Domestic abuse is one of the biggest social issues affecting women and children in the UK today. Crime+Investigation is #HereForHer with our charity partner Refuge to help End Abuse Against Women.
On the 23rd March 2020, the UK officially went into lockdown. Stay at home to stay safe went the message. But for one particular group within society, the opposite was true: staying at home meant being locked in with the person who posed the greatest threat to their lives: their abuser. For these women (and though men can be and are victims, too, it is still predominantly women most at risk of domestic abuse and who have been most affected by the pandemic) lockdown meant being cut off from support systems, the outside world and any means of escape.
As the Covid crisis continues, local areas are locked down and the threat of a second, national lockdown looms, with penalties imposed for those who break it, the question facing a lot of people is how do we protect the vulnerable: the victims of domestic violence?
The warnings were there before the UK even shut its doors: 1.5 million women, it was estimated, could be facing a greater risk of violence if strict measures were implemented. This was quickly borne out.
In the first seven weeks of lockdown, one call concerning domestic abuse was made to the police every 30 seconds. In the final weekend of March (the first of lockdown), calls to the national abuse hotline rose by 65%. Refuge, the largest domestic abuse charity in the UK, reported an increase in calls to its helpline of 700% in only one day. Two thirds of women in abusive relationships said the violence got worse. Then there are the women who were murdered. In conjunction with Women’s Aid, the BBC’s Panorama launched an investigation and the results were clear: the pandemic was having a dramatic effect on domestic violence against women.
The issue went beyond women being physically trapped inside with violent partners. Social distancing and lockdown rules also meant that they were distanced from family members and friends who might otherwise have been able to offer support. Those required to shield for medical reasons faced even greater restrictions, as they were left unable to leave the house even to do the food shop; this only gave their partners greater control over their lives.
Pressures of the pandemic—with its implications on job and financial security—also added to the issues: stressors like these can often act as a trigger for abusers.
Talking to the Guardian, one woman reported her partner’s behaviour became much more erratic during the lockdown, with the pandemic exacerbating his existing mood swings and bouts of heavy drinking. Although she didn’t think he would be violent with her, he did put her health at risk by getting angry when she tried to comply with advice to wipe down surfaces or told him to wash his hands more often.
Reports from other women who have spoken out about what it meant to be trapped with their abusers have shown the reality of life behind the statistics. Speaking to the Panorama programme Escaping my Abuser, one woman recalled her abusive husband greeting the news of lockdown from Boris Johnson by saying, 'let the games begin.' She estimated she had been 'raped over 100 times' by him while in lockdown.
Other women, who participated in Women’s Aid’s survey, said they were reliant on their abuser for food and medication and that this was used against them. Their children were not only witnessing more abuse, but were subject to it, as well.
The charity Safe Lives also conducted a survey on domestic abuse victims, finding that many were unable to ask for help. One spoke of being stuck in a bedsit with her ex while pregnant. She wasn’t able to use the phone because her abuser would be able to hear her. Another woman said her partner’s coercive control had escalated during the pandemic. Her status as ‘vulnerable’ meant he was only able to take more control over her.
Compounding the issue are the years of austerity cuts that have affected charities and refuges. Demand often outstrips the resources available. Many refuges and charities saw increased fundraising efforts from the public during lockdown, but the issue is keeping momentum going.
So what does this mean for victims if the UK goes into a second national lockdown?
The government has stated that household isolation doesn’t apply to those that need to escape domestic abuse. 19 days into the lockdown, they responded to the issue by promising an influx of funding for domestic abuse hotlines, as well as launching a social media campaign encouraging people to report abuse.
Beyond that, women’s refuge and domestic abuse charities are continuing to offer support, advice and helplines for those in need.
Women’s Aid have put together a number of resources specifically in response to the Covid crisis, including advice on how women can protect themselves from their abusers and a list of helplines available to them. Their own services include a live chat, email service and survivors’ forum.
Then there is the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge: a freephone, 24-hour support line that offers advice and can refer victims to emergency accommodation. As well as this, Refuge also have specific information for women experiencing domestic abuse in response to the pandemic, as well as their on-going resources.
And these aren’t the only domestic abuse charities.
There is also the Silent Solution scheme: a system that allows people to call 999 and receive help, even if they are unable to speak because their abuser is present or nearby. The system allows people to call 999 and remain silent on the line, while following cues to ensure operators know it isn’t a hoax, including dialling 55 when prompted.
Domestic abuse is an on-going crisis that will affect almost one in three women in England and Wales in her lifetime. We have seen that the pandemic is only compounding the issue. It is vital that we protect the vulnerable during these times and allow those that need help to escape the abusers with whom they’re locked in.