Refuge and empowerment in the ugly face of abuse

Eight years ago Yasmin Waljee OBE was approached by a woman who found herself‎ in an unimaginable vortex of abuse and persecution.

The abuse was systematic and aggressive, but not in the form we might imagine it to be. It came through her former husband’s vicious pursuit of her through the courts of a foreign country in an attempt to criminalise her and to secure ‎prison sentences against her in an effort to silence her, take away her children and to show his ultimate power to control her life and its future.

Today ‎I went with this same woman, Sarah, to make an enormous donation to a domestic violence refuge run by the remarkable charity Hestia – one of London’s best kept secrets – a network of 32 refuges providing a sanctuary and support to victims of violence ‎who are trying to re-build their fractured lives.

Sarah’s generosity was her way of‎ thanking my colleague, Fiona, who has devoted her time over 8 years to this fiendishly difficult case: pro bono without fanfare. Fiona is a no nonsense corporate tax lawyer but one whose sheer tenacity brought Sarah’s  controlling  ex-husband to the negotiating table.

Sarah was not obviously from a vulnerable background.  She is not what you might initially think of as a victim – she is an educated, professional, and softly spoken Scottish woman who married someone seemingly of stature and who was highly respected in his country.  They married and left the UK and Sarah looked all set for a comfortable future with her husband. They had four children but a short while after they were born ‎everything changed. Her husband was used to an environment where he was in control with wealth and assets under his responsibility and where people feared him. He turned on Sarah, chasing her from her home in Latin America by bringing progressive criminal and civil cases in the domestic courts against her.  She was unable to secure any legal representation and received several prison sentences.

She was forced to flee her home, leaving all bar one of her children behind.  She returned to Scotland penniless, desperate and facing cancer alone with the threat of extradition constantly hanging over her – and, of course, no ability or funds to secure legal advice.

After 8 years working on the case pro bono, Fiona (my colleague) –  persuaded local lawyers in the Latin American country concerned to engage with the case and worked alongside Scottish family lawyer from Shoosmiths, Edinburgh  who, upon hearing about Sarah’s s case shared Fiona’s determination to get Sarah justice –  helped Sarah fight back to reclaim her financial independence, her identity and her dignity.   Sarah’s children by now are now all adults.

Today we saw the parallels between Sarah’s situation and the women living in one of the lifesaving refuges run by Hestia. Their abusive partners cowardly exercised subtle and not-so- subtle control and menace over the lives of these once strong women.

We heard about children as young as four watching daily as their fathers meted out violence to their mothers only for the children to then turn on their mothers, copying their fathers’ violent behaviour.

Hestia told us that violence in children is a growing problem and the cost of trying to deal with the consequences is enormous.  Education is key to ending this cycle.  Schools must educate girls and boys at a young age about what healthy relationships look like.  Some children have only ever seen the violence in their families, so they don’t know what a normal, healthy relationship is.

As Sarah herself says ‘it is essential to “spread the word” and have women know about their rights, especially when going overseas. Women’s education about basic family law, rights and respect, in my view is one particular tool, and needs to start in the schools.’

Abuse comes in many forms and there is a desperate need for funding to secure legal help for those who cannot secure legal aid and who are left on their own. Sarah’s s generous gift to the charity today will make a huge difference to Hestia.

The Access to Justice Foundation has launched a new campaign to secure funding for charities providing free legal help which is so necessary at the moment.  The small but simple task of clearing unclaimed client accounts has raised over £800,000 to date, supporting those without legal representation or legal aid at a time when they need it most.  Please talk to your finance teams about this – it could help free another woman from the ugly face of abuse.

For more information on how you can donate Unclaimed Client Accounts please visit #NotJustPenauts

Yasmin Waljee OBE

About Yasmin Waljee OBE

Yasmin is international pro bono director at the international law firm Hogan Lovells

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