“I had £10 to my name when I left my abuser,” Ava* tells The Independent. “Getting a free train ticket was what guaranteed my safety. I didn’t know where I was going but I started to feel a sense of confidence. The kids were enjoying how fast it was going. It was the first time they had been on a train. Now I feel like my life has started again.”
Ava is one of hundreds of domestic abuse survivors who was given a free train ticket to escape her abusive partner and seek refuge in a shelter. The scheme, which launched in March, has been used widely as domestic abuse has soared in the wake of lockdown measures introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus.
New figures, released as train companies announced the scheme would be extended until the end of March next year, show an average of four domestic abuse survivors has been using the “life-saving” initiative a day.
Ava, who used to work for the NHS, says she was subjected to physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse at the hands of her former partner. She said he has since been charged with coercive control and rape by the police.
“He was expecting sex every day,” the 37-year-old adds. “If I didn’t give it to him, he would leave and not come back for a few days and I would be left without food for the kids. He wanted me to initiate the sex, so even if I was asleep, I would have to wake up.”
Ava, who was living with her former partner for four years but escaped in March before the coronavirus lockdown hit, said her ex would grow angry or suspicious when she spoke to friends or neighbours.
She said he expected her to do all the cleaning and barred her from working – adding that he even had CCTV cameras outside the house and would question her whenever she left home to go to the shop.
Ava, who fled her abuser with her two children who were from a different partner, said they had no wifi in the house as he wanted to isolate her from those close to her – adding that he also refused to pay for her phone contract.
“I now live next to a police station,” Ava, who has left the refuge she was initially in, says. “I still have nightmares about him. When I see his same model of car, I get a feeling of fear deep in my tummy. The kids are still scared. They remember the situation with him as a nightmare. I knew I wouldn’t be alive if I had stayed with him.”
Statistics show women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner – some 55 per cent of the women murdered by their ex in 2017 were killed within the first month of separation and 87 per cent in the first year.
Every week in the UK, two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner. A woman will try to leave a violent partner an average of seven times before eventually managing to flee – with domestic abuse victims often having to move across the country to safely escape their violent partner.
Domestic violence has soared during the coronavirus crisis – with a report released by MPs in April revealing killings doubled over 21 days during the Covid-19 crisis.
Charlotte Kneer, chief executive of Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge in Surrey, where Ava fled to after escaping her abusive ex-partner, told The Independent the scheme providing free train tickets is “life-saving”.
Ms Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor whose violent partner was jailed for seven years in 2011, said: “The scheme could have saved hundreds of women’s lives. Ninety per cent of women in our refuge are there because they are at risk of murder from their partner if they were to remain in their own home. We do a risk assessment which is used by police and other services supporting vulnerable victims nationally.
“Leaving an abusive relationship is such a difficult thing to do. There are so many obstacles in your way, such as your safety. But it is also such a struggle to think about starting a new life somewhere completely different.
“Everything feels completely overwhelming when you have suffered abuse. You are terrified. Another element is financial abuse which is often present in domestic abuse. The scheme sends the message to people leaving an abusive relationship that people in wider society, and specifically the rail company, care about you and want to make it easier for you. I would plead with the rail services to keep it going past next March.”
Ms Kneer said another benefit to the scheme, which is called Rail to Refuge, is it ensures refuge staff do not have to “scramble around” trying to find money to fund a domestic abuse victim’s transport – adding that this can take some time.
She added: “The scheme has made it so much easier for victims to leave an abusive relationship. It eases pressure on refuges which have been struggling in recent years because of austerity cuts.”
Ms Kneer noted the scheme was the brainchild of a railway worker who happened to have watched a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary about her refuge which marked the first time a camera team had been allowed inside a refuge.
“He works for South Eastern and he thought it was terrible women can’t get to a refuge,” she adds. “He thought, can we do something about this? The thing that touched me the most is it shows one person can make a difference and he did. He’s a normal guy doing his job and he is not high up in the company.”
The initiative is a joint scheme between rail companies and leading domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid which sees train operators pay for the cost of train tickets for women, men and children making the trip to refuges. Two-thirds of those who used the scheme said they would not have been able to take the train trip if it had not been paid for.
Nicki Norman, acting chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Women tell us that they simply cannot afford to leave because the perpetrator has controlled their money and they have none of their own. Many women and children escape to a refuge with nothing at all.”
The national charity said refuges are anticipating mounting demand from victims who need to use their services continues in the coming months due to domestic abuse “worsening” as perpetrators utilise the “pandemic as a tool for abuse”.
Six in ten domestic abuse victims cooped up at home with their abuser report abuse worsened from March to June this year in the wake of lockdown measures, a study by Women’s Aid found.
Women’s Aid said domestic abuse victims who want to use the Rail to Refuge scheme can do so via their Live Chat service – chat.womensaid.org.uk – which is open Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm, and Saturday and Sunday,10am-12pm.
*Name changed to protect her identity
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website nationaldahelpline.org.uk/