“I had £10 to my name when I left my abuser,” Ava* says. “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, called Rail to Refuge, was launched across the country in March last year. It has been used widely as domestic abuse has soared in the wake of lockdown measures introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Data shows 1,348 people have used the programme, which is equivalent to four domestic abuse survivors a day. While the scheme, which has helped 362 children over the age of five, had been due to finish in March this year, it has now been prolonged.
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 escaped her abuser in March last year before the coronavirus lockdown hit, with her two children from a different partner. She said he expected her to do all the cleaning and barred her from working – adding that they had no wifi in the house as he wanted to isolate her from those close to her. He even had CCTV cameras outside the house and would question her whenever she left home to go to the shop.
“I still have nightmares about him,“ she adds. ”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 four days in England and Wales, a woman is killed by a current 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.
Meanwhile, domestic violence has soared in the pandemic, and a report released by MPs in April last year revealed 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, said the scheme providing free train tickets is “life-saving”.
“The scheme could have saved hundreds of women’s lives. 90 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,” Ms Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor whose violent partner was jailed for seven years in 2011, said.
“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.“
Ms Kneer said another benefit to the scheme is it ensures refuge staff do not have to “scramble around” trying to find money to fund a domestic abuse victim’s transport – which 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 ever been allowed inside a refuge in the UK.
“He works for [the railway company] Southeastern 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. Almost two-thirds of people who used the scheme said they would not have been able to make the trip if the cost had not been covered.
One in three domestic abuse victims trying to flee their partner have been plagued with financial abuse – which includes a partner stealing money, trying to control spending, or racking up debts in the victim’s name – leaving them unable to escape danger.
*Name changed to protect identity
This article is being published as part of “Towards Equality”, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 15 international news outlets to highlight the challenges and solutions to reach gender equality.
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/