As the only charity providing domestic abuse support to the British Army, Aurora New Dawn has built strong unions with the armed forces. Here we share our experience and how our advocates support women and girls with a safe route out.
Domestic abuse within the armed forces is a widespread and frightening problem. Research from King’s College London found that more than 1 in 10 of Armed Forces personnel had experienced intimate partner violence and abuse – however, the actual number is likely to be far higher since the Armed Forces do not publish information about levels of domestic abuse within the service community. The enormity of the situation is just one of the reasons that Aurora New Dawn is dedicated to supporting women and girls living within the forces who are victims of domestic violence and abuse.
Through our Army Advocates service, we offer ongoing support to any serving member of the Army who is experiencing domestic abuse, sexual violence, coercive control or stalking. This support also extends to family members and partners where the person responsible for the abusive behaviour is currently serving.
Our mission is to show survivors what is possible and how they can safely leave a situation in as quick and financially viable a way as possible.
Why is domestic abuse such a big problem in the British Army?
Our Armed Forces Advocates are linked to forces lives themselves: and their understanding of the community is a hugely important part of the service. The armed forces landscape is a world away from most people’s reality. It comes with added complications – financially, logistically and emotionally – and reporting an incident (and getting the support necessary) can feel like a minefield.
“The majority of our clients come to us with a great deal of fear. The army is an incredibly insular community – while the survivor knows that they need help, they’re scared to share what they’re going through and their private life becoming common knowledge. They also have no idea what they are even entitled to and what would happen to them if they upped and left the only life they have ever known. It’s terrifying – the women who come to us are incredibly brave,” says Lynne, Aurora Armed Forces Advocate.
As with the police force, power and authority is central to how the military operates. Not only are individuals working within a culture of hierarchy and strong elements of patriarchy, they are also likely to have a high level of control in the household – particularly when it comes to finances. Coercive and financial control is therefore a massive issue in the military, with instances of financial abuse being particularly high in the wake of COVID and the currently-unfolding cost of living crisis. This brings with it additional barriers to women and girls trying to escape.
As well as these barriers – and the scale of the issue – survivors also face problems when trying to access methods of support.
“The armed forces are complex – they’re widespread in so many ways but ultimately, they are culturally very small. Everyone knows everyone. They’re tight knit – a victim may be the wife of a senior officer who is being abusive, and those who would typically investigate the incident may be close friends of his or work alongside him. Especially for serving soldiers, victims don’t want their community to know that they have asked for support. This is proven in the fact that almost a quarter of those who come to us from the military self-refer – that’s a seriously high number for a domestic abuse charity,” says Dr Shonagh Dillon, Aurora’s CEO.
Aurora and the British Army – supporting from the inside.
Thanks to our Armed Forces Advocates – and their position within the British Army community – we are able to provide independent support to survivors from people who know how the military works. From practical to emotional support, we have the necessary conversations to help victims understand that their situation isn’t normal and that there is a way out of it.
“Welfare teams have good intentions, but the reality is that because people are reposted every couple of years the staff turnover is high, and processes, messages, information and referrals can get lost. Plus, the soldier will always come first; it’s just the way it is. What we provide is something totally centred on domestic abuse victims and their unique situation and needs. We also manage their expectations and timelines – more often than not, we’re fighting the clock when it comes to getting a victim out of a dangerous situation, and because we understand that (and the challenges that we are likely to face along the way) we are expertly equipped to get them through the process quickly and safely,” says Shelley Aven, Armed Forces Advocate.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just a case of one bad apple – the lack of control and independence for wives within the Armed Forces communities is deeply ingrained and embedded. This is particularly evident for those from the foreign and commonwealth communities, where if a survivor is living abroad and decides to flee their relationship, the husband would have the power to cancel their visa.
“Wives rarely go into an armed forces marriage knowing their rights – we, however, do. It’s our job to give survivors a safe passage and a financially secure life outside of their abusive relationship,” says Lynne.
Sadly, the rate of referrals from the military is rapidly rising. On average, Aurora accepts one per week and Shelly has recently joined Lynne as an Army Advocate to increase our capacity for supporting women in crisis. Slowly, the tides are turning and the Army is focused on improving how it supports people who report domestic abuse or violence. Working with Aurora New Dawn has seen a big change in attitudes because we are not only supporting survivors, but we are providing education and support to those working in the forces too, to improve how cases are dealt with.
Dr Shonagh Dillon says: “We are pleased to continue our conversations with the Royal Navy and be offering support to the RAF as well. Things are changing slowly and we work with some dedicated professionals within Armed Forces communities who want to systematically alter the culture of military responses to victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking. The onus must rest firmly with the perpetrators of these crimes and the response needs to be robust. Our work within the forces is very important to us and we look forward to working in partnership with our colleagues in the forces to foster change and end male violence against women.”
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