Your Life: I Wondered If I'd Be Better off Dead. Then I Found Help; One in Four Women Will Be the Victim of Domestic Violence but Usually They Will Be Attacked 35 Times before Seeking Help. Charlotte Ward Goes Inside a Specialist Centre Determined to Make Big Changes

The Mirror (London, England), June 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

Your Life: I Wondered If I'd Be Better off Dead. Then I Found Help; One in Four Women Will Be the Victim of Domestic Violence but Usually They Will Be Attacked 35 Times before Seeking Help. Charlotte Ward Goes Inside a Specialist Centre Determined to Make Big Changes


Byline: Charlotte Ward

A WOMAN wearing a pretty chiffon top speaks quietly into an intercom, then steps into the ordinary looking building.

Inside, the reception is painted in pastel colours. There are toys scattered on the floor and a box of tissues on the counter. It could be a doctor's waiting room.

Yet this is actually a haven for victims of domestic violence. A place offering battered women the chance to break the shackles of abusive relationships. For good.

It's no easy feat. Recent statistics show that abused women wait, on average, until the 35th beating before telling the police.

But The Gaia Centre in Lambeth, South London, hopes to make such grim figures a thing of the past.

Since opening two years ago, the centre has helped nearly 900 female victims of domestic violence - whether it's advice on leaving, finding a new home, or providing counselling.

Among those who have sought their help is Dionne, 32, who has just arrived. She smiles as she speaks, but leans forward to rub her leg nervously.

On her right calf is a nasty circular scar - just one reminder of the violence she suffered at the hands of her estranged husband. The mark was caused when he pressed a lighted cannabis joint against her leg, resulting in a burn which later became infected.

Sadly, this last act of brutality - meted out after Dionne walked out and bravely refused to return home - was not the worst.

He has raped her, beaten her and once tugged at her braids so violently he pulled out most of the top of her hair.

"It was so sore," recalls mum-of-one Dionne. "Worst of all, my daughter was watching and screaming with fear. She was only seven and it was awful for her to witness. But at the time I couldn't offer her much support. I was so, so down.

Forced to go back

"I tried to escape but he'd find me and beg or force me to go back. At times I wondered if I'd be better off dead."

Fortunately, on her doctor's advice, Dionne sought help from The Gaia Centre instead.

The centre, which recently won the NHS and Social Care Award for London, offers a unique service in bringing together a comprehensive range of advice, support and services for women affected by domestic violence.

Research had shown that women often approach up to 11 agencies before they get the help they need. Gaia was developed to ensure that victims only have to tell their story once, and are then supported as they try to rebuild their lives.

Staff can help victims with everything from filling in forms for council accommodation and explaining how to start divorce proceedings to helping find a school for their children.

They also work closely with local law firm Hanne & Co, which can get a court injunction against abusers, often within 24 hours.

"When a woman comes to Gaia for help she is usually in a pretty desperate situation," says solicitor Anna Gowen.

"So it's important that we can meet with her quickly. Often we can get into court that afternoon to obtain an order that rules her abuser must not approach her - and if he does he will be arrested. It can bring real peace of mind."

Dionne can testify to that. "I was a mess and terrified of all men when I came her," she recalls.

"I was so used to walking on eggs hells. My husband's temper would flair up so fast.

One minute he'd be calm and the next he'd be slamming his fists on the table. Banging and breaking stuff, hurling things at me in a rage.

"He refused to work and made me give him my money for drugs and alcohol. …

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