As a football fan – and a domestic abuser worker – this is what I want you to know.

 
As a football fan – and a domestic abuser worker – this is what I want you to know. 

Kim Manning-Cooper, Refuge head of communications

Tonight, the long-awaited Euros start. The tournament that should have begun last summer, paused because of the pandemic, will be about so much more than the start of a football tournament. It will symbolise the return of a new ‘normality’, fans back in stadiums, groups gathering in pubs and in the sun to watch games, us all debating just how Gareth Southgate will arrange that back line, what formation will he go with, will Grealish make the starting 11? Foden? what about the gelling time with the squad those in the Champions League and Europa cup finals missed out on, and us all willing on Marcus Rashford, the hero to so many for his campaigning on child poverty, hoping his brilliance taking on politicians will be repeated when he takes on some of the best defenders in Europe.

The tournament will also do something else – it will signal the England teams defiance to the boos that have accompanied them taking the knee – it will be an unshakeable show of support for equality, an active anti-racist message, and one which has been too long coming. Just take a moment to reflect on the abuse Rashford, for example, received following Utd’s penalty shoot-out defeat in Poland last month. Equality is everything, or it is nothing.

I’ve been a football fan my entire life – a Pompey fan. I’ve been through the dizzying highs – and the inevitable lows. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried, I’ve celebrated, and I’ve commiserated. Football can make your weekend and, if the stakes are high enough, can break it too. Didn’t Bill Shankly say, tongue in cheek, that football wasn’t life or death for him, it was more important than that?

The cold reality though, is that I work for a charity where the issue we deal with – domestic abuse – really can be a matter of life and death. 2 women a week across England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner, and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime. That means it is almost a certainty that every person reading this will know someone who is experiencing domestic abuse. I do – I work with women every day for whom domestic abuse is a chilling reality.

Football is often linked to domestic abuse, and this causes much misunderstanding and misrepresentation of domestic abuse and the experiences of women and children. You will likely read many headlines about domestic abuse reports increasing during the Euros. Domestic abuse doesn’t happen because the football is on, because England win or lose, because someone is drunk. It doesn’t happen by appointment. It happens all year round – it is a choice a perpetrator makes, stemming from power and control, from gender inequality, which misogyny and patriarchy helps perpetuate. The abuse a woman experiences all year round may perhaps be more invisible, more insidious forms of control – but no less harmful and often far more damaging. That’s what we mustn’t forget.

So, while its clear football doesn’t cause domestic abuse, like the lockdowns, these tournaments can aggravate pre-existing behaviours. Behaviours that are overwhelmingly more likely to be perpetrated by men, on women. The statistics don’t lie. Football stadiums, as I know myself from going to them week in week out for most of my adult life are also filled disproportionately by men. That means that, for many women, the stakes are higher than they were for Eric Dier when he stepped up to take that penalty against Columbia in 2018.

There will be many women who, like me, will be glued to the TV and enjoying a summer of football, but there will also be many who won’t be looking forward to the next month, who won’t be cheering every England break, dreaming of a trophy and the chance to be the top team in Europe -and their biggest fear won’t be another penalty shoot-out (surely, we can win another?!) – instead many will be dreading the result, dreading a drunk partner coming home, and living in fear. To those women, I want you to know that the organisation I am proud to work for, Refuge, is there for you. We can support you, and make sure you aren’t alone.

Of course, domestic abuse, so often thought about as being black eyes and broken bones, can take many different forms. From economic abuse (restricting your ability to work or access cash, running up debts in your name), to tech abuse (location tracking you via your devices, bombarding you with unwanted messages, monitoring your social media), sexual abuse (forcing you to have sex when you don’t want to), and coercive control (controlling your behaviour, who you see, what you wear, where you go). All these things are real, and they happen. I work with women every day who experience these things, and I work with them as they tell their stories to the media in order to help other women. Refuge amplifies their voices so they can support others.

But today, the message comes from me – and that message is loud and clear: You are not alone. Our team of expert female staff and volunteers are here for you, and at Refuge we’ve increased the ways in which you can reach us. You can call us free (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) on 0808 2000 247, you can ‘live chat’ (with a person, not a bot) at www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk, and at the same website you can fill in a webform and let us know a safe time to contact you.

So, when the teams run out on Friday night at Wembley, and Turkey v Italy starts the Euro 2020 (1) tournament, and when Wales take to the pitch on Saturday, England on Sunday, Scotland on Monday, remember that we are here for you, we will listen, we will hear you, and we will support you. We are just a phone call away.

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To speak to Refuge’s expert helpline team call 0808 2000 247. Our Helpline is free, confidential and open 24/7. You can also find support online at nationaldahelpline.org.uk, including out contact form and Live Chat (open Monday to Friday, 3pm-10pm).