Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as:

“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, usually by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.”

Most people are aware that domestic abuse can involve physical or sexual violence, but it often includes psychological, emotional or economic abuse as well.

Most domestic abuse is perpetrated by men, against women.  It is a largely hidden crime, occurring mainly in the home.

According to police recorded crime figures, around 2.3 million people suffered domestic abuse in the year to March 2020 – 1.6 million women and 757,000 men. A total of 207 women were killed in that year by a partner or ex-partner.

It is estimated that around 30 women attempt suicide every day as a result of domestic violence and every week three women take their own lives.

According to the SafeLives charity, high-risk victims live with domestic abuse for 2.3 years, on average, before getting help.

140,000 children live in households where serious domestic abuse takes place.

Domestic abuse between intimate partners can include:

  • sexual abuse and rape, including within a relationship

  • physical violence

  • economic abuse (such as withholding money or preventing someone from earning money, or forcing someone to take out a loan)

  • taking control over aspects of someone’s everyday life, such as where they go and what they wear

  • controlling and monitoring someone’s emails, text messages or social media accounts

  • threats to kill or harm

  • harassment and stalking

Domestic abuse also encompasses other forms of abuse that can occur in the home, such as elder abuse and abuse between family members.

Child abuse, however, is considered a separate type of crime.

Coercive and controlling behaviour

Because there are many behaviours that do not constitute physical or sexual violence but are still forms of domestic abuse, in 2015 the government created a new offence of ‘coercive or controlling behaviour’.  

Violence against women and girls

Domestic abuse is part of violence against women and girls, which also includes different forms of family violence such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and so-called ‘honour-based crimes’ that are committed by family members, and often with multiple perpetrators. Click on the links below to learn more about these.

Forced marriage / Honour-based crimes FGM

How to spot the signs of domestic abuse

Sometimes the signs that domestic abuse is happening in your neighbourhood will be quite evident – for example, you may hear arguments, violent noises, and sounds of distress coming from a property.  People may often mistake these signs for anti-social behaviour. But it’s not always this easy to spot, as domestic abuse is often a hidden crime and abusers often threaten victims to stop them from speaking out about domestic abuse.  Perpetrators come from all walks of life, regardless of age, class, race or religion and can present in a calm and controlled way.  However, people experiencing it can change their behaviour in ways that are obvious or more subtle.  Click here to find out more about the signs of abuse.

What to do if you suspect someone is a victim

If you believe someone is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.

If you suspect that someone you know is being abused in their relationship, there are a number of options open to you.  As a concerned friend of neighbour, you can report your concerns to the police or the specialist organisations below, but exercise caution when doing so. Making a report on the victim’s behalf may not be safe, can be very disempowering for them and can result in consequences for the victim that you cannot foresee. If possible, try talking to the victim about the abuse in a safe and confidential space, and signpost them to help and support.

If you are at all concerned about the safety or welfare of a child as a result of the domestic abuse, you can get in touch with their school who can investigate safeguarding concerns.  You could also report your concerns to the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Evidence shows that if you directly ask someone whether they are suffering domestic abuse, rather than waiting for them to bring it up, they are more likely to talk about it.  And people are much more likely to confide in a friend or someone close to them, than to the police or professional services. The most important thing is to listen, believe and provide support.  It is very important not to try and take control of their situation. You should also be aware that when a victim leaves an abusive relationship, that can be the most dangerous time for them, so they should plan that very carefully.

Do not confront the abuser. Do not do anything that may endanger you, the victim or their children.

Click here for more advice about broaching the subject with someone you think may be being abused.

If you are worried about someone, or experiencing domestic abuse, you can always call the Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge, for help and advice on what to do. The number is 0808 2000 247. The Helpline is a confidential service and can provide support, information and signposting to local domestic abuse services.

What will happen?

If the police become involved, they should always investigate and may arrest or bring charges against the abuser, if there is sufficient evidence.

Even if there is not enough evidence to charge someone with committing a crime, there are a range of protection options available, including a Domestic Violence Protection Order, which can ban the perpetrator from returning to a residence and contacting the victim for up to 28 days.  This allows the victim a level of breathing space to consider their options, with the help of a support agency.  Longer-term measures to keep victims safe are also available to courts, such as an injunction.

Also, since 2014, individuals have had the ‘Right to Ask’ about the offending history of their partner, or person they know.  Police have the power to disclose previous violent offences and spent convictions, with the aim of protecting potential victims.


To help you raise awareness among your community about domestic abuse and how to spot the signs, we’ve compiled a range of free campaign materials that you can use to educate and inform people in your neighbourhood.  These resources will help people recognise the signs of domestic abuse, either as a victim themselves or as someone close to a victim.

Click here to access the toolkit.