It is a fact that most abuse happens in the home, mostly from a family member/partner or ex-partner, imagine spending the lockdown with someone who is abusive and/or violent. The Lockdown has created a situation and excuses for abusivebehaviour to thrive, abuse can be verbal, physical, sexual, financialorpsychological, and very often a combination of these.During the Lockdown perpetrators can become increasinglycritical and controlling (often with money or medication), perpetrators can use a form of emotional abuse that makes their target feel mentally and emotionally unstable, the target will doubt their own sanity and feel they are losing their mind,they are degrading and sapping the confidence of the abused in a time when help is much more restricted. Domestic abuse is not particular about class, demographics, ethnicity, age or gender, although there are fractions where it is more frequent.
It is well known that domestic abuse gets worse during the Christmas break, and so it is in crises with families isolating together, tensions increase asvictims and survivors are locked up with the person they most fear. Previous spikes of domestic violence have occurred during Ebola, the Christchurch earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and studies show that unemployment and economic hardship during periods of recession exaggerate threatening and controlling behaviour.On 2 March there was an early warning from China,when Zhang Wanqing reported for Sixth Tone, that the founder of an anti-domestic violence organisation Wan Fei said“According to our statistics 90% of violence are related to Covid-19 epidemic…While everyone’s attention is on the epidemic victims of domestic violence are being neglected”. The Wuhan lockdown caused abuse to worsen, the same has applied around the world, reports from UK, US,the Middle East, all over Europe, Africa and South America, all suggest that domestic abuse has more or less doubled during either quarantine periods or the lockdown. With victims having to spend the whole time with their abuser,perpetrators are using Covid-19 as a tool for coercion and manipulation, and to induce fear of the virus and blame for financial hardship.
Charities have reported a surge of activity since the social distancing guidelines came into force. Alcohol is a known magnifier of abuse, consumption increases the risk of perpetrating abuse and of being a victim of abuse, and in both cases the severity of the abuse.During the lockdown refuges and safe houses have been full,domestic violence and mental healthsupport services have suffered staff shortages, Covid-19 infections, lack of PPE and tests, funding shortages and difficulties with remote delivery, leaving some victims helpless with no means of escape. Notablyit is hard for survivors to telephone for support or rescue when their conversations are overheard, many cannot reach out for help for lack of privacy.
Most cases are of men abusing women(in normal times amounting to 3 deaths per week in UK) but certainly not all, children are witnesses of and subject to intimidation and violence. Children are locked down in homes where they are abused or witness violence between a parent and partner, or in separated families child-sharing arrangements may be placing children at risk of further harm.
There are concerns for marginalised women such a migrants and the physically disabled, deaf/mute women or LGBT individuals who are all acutely affected, where smaller specialist charities are short of funds and resources.Mark Brooks of Mankind, a charity that supports men suffering from domestic abuse from their current/former wife or partner (including same-sex partner), reports 35% increase in calls from male victims and a trebling of visits to Mankind’s website. Brooks says “Following separating from a partner women are using Covid as an excuse to breach pre-agreed child contact arrangements, despite the government saying these arrangements still stand, this is increasing child alienation from the father.” It is worth noting that UK is streets ahead in supporting male victims of abuse.
On 8 Aprilthe Chancellor Rishi Sunak allocated £750million to the domestic abuse charity sector to support vulnerable people across the United Kingdom during the Coronavirus Lockdown. On 11 April the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a nationwide public awareness campaign about domestic abuse under the hashtag #YouAreNotAlone.
On 27 April The Home Affairs Select Committee noted that calls and contacts to Refuge, UK’s free 24-hour national helpline and website, were 49% higher in the week prior to 15 April than the average prior to the pandemic. They noted that Karen Ingala Smith of the Charity Counting Dead Women had recorded 14 dead women and two children killed by men between 23 March and 12 April, the first three weeks of the Lockdown. They concluded “Domestic abuse needs to be a priority too for the entire criminal justice system, to ensure that Domestic Violence Protection Order cases are heard swiftly and that alternative temporary accommodation for perpetrators is provided during lockdown”, this was supported by a statement from former PM Theresa May.On 19 May, Refuge told The Sunday Guardian demand for its services have increased significantly since the necessary lockdown measures were announced – Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen calls and contacts rise by around 50%, and visits to the website rise by around 500%.
Dame Vera Baird, QC, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, said “We need to react to the inability to report. Operation Encompass in schools provided a safe place where abuses could be reported, now we need to follow President Macron’s properly funded model for France where emergency provisions are available in supermarkets and pharmacies. Introducing a code word that signals to the cashier or pharmacist that help is needed could provoke options of reponses that rescue the individual.”
The Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-2021 to make specific provisions for domestic abuse and establish a Domestic Abuse Commissioner was debated again on28 April, the Public Bill Committee are currently scrutinising the Bill and are scheduled to report back by 25 June. During the Parliamentary sessionConservative MP Laura Farris exposed in the House of Commons the prevalence of unwanted violence and strangulation during consensual sex. And Conservative MP Mark Fletcher gave an extraordinary account of his scarring experience as a child when he encountered episodes of domestic violence from his stepfather who reigned with physical terror; he recalls the shame when he and his mother lied to the police and his school. When this is an Act it will go a long way towards protecting victims, providing more support and better sentencing for domestic crimes.
Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive of national domestic abuse charity Refuge said “While of course anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse, we know that the overwhelming majority of victims are women with the overall majority of perpetrators being men. Domestic Abuse is rooted in power and control, and in gender inequality. It is vital that the Domestic Abuse Bill reflects this reality…It was encouraging to hear MPs speak out today about the ‘rough sex’ defence. No woman can ever consent to harm, and this defence has long been used to try and excuse acts of violence because they occurred during sex. It is crucial that the Bill commits to outlawing the ‘rough sex’ defence. We also hope that the Bill will make the threats to share intimate images a crime – which it currently is not”.
On Thursday Boris Johnson chaired the Hidden Harms Summit that includes introducing thenew codeword scheme championed by Dame Vera Baird for domestic abuse victims, which will allow people in urgent or immediate danger to get help from shop workers by using a specific phrase that staff will be trained to identify.
Already from 1 May Boots pharmacyare providing victims of domestic abuse with safe spaces in consultation roomsacross the country, where they can contact specialist domestic abuse services for support and advice. The scheme is in response to the desperate situation facing many victims who are isolating with perpetrators during lockdown.
With thanks for the office of the Victims’Commisoner and the ONS Centre for Crime and Justice- Office of National Statistics, and Refuge for their input.