“ON one occasion he burst my left eardrum” Manchester woman speaks about her domestic violence battle as prosecutions hit record high.
A Crown Prosecution report on Friday revealed that the number of people prosecuted for violence against women and girls has increased by a record 18 per cent since last year in England and Wales.
Shockingly, in the past the police have not been able to prosecute serial abusers until the bruises started to show, meaning many women were left fearing for their safety and, in some cases left fighting for their lives. Until now. Victoria Barker investigates how these new figures, and a change in the law could help thousands of female sufferers behind Britain’s front doors.
At her worst, Renee Matthews felt as useful as a paper chain.
These were supposed to be the best years of her life. Her career in politics was just igniting-its spark opening doors she’d never have imagined. Gradually though, it consumed every aspect of her life, determined to choke her.
“I was 24 when it first started,” she said, recalling the extent of the abuse she suffered while we chat in her family home in Manchester.
“I quickly became a human punching bag. On one occasion, he burst my left ear drum which still affects me to date, almost 22 years later.”
However the sky had not always been quite so limiting for the motivational speaker.
After graduating from University in Nigeria, Renee couldn’t imagine her life being more perfect. She had picked up the grades she wanted and was wooed by the dashing prince, James in the process.
“I met James when we were undergraduates. He adored me. In return, I loved him dearly and I was ready to give him my all. We were very happy together.”
The following summer Renee was ready to swap the prickly heat of her ancestral Nigerian home for the fluky weather of her birthplace, London. Her mother and sister already lived in the City, and Renee was ready to be re-united and start earning for herself.
Although excited, there was just one problem, and it kept prodding away at her in her mind. What would James say?
“I dreaded the thought of leaving my boyfriend behind. Full of guilt, I was devastated and heartbroken beyond imagination. I almost choked on my words when I informed him of my intentions.”
To her surprise, James found Renee’s intentions of moving away to be like sunshine on an August day. The obvious thing to happen.
After Renee made the six hour journey to the capital, she found herself spending every daylight hour socialising in job centres.
Prepared to do anything, she was a recruiters dream, even spending hours scrubbing away down loos in office complexes. Several hundred loos later, she was able to send some money back to Nigeria. For James.
To her delight twelve months later Renee found herself waiting in arrivals for her very own Noah and Allie Notebook- style reunion with James. The relationship flourished.
“We got married in London. Life was beautiful. Life was sweet, but only for a short while”.
As Renee was to find out, the reality of living together was far from the rosy fairy tale she had imagined.
“On several occasions, he returned home late, drunk, high as a kite and reeked of marijuana, wakibaki or weed. The weed stench was ever so strong that I could taste it, and it was probably enough to conk out the whole neighbourhood”.
What followed were relentless months of terror.
“The narcotics made him paranoid. James imagined and found faults in almost everything I did. I was constantly belittled and humiliated by him. I lost my self-confidence.”
Two years into their marriage, the couple welcomed a son Jamie, now 22. As Renee tells me, Jamie’s birth didn’t go without its complications because of the abuse.
“Jamie was born prematurely as a result of the beatings within two years of marriage. The numerous beatings (of me) became a pattern. But I put up with it because I loved him.”
It was as if Renee were tip toeing along a sharp, unstable washing line. On the left, the unknown and on the right, what she knew abusers were capable of. Neither side looked appealing.
Yet even as she tells me this, her voice doesn’t break and the corners of her mouth turn upwards, briefly.
A captivating smile. You wouldn’t think that this was a woman, confidently negotiating a world free from abuse, which had consumed seven years of her life.
Perhaps having the knowledge that she did have the bravery to eventually seek help; that the washing line did eventually come to an end, is what keeps Renee smiling.
That said it took the ultimate plunge in the relationship for her to finally speak up.
“I sought help when, and I’m not making this up, he threatened to kill me. What’s more, he boasted that he’d get away with the crime,” she says.
“Just telling the police you were scared was pointless. There was nothing they could do. I confided in my Auntie Florence who visited from America. I’d had enough which is why I opened up to her. She offered me a lifeline which changed my life. My only crime? Love.”
James travelled to Nigeria afterwards and was refused entry into the UK as a result of his overstay in Nigeria. He can no longer return to the United Kingdom according to the terms and conditions of his Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR).
Renee considers herself lucky. According to the charity Women’s Aid, two women a week in England are killed as a result of domestic violence. She’s a survivor.
But her fate could have been so much different. This is why Friday’s (June 26) figures from the CPS, stating there were a record high 68,000 convictions for domestic abuse in the last year, can be seen as being a good thing. It is also why the new law, which received royal approval in March, is not before its time.
That is the opinion of domestic abuse charity Sara Charlton who campaigned for a stricter law to help those, like Renee, at risk as part of The Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign.
Rhea Gargour is the spokesperson for the charity.
“Before the law came in a man punching a woman in his house after 20 years was same crime as a bar fight. Many women were left fearing harm, in a controlling relationship and they couldn’t go to the police because it was not a crime. So it made a lot more women at risk of violence,” she says.
It is clear that the new law, backed by Teresa May, is designed to protect as many vulnerable women as possible. However charities such as Women’s Aid and Sara Charlton argue it is not a perfectly rounded coin, particularly in terms of the wording of the defence available to perpetrators.
“The defence basically reads that abuse in a controlling and coercive or an intimate or family relationship-is allowed if it’s in the victims best interests”, says Rhea.
“Usually, victims of domestic abuse have their perception of what is in their best interests altered, because that comes with the control the abuser has over them.”
Rhea also stresses the importance for women to use the law, once it comes into force in six month’s time.
“It’s a crucial that women actually use the law. The law won’t help anyone unless training comes along with it. It’s great that we’re one of the first countries in the world to do this. The law is good, it’s just the training has to be on point. It’s no good just saying it exists. For some laws, not enough training was in place and they failed.”
Publicity of the options available to women who are domestically abused is like the pinprick in a balloon for change to begin.
In March soap opera Coronation Street, which has covered the subject in the past before, announced that character Leanne Tilsley will be involved in a domestic abuse plot later on this year.
With the change in law and national television storylines all aiming to help victims of domestic abuse, could 2015 be a year for real change?
Renee thinks so: “I’m positive”.
If the success of Clare’s Law is anything to compare to, then the future looks promising for this new law. In 2009 Clare Wood from Salford was tragically killed by her ex-boyfriend. Last March Clare’s father, Michael Brown helped create a new law that gives people the power to check if their partner has had a violent history by simply contacting the police. A year later and 1,300 disclosures have been made, potentially saving lives.
Domestic violence, according to Renee is “a vicious cycle and an epidemic behind closed doors”.
Thankfully having the confidence to go to the police means Renee is now cured of the ghastly disease. She hopes the new law will mean fewer women are left fearful and trapped like she used to be, and more action will be taken by the police to extinguish this “silent nightmare”.
She now lives in Manchester and is blissfully married to husband Tom, and she and son Jamie are closer than ever. Frequently delivering motivational speeches and seminars at Universities and High Schools across the country, she has also written a book on her experiences called Black & White – A Survivor’s Story.
One in four women will experience some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime, according to research conducted by Women’s Aid. If you have been affected by domestic abuse you can contact the charity Women’s Aid 24hrs a day on 0808 2000 247.
By: Victoria Barker