If our first lockdown proved anything, it’s that not everyone is safe at home.
Make no mistake – domestic abuse was prevalent in our society well before the pandemic of 2020. But as lockdown aimed to keep us safe from a virus we could not see, for many women across the UK, the order to ‘stay home and stay safe’ by no means guaranteed safety. Now, with the whole UK either in or entering a second period of isolation, for those caught up in the nightmare of violence, the threat is very real.
But while there is little to celebrate in the return of restrictions, a small glimmer of hope came this weekend in the prime minister’s recognition of the threat such restrictions pose to women. Alongside work and medical appointments, Boris Johnson pointed out that a threat to safety was a good enough reason to breach restrictions, to leave home in search of security.
The question is, will those women affected be able to make use of this caveat?
To see how urgent the need to ramp up support is, we need only look back as far as spring 2020. We began to see the increased demand on domestic violence helplines and services immediately in the first lockdown, with Women’s Aid reporting a 41 per cent week-on-week increase in traffic to online chat services as early as March.
The BBC, meanwhile, reported that “more than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse helpline during the first three months of lockdown, most by women seeking help. The charity Refuge, which runs the helpline, reported that throughout the month of June, calls and contacts were nearly 80 per cent higher than normal.”
Globally, the rise in cases is estimated at around 20 per cent – leading the UN to describe domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic” alongside COVID-19. But, crucially, these figures only reflect the numbers of women who have been able to access help and support. They say nothing of the countless women who have suffered in silence, the fear of being overheard calling for help or the difficulty they face in actually being able to leave home ensuring that they are still living through the nightmare of abuse.
The question none of these figures answers is why. Why did we see such surge of abuse during lockdown?
A quest for control
Abuse is primarily about power – and taking advantage of an imbalance of power in order to control or exploit. There are imbalances of power everywhere, even more so in times of crisis and conflict, and some people see these as a green light to take advantage and cause harm. In that context, being ordered to stay at home during a global pandemic created a perfect opportunity for many abusers, putting the lives of tens of thousands of women and children at risk.
So, why didn’t we do more to prevent this from the outset? If we know that domestic abuse significantly increases at times of crisis, why were we not sufficiently prepared, as a nation, for the onslaught that would come?
What are we doing to pre-empt the risks still coming for vulnerable women and children – the risks that will undoubtedly arise from this second wave, from this second lockdown, and from arguably the worst economic crisis of our lifetime? And what gender-focused policies is our Government prioritising as we enter this next phase?
Let’s be clear. Domestic abuse does not discriminate. It can affect any woman, at all stages of womanhood, and as a female-focused psychotherapist, I can assure you that the sheer volume of stories I hear from successful, high-achieving women who have experienced abusive relationships with men is shocking.
Without a doubt, one of the most frequently asked questions I am asked in therapy is: “Why do I attract abusive men?”
The power of seduction
In short, abusers don’t appear wearing their true colours on a badge. In the beginning, abusers appear as anything but. They see all the amazing things about you that perhaps you don’t, and they tell you all about them. That initial ‘worship’ or ‘lovebomb’ stage can feel highly seductive, especially if your self-worth is at a low point. It’s like a moth to a flame. Abusers can make you feel so loved – and who doesn’t want to feel love on that scale?
But it is always short lived.
It’s only a matter of time before the very things they highlighted, the things they said first drew them to you, become the put downs they use against you. Your independence becomes a power game – and the game is ultimately to break you.
At first, it seems whatever you do is never quite good enough, so you do more. Your self-doubt and people-pleasing drive kicks in and you try harder to be more compliant, to be less you in order to try and ‘fix’ them and your relationship, the one you’ve put so much effort and investment into.
But you cannot change an abusive partner by being nice, by showing more love or by being the perfect woman. You cannot fix a relationship by trying to figure out why they choose to take advantage of the power imbalance between you to harm, abuse, control and exploit.
It’s not your fault.
Abusers don’t always ‘look’ like the kind of people capable of causing harm. I’d argue that 99.9 per cent of the time they are smart, professional, successful, highly charismatic people – and that’s one of the most confusing things for so many women, the fact that their partner has the ability to show love and warmth to them and others when they choose to. Very often, it’s the promise of experiencing those times again, the desire to hold on to what once was, that makes walking away so incredibly hard to do.
And let’s face it – how many women even have the option of walking away? Walking away can mean financial insecurity. It can mean losing your home or the threat of losing your children, notwithstanding the threat of further violence and the threat they will hold over you of discrediting you – reputationally, mentally, professionally and as a parent. The threat that no-one else will want you.
Financial control is a reality for many women too – if you don’t have access to your own money and have to justify every single expense, how do you access a lawyer, or a therapist, or the deposit for a rental property? When you have to ask permission to spend in the first place, spending to rescue yourself can feel impossible.
Having the courage to leave an abusive relationship despite all those challenges is huge. And often, the abuse doesn’t stop even when you do. Co-parenting with someone who thrives on control and power means they will forever try to erode your sense of self-worth and often that of your children – the effects of abuse are profoundly and deeply inter-generational, and parental abandonment is yet another side of that ongoing abuse.
That is why the UN have described this as a shadow pandemic.
Because 2020 will have a cavernous effect on tens of thousands of women, children and families for generations to come. The very least our Government could do is establish a task force to identify the fundamental policy changes needed now, and to facilitate the multi-agency approach required to ensure that, post-pandemic, we are able to support the thousands of women and children who aren’t safe at home.
But right now, as you’re reading this, I want you to know this. If you have any doubt in your mind as to what’s normal in a relationship and what’s not, here are just some of the huge, red flags I see and hear about time and time again:
- Being a punchbag is not normal
- Being under constant surveillance is not normal
- Constantly walking on eggshells is not normal
- Having your privacy invaded is not normal
- Not being allowed to see your friends and family is not normal
- Not being allowed access to your own money is not normal
- Being forced, coerced or manipulated into having sex with your partner is not normal
- Being told what to wear is not normal
- Being manipulated or ‘gaslighted’ so you think you are wrong all the time is not normal
- Being told you are ‘worthless’ or ‘useless’ is not normal
- Being shamed or humiliated in front of friends and family is not normal
Recognising these signs could save your life, or the lives of women you know. Being at home shouldn’t mean being at risk. But often it does – and if that applies to you, help is out there for you.
Anyone can become a victim of domestic abuse. It’s not your fault. And you are never, ever alone.
If you feel at risk and need to talk in confidence, the National Domestic Abuse helpline is open 24/7 and can be reached on 0808 2000 247. If you feel in immediate danger, always ring 999.