By LUCY FERRIBY-STOCKS
Domestic abuse occurs in the darker side of our society and it can take many forms; from psychological, to economic, to sexual and physical. Abuse manifests in different ways, affects all genders and often goes undiscovered. Under normal circumstances, the police in the UK receive a call every 30 seconds relating to domestic abuse, with 240 women calling the National Domestic Abuse Helpline every single day, according to the charity, Refuge. Lockdown didn’t reduce these statistics, in fact, it increased them ten-fold resulting in what the United Nations is calling “the shadow pandemic”.
According to the BBC Panorama programme ‘Escaping My Abuser’, domestic abuse calls were up by 9% during lockdown, yet this issue was not centre stage. During the first three weeks of lockdown, whilst the country was discussing social distancing, face masks and panic buying commodities, the number of women killed by a partner, ex-partner or family member was the highest it had been for 11 years , according to the Counting Dead Women Project. The charity Women’s Aid conducted a survey, which found that more than three quarters of women living with an abuser in lockdown said it had become harder to escape because of the pandemic with two thirds saying that it had been used to control them and their actions.
Just before the reality of lockdown hit, on the 3rd March the Domestic Abuse Bill returned to Parliament, firmly supported by former Prime Minister, Theresa May, who still sits as an MP. This was welcomed by charities and lobbyists, and the bill does have its merits. There is to be stricter controls to prevent perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in civil and family court. Also, greater duty is to be placed on local authorities, in England, to provide support to victims of abuse and their children in refuges. However, whilst these provisions do provide a significant degree of protection for victims, they need to go further.
Whilst the bill puts greater expectations on local authorities to provide services for those in need, they need to have access to the funding to be able to do this. As acknowledged by Women’s Aid, under normal circumstances, there aren’t enough beds for women, let alone their children in refuges. The impact of the pandemic has only made this worse with there being 1,100 fewer beds than last year, a decrease of 42% (Women’s Aid). At the time of writing, there hasn’t been any hint from the government about the financial support they are going to provide to local councils to help solve this problem. Coronavirus has also placed further pressures on the refuges as it has led to staff shortages and there is still a distinct lack of protective equipment for volunteers. Funds raised by domestic abuse charities have also decreased, as people tighten their purse strings due to the ongoing recession. If there is a resurgence of the virus, the government must adequately protect refuges, as there will be even more casualties if these warnings are ignored.
What also needs to be acknowledged by the government is diversity when it comes to domestic abuse. Women are not a homogenous group, thus the bill needs to meet the needs of all survivors including those from a BAME background, those who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled and migrant women. Without specific measures for different groups of women, many will fall through the gaps and will not only be victims of their abusers, but victims of the government's lack of action.
Since the Domestic Abuse Bill has passed, the courts may also now be a slightly safer place for victims and their families, but there are still hurdles to be overcome. Survivors need to be automatically eligible for special protection measures in all courts, not just in criminal courts. The ‘contact at all costs’ culture needs to be tackled to ensure the safety of all victims when they escape their abusers and are able to go to trial. This will instil further confidence in people who are living under the influence of an abuser, especially if they have children.
The Domestic Abuse Bill has the potential to be revolutionary for those living in a modern nightmare, but only if modifications are made to ensure the bill protects all. This needs to also be accompanied by a social change - there needs to be an increased awareness of this issue. Just because it happens behind closed doors, it does not mean it should be ignored or seen as a personal problem. It is widespread in the UK - rich and poor, black and white, men and women are all affected by domestic abuse up and down the country. Only if there is mass recognition of the horrors of domestic abuse, will the stigmatisation end, provoking more people to come forward to a safer and better life. The government needs to act now to stop victims of domestic abuse becoming a further casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
IMAGE - Unsplash.