Domestic Violence Cases Are Soaring During Lockdown - We Need To Do More To Support Victims
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As the UK continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic, we're consistently being told one very important message: "Stay home, save lives".
For many of us, it's a small ask: sit back, binge watch Netflix and start that DIY project you've been meaning to crack on with for years. But for the women and children living in abusive households, doing so means living in constant fear for their safety, and even at risk of death.
On Saturday, 67-year-old grandmother Ruth Williams was pronounced dead in hospital, just hours after police had found her unconscious in her home in Cwmbran, Wales.
On the outside, neighbours report it looked as if she was in a happy, loving relationship. But her husband, Anthony Williams, 69, is now on trial for her murder.
While this case is obviously deeply tragic, even sadder is that it is likely just the start.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, an average of two women were killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales a week, and this figure is now projected to become far grimmer.
Last year, an estimated 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse in some form across the UK, and given that reported cases shot up at Christmas and over summer (when families were spending more time at home) experts are warning that we could see a similar increase during this period of social distancing - for however long that may be.
Speaking to Tyla, Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive of National Domestic Abuse charity Refuge said: "Refuge is concerned about the potential for incidents of domestic abuse to increase during periods of lockdown.
"Self-isolation has the potential to aggravate pre-existing abusive behaviours by perpetrators.
"While in lockdown or self-isolation, women and children are likely to be spending concentrated periods of time with perpetrators, potentially escalating the threat of domestic abuse and further restricting their freedom."
You only have to look at the patterns of other countries who have implemented lockdowns ahead of us to see the worrying trajectory the UK is on.
In China's Hubei province, local papers are reporting that one county has seen domestic violence reports more than triple, jumping from 47 last year to 162 this year.
Meanwhile, reported cases have soared 36 per cent in Paris, France, and Rio de Janiro in Brazil is reporting an increase that is somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent.
The warning signs are clear. Unless we act - and fast - thousands of women will suffer.
Just over one week into our lockdown, it looks as though we're already not far behind.
This weekend, calls to the National Abuse Hotline in the UK soared by 65 per cent, according to the BBC, indicating a worrying spike in self-isolation abuse is already beginning.
Plus, police forces across the country have already begun reporting domestic abuse cases directly linked to the lockdown.
Baroness Beverley Hughes, Greater Manchester's deputy mayor for policing and crime, told Sky News the city was starting to see "a rise in domestic abuse incidents," while Avon and Somerset police reported a huge 20.9 per cent increase in those they had recorded since lockdown begun.
Perhaps most concerning is that, ordinarily, the domestic violence cases that actually get reported are only a very small fraction of the real number taking place.
But, given that victims won't be able to escape their perpetrators, this discrepancy between reported and unreported cases is only set to get worse.
"We know that 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 window has become even smaller," Refuge's Sandra Horley predicts.
In response to growing concern around domestic abuse survivors' safety, home secretary Priti Patel confirmed this weekend in the Mail on Sunday that women would be able to leave violent households during lockdown to go to a refuge, and seek help.
While this move is certainly a good thing, charities and campaigners have been quick to highlight the government's failings, and insist that more needs to be done.
For starters, Women's Aid's annual audit revealed that 64 per cent of refuge referrals were declined last year, and, due to decades of poor funding, the number of bed spaces in England are a whopping 30 per cent below that recommended by the Council of Europe.
Plus, less than half of refuges had the capacity to accept children with more than two children, and only 5 per cent could help women with no source of public funds.
Speaking to Tyla, Sarah Davidge, Research and Evaluation Manager at the charity, said: "This current crisis could not come at a worse time after years of debilitating cuts."
She added that the government had a duty to help domestic violence services to continue running 24 hour care throughout the pandemic, while also ensuring that staff were safe from the ongoing health crisis.
"We call on governments and other funding bodies to provide the sector with an immediate cash injection to adapt services to remote working and cope with the additional demand caused by COVID-19," she continued.
"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.
"They need a guarantee from government that emergency funding, PPE and testing will be available immediately".
Meanwhile, domestic abuse campaigner David Challen believes that we need "more awareness in the wider public" when it comes to the increased risk of domestic abuse, as well as "urgent action from government."
Speaking to ITV News, David - son of coercive control victim Sally Challen - pushed for "a mass public awareness campaign on social media, [and] broadcast on television," in order to position the issue a the forefront of the public agenda, and help save lives.
Sarah Green, CEO of End Violence Against Women, agrees - even suggesting that the government should be advising neighbours of the support facilities available to report domestic violence during the Number 10 press conference.
On BBC Women's Hour, she said: "It is really problematic that there are not enough women's voices - and women with the right expertise - at COBRA at the moment," she said.
"We need COBRA to recognise that this is predictable, and we need COBRA to get round to cascading to all police leaders, council leaders and health workers that we're staying on high alert to domestic violence, we're making sure that emergency calls will be answered, and we're getting the message out not only to victims, but to neighbours and to friends".
So, how can you help?
If you think a neighbour might be a victim of domestic abuse, call 999, and if you suspect a child is a risk, you can also contact NSPCC.
If you are a domestic abuse survivor, or are worried for your own safety, Refuge has also released an online guide full of tips on how to protect yourself at home, and seek help without raising suspicion.
They warn that women should keep their mobiles charged at all times, in case they urgently need help, avoid the "kitchen, garage or anywhere that might have potential weapons," as soon as their partner becomes violent, and pre-arrange a 'safe space' with children, should they need to get away.
If at all possible, they should also have a bag packed and ready should they need to flee their home, and keep their credit and debit cards in a safe place in preparation for this instance, too.
When it comes to reporting abuse, you can call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, or if it is not safe to do so, visit the organisation's website and discreetly fill out a form.
For those in immediate danger, and in need of a 'silent solution', calling 999 and dialling in the number 55 will also alert the authorities you need help.
You can read Refuge's online guide in full here.