Two domestic murders were reported in Hackney since the beginning of the pandemic, the first to be reported since 2015. Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Croydon counted one female homicide each during the lockdown period.
The restrictions on people’s movements during lockdowns, together with financial pressures or concerns for the future have been a catalyst for breakups and divorce. Those quarrels are thus pushing women to leave their homes and as Harini Iyengar, barrister and Women’s Equality Party (WEP) candidate said: “The risk of deadly violence is the highest at the time that a woman leaves the situation of domestic abuse.”
“The government has said that [escaping violence is] a lawful reason to leave the house, but it’s meaningless unless [victims] have access to some safe place to go.” Moreover, a lot of the informal support that women could get under normal circumstances from friends and family is closed off during the lockdown, meaning that is vital that refuges and support services are available when a woman wants to leave.
The Office for National Statistics reported that in June 2020, the number of offences flagged as domestic abuse in England and Wales had already increased by 18% compared to June 2018 (see graph bellow).
But some communities are more affected than others. In London, BAME women make up about 40% of the female population with one of the highest rates in Lewisham and Croydon. But they represent more than half of referrals to women’s refuges (approx. 850 in London).
In addition, only 4% of refugee vacancies in London can accommodate women who have no recourse to public funds, such as undocumented migrants. In Hackney in February, the Sistah Space domestic violence charity for women of African and Caribbean origin, obtained new premises after launching two petitions for a “safe space” to carry out its vital services. The premises were on an estate owned by a local charity — which preferred not to be disclosed — who significantly reduced the rent for the year 2021, enabling Sistah Space to finally have a new office to support and counsel women of African heritage.
Ana Flores Reis, who manages an advice line for Solace Women’s Aid, a charity acting against violence against women, said: “The pandemic exacerbated risk levels and made it even more challenging to access support and escape abuse.” The charity also noticed change in the nature of the victims’ requests. Whereas before the pandemic women mainly called for safety planning advice and practical support, there has recently been an increase of calls from survivors at serious risk of physical harm, and who are coping with more complex needs such as homelessness or destitution.
As a result of the pandemic, the demand for Solace’s services has grown exponentially. “Our services are under enormous pressure and we don’t see any sign of it easing up,” explained Fiona Dwyer, the charity’s CEO. “We continue to have to turn away referrals to our counselling services and refuge places.”
On the other hand, many women who are victims of domestic abuse are responsible for the safety of their children, and this is often what traps them in difficult situations. In London between 2019 and 2020 only 43% of refuge vacancies were suitable for a woman with two children and less than a fifth could accommodate a woman with three children or more.
Victims with mental health problems or substance-use issues face problems that most standard refuges and domestic violence counselling services do not cater for. In 2020, Solace, which specialises in providing refuge for women in those situations, had only 14 vacancies available but received 133 referrals. This meant that they had to turn away 90% of the women who were asking for help. This shortage of spaces is pushing women into homelessness, adding more long-term problems.
Last January, the government allocated £76m to charities supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse. An allocation of £125m for local authorities to fund domestic abuse victims’ safe accommodation is planned for next year. These may sound like big figures but for Iyengar they are “a drop in the ocean”, compared to the needs of charities doing the work on the ground.
According to Iyengar, £393m is needed. “I think that another aspect of the pandemic is that people tend to say, ‘this is a time of austerity, why are you asking for £393m?’” Iyengar said. “But this time, the women who need this money, are the women at risk of being murdered by their partners, women in intolerable situations, women with children. It’s not an unreasonable request at all. It’s something which we should all be funding.”
Follow our These 4 Walls series this week to find out more about what happened behind closed doors during this pandemic. #These4Walls