regarding domestic violence rapidly multiplied over two months of lockdown. In the UK, calls to domestic violence services increase daily, and many services have desperately rallied to increase their funding to provide remote services. And in a time of expanding police powers, for various reasons, many will remain reluctant to seek assistance from state authorities. Lockdowns will continue to endanger women, as well as children, migrants, people who are LGBT+, people with disabilities, and other groups who are disproportionately vulnerable to domestic and family violence.

Where to from here? Mobility is not a solution in itself

But while the devastating impacts of immobilisation are well understood, what is often overlooked is the other extreme: the experiences of those who arguably move too much. For those who flee domestic violence, moving – quickly, frequently – can become an ingrained routine. Women flee from violent homes, stay with friends, escape into emergency accommodation and seek shelter in women’s refuges before attempting to settle wherever they can. Just as asylum seekers are subjected to harsh policies of dispersal to deprived areas with surplus housing stock around the UK, many women fleeing domestic violence are passed between local authorities that resist taking responsibility for them. For single migrant women with no recourse to public funds, ineligibility for state support can lead to a choice between destitution, or living on charity, wherever it is provided.

Even after securing long-term housing, the privatisation of social housing, unaffordable rent and inadequate welfare support often means that survivors are forced into a cycle of eviction and destitution for several years, all while being displaced from the communities that they know. Janet Bowstead thus conceptualises the movement of women and children escaping domestic violence within the UK as a process of internal, gendered forced migration [2].

While much of this movement is ostensibly necessary to protect vulnerable people from violence, those who move under these circumstances often become pawns in a complex system of risk assessments, state budgets, and housing supply. But such rapid movement is now unfeasible. As responses to domestic violence have relied so heavily on continuous mobility, for many, accessing safety and stability is now a distant goal.

Things will (hopefully) never be the same

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven so severely immobilising, I wonder how our institutional responses to domestic violence will change in the coming months. Frontline services have made commendable efforts to shift into remote provision, and will likely continue to develop their capacity to provide effective, meaningful support for survivors whose movement, even under otherwise normal circumstances, is limited.

While the pandemic has illustrated just how important it is that we move, it has also highlighted instances in which we can move a lot less. The current circumstances have made it impracticable to continue constantly shifting survivors of violence to the nation’s peripheries in the name of safety. Applying a forced migration perspective to these movements highlights the needlessness of these state-enforced migration trajectories. We need to revise the complex system of risk assessments, state budgets, and housing supply to reduce harmful mobility. Perhaps it is time to focus on developing equitable systems of state support that allow all survivors to access long-term safety and stability, with fewer periods of transition, and far less distress.

Vidya Ramachandran is a MSc student in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.


[1] Avni, Noga. 1991. ‘Battered Wives: The Home as a Total Institution’. Violence and Victims 6(2): 137-149.

[2] Bowstead, Janet. 2016. ‘Women on the move: theorising the geographies of domestic violence journeys in England’. Gender, Place & Culture 24(1): 108-121.