INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY

This Is Not Love: domestic abuse victims speak out

A young female actor tells the story of a domestic abuse victim in a screenshot from the video This is Not Love. The subtitle reads: 'Telling me you owned by body it was yours to do as you liked'
Actor Amanda Bourne in a scene from This is Not Love, which tells the story of women who have been abused. Photo credit: Hastings & St Leonards Women’s Voice

Lockdown has been hell for women living in abusive relationships, trapped as they are, 24 hours a day, every day, with their abusers. The growing case numbers tell their own story, but much, much more compelling are the experiences of women themselves, captured in a specially recorded video released by an East Sussex women’s group.

“It felt like there was real danger everywhere,” said one. Others said: 

“I couldn’t let my guard down for a second in case he turned on me, worse still my children.”

“You question your own sanity.”

“A dark and lonely place, stuck in a rut of a damaging and toxic existence.”

The video, entitled This is Not Love, is the work of Women’s Voice, a Hastings & St Leonards women’s rights group – the words of the women themselves voiced by professional actors, pleased to be part of such an important project. 

Just before Covid arrived, a local woman approached Women’s Voice wishing to share her story of surviving an abusive relationship. She felt this would be cathartic for her – it had taken her many years to share her experiences – but also might help other women, showing they were not alone. Perhaps, too, her testimony might provide some guidance or warnings for younger women.  

A young black actor tells the story of a woman domestically abused in a screenshot from the video This is Not Love. The subtitle reads: 'It was like being trapped, held down unable to breathe ...'
Actor Marie Boyd gives voice to the terror a woman felt at the hands of an abuser. Photo credit: a screenshot from the video This is Not Love, released by Hastings & St Leonards Women’s Voice

Responding to this, the group started gathering women’s testimonies and to see if there was some way of making them public. Assuring complete anonymity, women were invited to send in their experiences of domestic abuse and coercive control. There were no guidelines or editorial rules: women were free to send in whatever they felt like writing. Professional actors would then speak and record their words.

Testimonies varied from short poems through to longer descriptive pieces. All were immensely powerful.

A call went out for professional women actors, living as locally as possible. There was a huge response. Given lockdown, they filmed themselves in their own homes, speaking to camera using mobile phones or cameras. An experienced film editor then edited the separate films into one. 

The result is an approximately 40-minute video, also with subtitles, a remarkable piece of work: extraordinarily powerful and very moving, highlighting perhaps better than any other means, just how devastating and psychologically destructive domestic abuse is for women. Not surprisingly, similar themes occur and even phrases: more than one woman refers to ‘walking on eggshells’ in an attempt not to upset an abusive partner. 

A female actor in a screenshot from the video This is Not Love. This woman's reaction is typical. The subtitle reads: 'It was the walking on egg shells which almost broke me'
Actor Hayley Marie Axe in a scene from This is Not Love. The reaction of the woman she portrays is typical of those in an abusive relationship. Photo credit: screenshot from the video released by Hastings & St Leonards Women’s Voice

Domestic abuse and coercive control are among the most urgent issues facing women. Incidence is high in Hastings and St Leonards with more than 1,200 cases being recorded between 2019 and 2020.

Nationally the statistics are stark and show little sign of reducing: in the UK almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime; two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone, and in the year ending March 2019, 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse.

Lockdown has exacerbated the situation. Figures indicate that in the period March – June 2020 the number of domestic abuse cases rose by 7%.

This Is Not Love will have its official launch on the Facebook TV channel @isolation.station.hastings on Thursday 18 March and afterwards viewers will be invited to start a conversation. 

Paper heart hanging from a string, with words written on one side: Love is Not ... cruel, pain, vicious, bad, coercive, etc

Celebrating with hearts

Unable to hold public events, Women’s Voice is encouraging women on International Women’s Day (8 March) to decorate hearts, carrying messages about domestic abuse and about the video, and hang them from neighbourhood trees. The focus is on three areas: the Peace Garden in Alexandra Park; Swan Terrace in the Old Town; and trees in Norman Road, St Leonards – aiming to fill them all with hearts.

Women’s Voice is keen to continue this work and in particular to involve younger women aged 16-25. The group has recently received a grant from Comic Relief to set up a project focused on domestic abuse and controlling relationships. It will run through until the autumn, and focus groups will take place this month so that young women themselves can set the agenda. 

A brighter future

All the courageous women who sent in testimonies for This is Not Love have survived and moved on, slowly rebuilding their lives and finding greater confidence and a sense of self worth. So the message is one of hope: no matter how desperate it may seem, there is a brighter future ahead. And other women are on your side.

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