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Domestic abuse surges in UK during coronavirus lockdown

Alasdair Lane United Kingdom
April 9, 2020

The UK's restrictions on public life mean people are cooped up in their homes and flats. Frontline services, unable to offer face-to-face support, fear for victims of violence shut in with their abusers.

A woman sitting on her bed
Image: Julian Nieman

"You're safer at home." In the UK — like other nations affected by the coronavirus pandemic — it's the enduring public health message. But for hundreds-of-thousands of British women, there's no sanctuary to be found within their own four walls.

"His emotional and verbal abuse is escalating the longer we're isolated and I'm concerned that mentally I won't survive this."

"We are trapped under lockdown and he can turn up at any time."

"I'm having to sit in my car to get away."

Shut in with their abusers, these are the harrowing words of three women cut off as the UK's coronavirus containment measures came into effect. Their accounts were shared with SafeLives, a charity at the forefront of the fight against domestic violence.

Read moreCoronavirus: Fears of domestic violence, child abuse rise

"Clearly people are feeling the pressure of isolation, being at home and feeling vulnerable," said Liz Thompson, the group's external relations director.

"We want to remind people that they're not alone, there is still help and support available," she added.

A woman manning a domestic abuse help line
Charities and helplines are unable to offer vital face-to-face services to abuse victims during the lockdownImage: Julian Nieman

A growing challenge

Her team, like those of domestic abuse organizations across Britain, are working hard to keep their services running. But under the rigors of lockdown, it's proving an uphill battle.

In-person therapy and counselling sessions — vitally important for victims of domestic violence — all but ended as social distancing rules were instituted. Groups have scrambled to offer online alternatives, but as Liz acknowledges, "nothing is a substitute for face-to-face support."

Assessing the pandemic's impact on frontline domestic abuse services, SafeLives surveyed over 100 organizations during the first days of lockdown. A full three-quarters reported a reduction to service delivery, with many expressing concerns over the practicality of helping clients remotely.   

"Phone calls are not sufficient to assess somebody's circumstances and risk. Many of our service-users have anxieties around using the phone and may not have the privacy or safety to [do so]," a representative of a frontline group said, while another warned of the toll that lockdown might have on their team: "burnout and vicarious trauma."

Still, offering an outlet for women in need — remotely or otherwise — is crucial now more than ever. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline, often the first port of call for those experiencing violence at home, has recorded a staggering spike in those seeking assistance. On April 6, calls to the helpline leaped 120% on the previous day — a reflection of the crisis confronting victims trapped by coronavirus.

Read more: Coronavirus fuels domestic violence in the Middle East

Infografik Reduction in services EN

Economic abuse

"We know that ordinarily the window of opportunity for women with abusive partners to make a call and seek help is often very limited. Now, it is likely that the window has become even smaller," said Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of the charity Refuge, which runs the helpline.

With a reduction in mobility, many of those calling in have found their usual escape routes from abuse blocked. Leaving the house for work, for instance, might have offered a victim the chance to reach out for help unnoticed by an aggressive partner.

There are also fears that the strictures of lockdown could give rise to another form of domestic harm: economic abuse. At a time of acute financial uncertainty, experts have warned that abusers might use the crisis to gain control of a partner's funds, prevent their purchasing of vital provisions, and reduce economic independence by lumbering them with childcare.

The latter — and the safety of children during the pandemic more generally — is of particular concern.

"Child contact is a big issue. We've got some anecdotal evidence of perpetrators basically weaponizing the virus to either prevent access to the children for the other parent, or prevent access by social services," said Liz of SafeLives.

In light of these struggles, it's vital that victims know where help can be sought. Emergency refuge accommodation remains open, and — despite additional coronavirus-associated pressures — the police stand ready to intervene when domestic violence is reported.

"It's really important people know there is still support and help available. If you are in immediate risk of danger you should still call 999 and [we] will come to your aid," said Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe of the UK's National Police Chiefs' Council.

A shadow of a man with a clenched fist threatening a cowering woman
Women trapped at home as a result of the lockdown are at the mercy of their abusersImage: picture-alliance/empics/D. Lipinski

More funds, more help

Recognizing the added threat to victim liberty during lockdown, some forces are seeking new ways to detect violence. Police in Cumbria, northern England, have asked postal workers and delivery drivers to watch out for signs of abuse, while others have urged those in need to alert neighbors or friends with concealed messages.

Read moreIs the UK's justice system failing rape victims?

In an emergency, these measures could save lives — but with the surge in people seeking help, a more comprehensive approach is clearly needed. In a letter to the government, charities have requested an urgent injection of funds to keep their inundated services afloat, as well as an increase in public messaging around violence against women.

Even with this support, many fear the scourge of domestic abuse will only worsen while lockdown continues, highlighting yet again the human cost of the pandemic.

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