Described by some as an ‘epidemic beneath a pandemic’, the fact reports of domestic abuse have soared in the midst of the UK’s lockdowns is well documented.
An average of 13,162 calls and messages were made to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse helpline every month between April 2020 and February 2021 – up more than 60 per cent on the beginning of 2020. And it is a picture experts warn will not simply disappear now Britain is once again beginning to open up, with many abusers having learned to take advantage of our collective isolation and reliance on technology for communication.
“Many women with abusive partners will have been experiencing highly controlling and coercive behaviour,” explains Lisa King, director of communications at Refuge. “This can take the form of economic abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse or even stalking, often perpetrated through the tracking or monitoring of their phones or other devices, as well as other abuse via the misuse of technology.”
To better protect victims of domestic abuse, the government reintroduced the Domestic Abuse Bill in Parliament in March 2020, following nearly three years of ongoing promises to support survivors and their children. Broadly speaking, the bill planned to provide a statutory definition of domestic abuse, prohibit the cross examination of survivors in family courts, and place a legal duty on local authorities to assess need for, and provide, refuge services. It was hailed as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to protect survivors.
And yet, when the bill returned to parliament last week, many campaigners were horrified to see a series of amendments expressly designed to help the most vulnerable in our society – from migrant women to single mothers to victims of repeat offenders – being voted down by MPs.
Living in fear
Regina Coker-Ogunsola grew up in a home tainted by domestic abuse – her mother often suffering at the hands of her father. “Life was pretty depressing,” she says. When her father finally left, Regina helped her mum raise her siblings while also concentrating on finishing school.
Then, at 22, she started dating one of her best friends, never expecting that his behaviour would turn nasty. “He became emotionally abusive about two months into our relationship, criticising how I look, my ambition, keeping me away from friends and family. I saw it as him showing he cared about me.”
Regina tolerated his comments and ignored the signs of abuse, she says, because she wanted a perfect, trouble-free life. But the abuse only got worse. He wanted to know about how many sexual partners she had and went into a rage when he heard she had been touched by other men. “Even when he threw my dinner on the floor because he was mad at me, I had a reason in my head as to why he did it,” she explains now. “I felt trapped and confused.”
Pregnant and scared
After suffering with endometriosis and being told she would struggle to have a baby, Regina was shocked to discover she was pregnant. With the abuse at its height, she considered an abortion to avoid having her partner in her life forever, before eventually deciding to keep the baby. “He was so angry I was pregnant,” she sighs. “It ruined the beautiful experience I may never get again.”
The abuse continued throughout Regina’s pregnancy, with one particularly horrid row bringing on labour, and by the time her baby was seven months old, Regina was determined to leave. “I was completely numb,” she says now of walking out. “I didn’t have a plan, I just knew I had to pack what I could take in two black bags and go. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t sad, I didn’t miss him or my beautiful home – I just wanted a fresh new start with my new baby.”
But she didn’t have any support to leave. She was unemployed, had no money, and had nowhere to go. She and her seven-month-old baby were homeless.
When a woman – and today, women remain most likely to experience domestic abuse – decides to leave an abusive partner, she enters a critical period that requires emotional and practical support to get back on her feet. “Justice reform and adequate funding for specialist services is urgently needed – but sadly, services face a precarious funding landscape and provisions often fall short of demand,” explains King. “Since 2011, Refuge has experienced cuts to 80 per cent of its services, with our refuge service funding cut by an average of 50 per cent”.
While the government did announce £165m for domestic abuse services for 2021-22, the figure falls massively short of the £393 million Women’s Aid estimated would be needed to support survivors during and after the pandemic.
Now, campaigners warn that cuts in funding and a lack of adequate future provision are leaving women and families at risk of being turned away from safe refuge due to a lack of capacity – while research from Crisis suggests around 61 per cent of homeless women have experienced abuse from a partner before ending up without housing.
“There’s definitely a huge risk of homelessness for female victims of domestic abuse, particularly if you have been subjected to financial abuse, which can leave you with next to no resources to rebuild your life,” explains Sophie Anderson, senior operations executive at homelessness-focused social enterprise Beam. “What’s more, often female abuse victims have been completely cut off from family and friends by their partners, and don’t have a support network after leaving. The all-encompassing nature of domestic abuse often means that people are cut off from the services they need for so long, housing services included.”
It’s a situation that’s all too familiar to Regina, who initially sofa-surfed before being put into temporary hostel accommodation, where she persistently sought secure council housing for herself and her baby. “It was an uphill battle to stay positive in an unsafe environment,” she says.
“Sofa-surfing, living in hostels or sleeping rough is naturally more dangerous for women,” Anderson confirms. “Women are also more likely to be the primary caregivers, and so have to think about the welfare of their children – such as how they will get to school. Additionally, single mothers can feel a great sense of guilt when homeless, as they feel that they should be protecting and providing for their children. Confidence takes a real knock during this time in their life.”
With the help of St. Mungo’s, Regina finally managed to find a flat, which acted as the stepping stone she needed to be referred to Beam. There, the charity’s staff were able to help her into work, find childcare for her daughter and provide support along the way. Having experienced first-hand where the gaps in the system between abuse and homelessness support lie, Regina went on to found A Hand To Guide, an organisation that provides a 24-hour buddy service for domestic abuse and homelessness victims.
“Getting on my feet has been challenging, but my daughter and I have survived through it,” Regina smiles today. She is quick to point out though that, while she eventually received the support she needed to live a meaningful, safe life, many women are less fortunate.
Last week, MPs voted against an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would have extended support to migrant women who currently have little chance of accessing help after fleeing an abusive partner. In fact, only four per cent of refuge vacancies in England in 2019-2020 were open to women with no recourse to public funds due to immigration status.
“Those with ‘no recourse to public funds’ have extremely limited options for accessing housing or financial support, because their immigration status bars them from claiming benefits which are in turn used to financially support a stay in refuge,” King explains. “But no one should be left with a choice between staying with an abuser or not having a roof over their head.”
Yet, having voted against giving migrant survivors benefits and an independent route to remain, the government has instead set up a project to address the ‘evidence gap’ regarding the need for support for this vulnerable group of women. Additionally, Women’s Aid has expressed concern that another amendment proposed – “a requirement for all family court judges to have training on domestic abuse and sexual violence” – was also rejected by MPs.
“Survivors tell us how the perpetrator continues to abuse them through the family court system, and that judges continue to make unsafe orders for child contact,” explains Fazeer Nazeer, chief Executive at Women’s Aid. “We must avoid avoidable harm and put children first in the family courts.”
So, while the Domestic Abuse Bill has the potential to allow all survivors access to the safety and support they need, the missing pieces of the puzzle, identified by activists and charities and rejected by MPs, could result in women and children being left without help. For now, for many of those who risk everything to escape their abusers, a life free from fear remains just out of reach.
Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for confidential specialist support. Call 0808 2000 247, or visit National DA Helpline to access live chat – available from 3pm to 10pm, Monday to Friday – or to fill in a webform and request a safe time to be contacted.