An inch under six foot tall, Dave, a gardener with a deep, gravelly voice is not most people’s idea of a domestic violence victim. But he suffered two years of abuse at the hands of his girlfriend and was too embarrassed and loyal to report her to the police. He slept in his car for weeks before speaking to his local council, who found him a place at a men’s refuge.
He struggles to keep it together when he recalls the day his girlfriend smashed a bottle of Jack Daniels across his head, leaving him bleeding on the pavement: a deep scar is still clearly visible on his forehead. But when the 45-year-old from Essex describes the relief of being believed by the authorities, he breaks down, his broad shoulders heaving beneath his rugby shirt.
“When help finally comes it’s an emotional thing,” he says, sitting on the sofa at a safe house in Berkshire where he is being helped to rebuild his life. “As a man, it’s very difficult to say you’ve been beaten up. It seems like you’re the big brute and she’s the daffodil, but sometimes it’s not like that.”
He is one of the lucky few to get help. His refuge has two new requests every day to take in men from across the country who are fleeing violence. The home, which can accommodate three men and their children, is already full.
One in three victims of domestic abuse in Britain is male but refuge beds for men are critically scarce. There are 78 spaces which can be used by men in refuges around Britain, of which only 33 are dedicated rooms for males: the rest can be taken by victims of either gender. This compares with around 4,000 spaces for women. In Northern Ireland and Scotland there are no male refuges at all.
Alan Gibson, an independent domestic violence adviser for Women’s Aid which runs the men’s refuge in Berkshire that is helping Dave, said: “Four organisations phoned us today looking for places for four different men. They’ve been attacked and abused, but there is only one room available in the country and someone will have to decide which of those four men is most in need.”
More married men (2.3 per cent) suffered from partner abuse last year than married women, according to the latest British Crime Survey. Yet help is still much harder to find for men.
Mark Brooks, chairman of the men’s domestic abuse charity, the Mankind Initiative, said: “Support services for male victims remain decades behind those for women. This is not helped by the Government and others having a violence against women and girls strategy without having an equivalent for men. Everybody sees domestic violence victims as being female rather than male. This is one of Britain’s last great taboos.”
The Mankind Initiative helpline receives 1,200 calls a year from men or friends and family calling on behalf of men. Stigma and fear of being disbelieved, among other factors, make men much less likely than women to report abuse to the police. The British Crime Survey found that only 10 per cent of male victims of domestic violence had told the police, compared with 29 per cent of women. More than a quarter of male victims tell no one what has happened to them, compared with 13 per cent of women.
The human cost of ignoring the problem is stark: 21 men were murdered by a partner or former partner in 2010/11.
Kieron Bell very nearly became one of those grim statistics. He is also one of a handful of men who has successfully prosecuted a partner for violence. The 37-year-old bouncer from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, had to have emergency heart surgery after he was stabbed in the chest by his wife, Sarah, in 2009. She had been violent since the start of their marriage in 2006 but he did not want to turn to the police at first, initially because he still loved her and later because he thought they would never believe that a 5ft 2in woman would be subjecting a bulky 5ft 10in bouncer to a reign of terror.
After the stabbing, his wife tried to claim that Mr Bell fell on a knife but, while recovering in hospital, he decided to report her to the police. In 2010 she was charged with grievous bodily harm and was released from prison only in May last year. “I was scared to call the police. I’m a big bloke and I thought I’d get laughed at,” he said. “I think there needs to be more information out there for blokes. If I’d known what the signs to look out for were before, I could’ve done something sooner. But I loved her and because of my child I stayed with her.”
Nicola Graham-Kevan, an expert in partner violence at Central Lancashire University, said: “Society is blind to women’s aggression. The biggest disparity is women’s ability to seek help which makes men very vulnerable to false allegations. People often won’t believe that men are victims. Men have to be seen as passive, obvious victims with clear injuries, whereas, if a woman makes allegations, they are believed much more easily.”
Dr Graham-Kevan believes the system needs to adjust to make it safer for male victims and their children, who can end up with an abusive mother. “The biggest thing for me as a parent is that children are being placed in significant positions of harm. It sounds anti-feminist, but I think we’re allowing women too many rights in the family court, because courts assume that the women are the best parent as a starting position, rather than looking at it equally.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We recognise that men are victims of domestic violence, too, and they deserve protection. In December 2011, the Home Office set up the Male Victims Fund to support front- line organisations working with male victims of sexual and domestic violence. We also fund the Male Advice (and Inquiry) Line.”
Names have been changed to protect identities
‘My wife attacked me 11 times. I didn’t think the police would believe me’
Tim, 59, has severe learning difficulties and is now living in a men’s refuge in Berkshire after his wife assaulted him repeatedly during their short marriage
“My wife attacked me 11 times through our marriage. We were married for 18 months, but, being a bloke, you don’t know where to go to get help.
“She tried to strangle me and she used to bite me. She also stabbed me in the hand with a fork. I’d been on my own for 14 years and she seemed like the right woman for me when we got together.
“The violence started in the first three months of the marriage. She would go for my throat if I wouldn’t do certain things.
“She wouldn’t let me see anyone. My family were trying to help me cope with my disabilities, but she wouldn’t let them come round. On New Year’s Day, she threatened me with a knife and I was frightened. Then the other day she tried to strangle me again.
“My sister said I should call the police, so I did.
“I didn’t think the police would believe me because she always seemed to twist things, but they want me to press charges and make a statement now.”