Last week, Sally Challen, who in 2011 had been convicted of her husband Richard’s murder and handed a 22-year sentence, was granted permission to appeal. Sally – now 63, a mother of two, who’d been with Richard since the age of 15 – doesn’t deny that she bludgeoned him to death with a hammer, before driving to Beachy Head to kill herself. But what’s changed in the years she’s been in prison, is that the law now recognises that domestic violence can’t always be quantified simply in bruises and broken arms, but may also include “coercive control”, where it’s not just a person’s physical integrity that’s violated, but their human rights.
Challen’s legal team will submit fresh evidence that they say shows Richard humiliated her, isolated her, lied to her about his affairs with other women, controlled her finances, and raped her, after she kissed one of his friends on the cheek. Once, when they had guests for dinner, he threw the entire meal Sally had cooked, along with plates, into the bin. She killed him in 2010, then covered his body with a curtain, leaving a note that said: “I love you.”
It’s not uncommon for abusive relationships to end in a fatality, but usually it is the man left standing – on average two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales. No doubt it’s this that has catapulted Challen’s story of domestic abuse into the headlines, over those where it was a woman who died and the murder barely acknowledged. Initially this case played as a crime of jealousy after Challen discovered one of her husband’s affairs. This week, the details have been repeated in every paper, and gorily, too. Whereas men killing women? Typically a weary inclusion three clicks deep. But either way, a conversation about domestic abuse is horribly welcome.
I’m writing as last week’s snow is thawing. Challen’s appeal feels like the slimmest, but warmest slice of light at a time when the system is in crisis, when there is nowhere for escaping women to hide, when help for victims has been diluted to a homeopathic degree, with a huge number of hostels closing because of government cuts, and when (according to a survey by Refuge) almost 40% of 16 to 21-year-old girls say they think coercive behaviour in relationships has become normalised.
Sally Challen’s case has the potential to change, if not the world, where men will surely continue to abuse women until what it means to be a man changes completely, then the way we look at the world, and in turn, the women suffering inside it. This case has comprehensively laid out the ways in which women are crushed by their abusers. It’s shown the depth of violence women suffer in these relationships, the lack of control they have, whether of their bank accounts or how regularly they’re allowed to go to the toilet, and so in turn, explains how difficult it can be to leave this house, this double-glazed prison.
We know the role that children play in these stories, we’ve seen how mothers will put themselves at risk to protect them. If Sally’s appeal is successful, as her son David (who has been campaigning steadily for her release, calmly answering questions about his father’s death on Good Morning, and calling for mental abuse to be taken more seriously in this country) is hoping, then thousands of women living in similar small hells, could be freed too. To David then, happy Mother’s Day.