Women’s Aid Federation of England (Women’s Aid), which provides direct services to domestic abuse victims and engages in research and policy campaigning, has given an interview to Sputnik, outlining how the situation with domestic abuse has changed amid the pandemic. The organisation, however, underscored that the “true impact” of the lockdown may not be known until it is lifted and more abuse victims are in a position to reach out for help.
Sputnik: There have been reports of substantial increases in domestic violence in places that have implemented COVID-19 lockdowns, including in Wuhan, China, and Paris, France. Has the UK seen an increase in domestic abuse/violence since the lockdown was declared, and if so, by how much?
Women's Aid: 10 women and two children were killed by men in the first two weeks of the lockdown (between 23rd March and 6th April). This is three times higher than the average of three women killed every two weeks.
Additionally, data is not yet available to show the true impact of Covid-19 on survivors. Firstly, because it is a crime that takes place behind closed doors. Secondly, many women experiencing domestic abuse may only be able to reach out for help when lockdown measures lift.
Survivors are telling Women's Aid that abuse is escalating during Covid-19; our Survivor Survey found that 67% of survivors who are currently experiencing abuse told us that it had got worse since Covid-19. We are deeply concerned about the increased physical and emotional harm women and children experiencing domestic abuse may be facing during this period.
Sputnik: Can you explain exactly why the lockdown might exacerbate domestic abuse or violence?
Women's Aid: It is important to be clear that Covid-19 is not a cause of domestic abuse - only abusers are responsible for their horrific actions. The pandemic is clearly, however, escalating abuse, and closing down women's escape routes to safety, such as friends and family or the specialist support of domestic abuse services.
It's vital that women know that support continues to be available for them during this challenging period and that they will be listened to and helped. It is also important survivors know that domestic abuse is a crime and if you are in danger, always call 999.
Sputnik: Is there any difference between the nature of support you are providing to people during the lockdown to that which you would provide during 'normal' times?
Women's Aid: Support services are working around the clock to adapt to these unprecedented times. Refuges are supporting as many women as they can whilst facing new challenges such as staff sickness and the spread of the virus within shared accommodation. However, less than half (48.5%) of refuge service providers were able to comply with government guidance to stay open for existing service users and new referrals. Most anticipate an increase once measures are lifted, 66.7% stated they were concerned about future increases in demand.
Our direct services, which provide specialist support from domestic abuse support workers to survivors, have continued during this period and, as below, Live Chat has expanded to meet the increasing demand.
Within the first two weeks of lockdown, there was a 41% increase in users visiting Women's Aid's Live Chat site and we have doubled the Live Chat hours available to survivors during the Covid-19 lockdown. From Monday 20th April, the service has been open to survivors from 10am – 2pm Monday to Friday to provide a secure way for women to reach out and get specialist advice and support. Many women feel safer using online instant messaging with Live Chat than a phone call that may be overheard.
The Women's Aid Rail to Refuge scheme means that survivors with a refuge space can travel for free across England, Scotland and Wales. When lockdown started, the Rail Delivery Group were quick to respond to women's needs and launched a temporary, nationwide scheme.
Sputnik: What are the kinds of things that can be done to support victims of domestic abuse during this time period?
Women's Aid: For family or friends who are concerned about someone who may be experiencing domestic abuse, this lockdown period is difficult, as it means opportunities for face to face support and conversation are not available. And for survivors, it means that many routes to support outside the home are closed down [please see here for detailed advice].
Advice includes trying to keep a mobile phone on you and charged at all times and, if possible, keeping safely in touch with people you trust online or by phone – perhaps having a regular safe time they can check in with you.
And the key message is as mentioned above: please call 999 if you feel you are in immediate danger.
Sputnik: Is there a concern that people who may leave their homes seeking respite from an abusive household (as opposed to exercise) but are unable or unwilling to discuss the matter may be inadvertently targeted by the police for being outside without a 'reasonable excuse'? Are you aware of any such cases happening?
Women's Aid: "Escaping risk of harm" - including removing yourself from an argument - is an accepted and valid reason for leaving your home. The government and police forces have made clear that, if you are not safe at home, you are allowed to leave. And it's vital that this message continues to be clearly communicated.
Please note that leaving an abusive partner is statistically a dangerous time for a survivor and that survivors should access specialist support to help them leave safely.
Sputnik: In your opinion, are there sufficient resources being offered to organisations such as yours to deal with domestic abuse?
Women's Aid: Specialist domestic abuse services provided by Women's Aid members across the country are facing huge challenges in delivering life-saving work. After years of funding crisis, they are now experiencing a perfect storm of staff shortages, increased costs from remote working, lost fundraising income and challenges in accepting new referrals into refuges because of the risks of the virus spreading.
Together with other violence against women and girls (VAWG) organisations, we have been urging the government to deliver one simple, emergency fund for this life-saving sector.
The government's funding announcements are therefore very welcome. But we are concerned that it will not be enough to sustain the sector during this crisis, and we urge this to be kept under review as the impacts of the pandemic become clearer.
Funding must also be ring-fenced for specialist VAWG services led by and for BME women, deaf / disabled women, and LGBT survivors. These services are essential for fulfilling duties under the Equality Act and Public Sector Equality Duty, as well as meeting survivors' specific support needs, but they have been marginalised and excluded from existing funding systems.
Their inclusion, through a specific ring-fence, is essential for an equitable funding system which does not further entrench inequality and social injustice, which has been exacerbated in this pandemic.