Looking ahead to a post-pandemic world, Government has pledged to Build Back Better and Safer. But we ask: better for whom? Better how? That ‘better’ must mean better for women and girls, whose voices have been marginalised and silenced for far too long. Women affected by domestic abuse and trauma are the silent victims of the COVID-19 pandemic and they are being ignored. Women demand better.
With social distancing and three national lockdowns in the UK since March 2020, women and children have been more isolated than ever, locked down at home often with their abusers and unable to get help.
Poverty and digital inequality made unsafe situations even more so, and this continues today. Women and their children lack essentials such food, clothing and medication, and the means to reach out to our services for help.
Over a year and a half since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lives of women have been disproportionately affected. Women have taken on increased family and caring responsibilities, many doing so while working. For many, what started as a health crisis has turned into an economic crisis, with more women than men suffering the loss of their employment, income and housing.
It is not surprising that the mental health of the women we support has been acutely impacted. Women have reported to us a significant increase in anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm. We have seen an unprecedented number of women’s deaths by suicide and overdoses, including women survivors of domestic abuse and trauma.
National and local government responses during the pandemic have been encouraging.
Both national and London governments’ initiatives such as some additional funding for domestic abuse advocates and emergency refuges, the National Domestic Abuse helpline and campaigns such as You Are Not Alone were positive steps in supporting survivors in the community during this crisis.
The new Domestic Abuse Act 2021 has also provided a national legal framework to improve outcomes for survivors and hold perpetrators to account. The inclusion of the statutory duty for accommodation to those who must flee their homes because of domestic abuse will go some way to ensure that those that provision such as refuges will be available.
These are encouraging steps but fall far short of what is needed to ensure that every woman and child can be safe from domestic abuse and supported to be safe and recover from the devasting and long-lasting impact on their lives.
Women and children survivors of domestic abuse do not have the help they need to be safe and build back better.
The vast majority of the 1.6 million women and their children suffering each year do not flee their home and get little if any support at all. We know what help survivors need to make them safe and help them change their lives; we know that that it works. Yet help is only available to very few and only if they meet the high thresholds of high risk of serious harm or death, and for a very short period of time.
The new statutory duty for accommodation has further unintended consequences of leaving three out of every four survivors who remain in their homes without support unless they flee. It is the abuser who should be held accountable and leave the home, not the victims and survivors of the abuse.
The challenges faced by organisations such as ours that provide vital and life-saving and life-changing services in community settings have worsened significantly and have resulted in crisis for many of us. In recent years we have been faced with:
- A continued increase in the needs of domestic abuse survivors for community support services (23% increase in 5 years to 1.6 million women each year, ONS 2019/20) whilst at the same time our capacity to support them has been severely reduced because of local government funding cuts of up to 25% over the same period. Despite commitments by local and national governments that ending VAWG is a priority, this has not resulted in action nor in the funding needed to deliver these commitments.
- Local Authorities moving away from the principles of equity and gender-based services, despite what women themselves tell us they need, in an effort to save costs by commissioning one generic service, rather than the diverse specialist services that ensure women are not further marginalised and silenced. This has resulted in generic provisions by organisations with little expertise in supporting the majority of survivors who are women being commissioned, and in women’s specialist services being decommissioned at the time women need them the most, with recent examples in Sussex and many London boroughs.
- Community services being funded are limited to short-term and crisis-focused services, raising the thresholds for eligibility of support and reducing access to those who need support. The level of need is not always linked to the level of risk and women are turned away when they need support the most, with over one third being repeat referrals as a result. Recent years has seen an increase in complexity of women’s needs, a worsening of women’s mental health and as a result a rise in safeguarding concerns and the number of suicides and self-harm incidents. Holistic, woman-centred longer-term and trauma-informed support is needed to ensure we meet the needs of survivors in the community, including the provision of women centres.
- Our teams are operating often beyond capacity as our resources cannot meet the increasing demand and we are facing a crisis in attracting and retaining advocates to provide support, whilst salaries have remained flat for almost a decade. This is compounded by the skills shortage not only in London but across England, as we have an unprecedented number of vacancies for longer, leading to burnout of our staff and in turn impacting their mental health.
Change has been slow. Women and children have been left behind and continue to be silenced, as the world looks forward.
Following the deaths of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and more than 100 women this year because of male violence, the public demand urgent and decisive action to end violence against women and girls decisively. The Home Secretary spoke for all of us when she said “enough is enough”. Women demand better.
We must respond to this crisis for domestic abuse survivors, for women and children with actions.
Survivors, activists and those on the front-line know that we can end violence against women and girls with actions, not words.
We call on the government to develop policies and provide substantial and sustainable funding to deliver a Domestic Abuse Strategy that women and girls deserve:
- By understanding domestic abuse, how it affects women and girls disproportionately, its long lasting impact for many years after a woman leaves. Only then will we stop asking why does she not leave, and ask instead why does he not stop. Only then will we challenge societal attitudes and behaviours and end systemic sexism and misogyny.
- By breaking the silence and talking about it. We need to bring it out from behind closed doors as those suffering are not to blame and need to know we believe them, we support them and they are not alone.
- By giving all survivors the support they need in their own home, their own community and for as long as they need it to recover and rebuild their lives, beyond the initial crisis. Fleeing their homes is a last resort and many will not get support unless they become homeless under the current legislation.
- By recognising the devastating and long-term impact of domestic abuse on survivors’ lives including their mental health and ensuring that there is a mental health system where every woman and child, including those at risk of suicide, is able to access the care they need.
Violence and abuse of women is not inevitable. We do not have to pass this on to our girls and tomorrow’s generation of women.
Women demand better. Today.
Stand with women and children survivors of domestic abuse here