Last year, 26 per cent of women using specialist domestic violence services had come from rural areas , while only 19 per cent of the UK population lives in rural areas .
But for women living in rural communities, it can be significantly harder to access specialist support services. A severe and worsening lack of funding means that domestic violence services often have to serve large geographical areas. The services themselves are generally based in urban areas because the population is larger and more concentrated, and many services were originally set up through community activism which is easier in urban areas.
For many women in rural areas, this can mean their nearest specialist is two bus-rides away from their home. If her partner controls access to a car, denies her petrol money, checks her mileage, or demands an explanation every time she leaves home, that distance can mean a woman is simply unable to get to a specialist support worker. Similarly, in a small community where a new vehicle would be noticed, a woman cannot be safely visited by a support worker on a regular basis, in case word gets back to the perpetrator that a strange car has been seen at their home.
Domestic violence often relies on isolating the victim: the perpetrator works to weaken her connections with family and friends, making it extremely difficult to seek support from outside. Perpetrators will often try and reduce a woman’s contact with the outside world to ensure that she sees things the way he wants her to, preventing her from recognising that his behaviour is abusive and wrong. Perpetrators are often well respected or liked in their communities because they are charming and manipulative. This prevents people recognising the abuse and isolates the woman still further.
This isolation can trap women anywhere. But in rural areas, the social isolation can be compounded by geographical isolation and the perpetrator can be protected by the small size of the community. If your neighbours have known you their whole lives, they simply may not suspect you could be capable of domestic violence. There may be an assumption that domestic violence is an inner-city problem, confined to lower socio-economic or ethnic minority groups. And a woman can feel very vulnerable seeking support from her neighbours, the local police, or her family doctor where she may become the subject of local gossip.
Where women feel they can’t turn to the police, the results can be especially dangerous. In one case, a woman who lived in a small rural community didn’t want to call the police about her violent ex-husband because she worried about her children. She said that she hadn’t called the police during their marriage because the whole street would have seen, and the local officers knew her husband. Then when she divorced him, many of her neighbours felt she was treating him unfairly, and her children started to be bullied at school. When he began breaking into her house to assault her, she didn’t report it to the police as she thought the bullying would get even worse for her children, if people thought she was experiencing violence or, worse, making false allegations.
Where police officers are embedded in close-knit communities, as they can be in rural areas, women can feel that they would be more likely to take the side of a perpetrator they know socially. However, it’s important to note that some of the best police forces in the country on domestic violence are in largely rural areas, such as Cumbria or Cheshire. Intimate knowledge of the local community can help a police force dedicated to eliminating domestic violence. Where police officers are trained to recognise and understand domestic violence and take it seriously, their relationships in the local community might make women more likely to reach out, if they know they will be believed, respected, and supported in confidence.
In addition to good quality policing, rural communities can benefit from broad awareness of domestic violence, and sensitivity to the power dynamics behind it. If women experiencing geographical isolation are not to be disproportionately impacted by cuts to specialist services, it is vital that their communities are able to help. That means neighbours who can recognise domestic violence; believe women who report violent or controlling behaviour; maintaining friendships if you think a woman is a victim so that you can provide a lifeline if she’s ready to take it; and challenge stereotypes and myths about abuse.
Domestic violence affects women at all levels of society, and in all kinds of communities. Women in rural areas who are victims of domestic violence may face specific difficulties, but they can also benefit from strong community links – and police officers and other professionals anywhere who are well trained and understand the dynamics of domestic violence can and must support victims to find safetyTo learn more about Women’s Aid and their work to end domestic violence against women and children, visit their website.
 Women’s Aid Annual Survey 2012-13, Women’s Aid, 2013
 Statistical Digest of Rural England 2013, Defra, 2013