FEATURE: A home or a prison? How domestic abuse has spiralled during life under lockdown

Words by Adam Smith

(First published in the Erdington Local newspaper – March ’21 edition)

The increase in domestic abuse has been one the most disturbing consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. As lockdown restrictions are eased, and the country prepares to go back to the ‘normal’ we knew before, Erdington Local looks at how violence and aggression in the home are damaging the lives of hundreds of local people.

Domestic abuse rose by 45% in Erdington last year and now accounts for around 25% of all crime committed in the constituency.

Officers are now trained to spot tell-tale signs of abuse and if possible, help the victim. As well as prosecute the abuser which is a big difference from the 1970s when the law was unable intervene between a married couple.

However, lockdown meant victims had the double blow of being forced to spend even more time with their partner, whilst routes to safety and support were blocked by being unable to leave the house and even have private phone calls.

Experts who have been helping Erdington women escape violence since 1980 are keen to stress the lockdowns have not created domestic abuse but exacerbated an existing problem.

For more than 40 years Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid (BSWA) has provided practical escape routes for abused women and children, last year its 220 staff and volunteers helped 7,800 victims.

The charity’s fundraising manager Anna Fawcett told Erdington Local: “Prior to COVID-19 we would rely on face-to-face meetings with victims to unpick what they had been through, from eye contact to body language we were physically there for women.

“But like everybody else we had to change how we help people, whether it be through intercoms or WhatsApp messages, but we are still making a huge difference. Demand for our services has gone up in 12 months, but during the first lockdown we were quieter than expected.

“We soon realised people could not phone us if their partner was in the house so we introduced a chat facility to the helpline which made a big difference.”

Women’s Aid provide advice, counselling and crucially a housing service so women and children will not be homeless if they do successfully leave an abusive domestic situation. BSWA run seven refuges across the city, the locations are secret to prevent violent partners tracking women down, and demand is always high.

Anna said: “For every one room we have, seven or eight women need it. When one becomes available they are free for a matter of hours before being taken.

“COVID-19 is not causing domestic violence but it has heightened it due to the restrictions. But the police are doing a great job trying to prosecute offenders.”

The causes of domestic abuse are entrenched in society and Anna believes although attitudes have improved there is still a long way to go.

She said: “One in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime so it will not be fixed overnight; the fact rape prosecutions are at an all time low shows how much work needs to be done.

“In the early 1970s police could not even intervene between a married couple, but perhaps with the Domestic Abuse Bill now in the House of Lords women will finally get equality. We need to keep talking about domestic abuse because our sisters, wives, and daughters are the victims.”

One Erdington mother of two, who now lives in an East Midlands town after her relationship ended violently last year, wanted women suffering in silence to know help is available.

She said: “Lockdown turned my volatile relationship into a living hell because my fella lost his job and could not go to the pub, so we spent more time with each other than we ever had.

“I suddenly realised I was trapped; I couldn’t phone my friends, sisters, or anyone without him knowing. I forgot to clear the search history on the computer and when he found out I’d been searching for hotels and hostels he snapped.

“He fractured my collar bone and broke my pelvis. But waking up in hospital meant I finally could get help, I never went back. The advice and support I got from my hospital bed with just my phone was incredible, it meant I could leave him and take my children too.”

She added: “I shudder to think what would have happened if I had stayed, but Women’s Aid and the police made me realise I was not alone. Loads of women have gone through the same trauma and come out the other side safe and well.”

Tragically, many victims do not escape their tormentor. In the last ten years at least two women every week have been killed by current or former partners in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics, and 30 men die each year in similar circumstances.

Domestic abuse is also one of the main causes of homelessness. Birmingham City Council and Women’s Aid worked together to create Home Options which matched the expertise of BSWA staff and housing officers to ensure domestic abuse victims would not end up on the streets.

Birmingham City Council cabinet member for housing Councillor Sharon Thompson branded the new approach a success.

She said: “The Home Options is the first of its kind in the country and has demonstrated a valuable and much needed initiative, providing a specialist approach and ‘pathway’ for women and children at risk of, or experiencing homelessness due to domestic abuse.

“Domestic abuse is a complex and serious issue, both nationally and locally here in Birmingham, and remains one of the leading causes of statutory homelessness. It has a profound and long-lasting impact upon the safety, health, and wider life chances of women, children, and families; which can often lead to further crisis such as homelessness and financial exclusion.”

Inspector Haroon Chughtai, who decides the police’s priorities for Erdington, promised abusers who used the pandemic’s unique circumstances to their own advantage would feel the full force of the law.

He said: “Like all major events it (COVID-19) has brought both the best and worst out in people.

“For me, the worst is the perpetrators of domestic abuse who have taken advantage of the restrictions and made life unbearable for their victims. We will continue to everything to bring them to justice.

“Domestic abuse is a 45% increase which equates to around 800 extra victims. It is an abhorrent crime which we are determined to continue tackling and it is one of our top priorities.”

He added: “We have also started a pilot scheme in Kingstanding which takes a more enhanced approach at repeat offenders.”

The stereotype of domestic abuse is a husband emotionally and physically attacking his wife but there are many other scenarios which create victims.

Men have traditionally found it hard to admit or report their female partner abused them. Parents attacking their children, teenagers attacking parents or siblings, are also domestic abuse – as are altercations between same sex partners in the LGBTQ community.

The only way to eradicate the problem entirely is if everyone in society tries to stop it, from neighbours reporting violent incidents to employers offering employees help if they turn up to work with a black eye or bruises.

Kingstanding PCSO Meg Skelding wrote to residents about spotting domestic abuse and how to help.

She said: “Support a friend if they’re being abused, let them know you’ve noticed something is wrong. If someone confides in you, there is more information on how to support them.

“If you are worried someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, you can call Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free, confidential support, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247.”

She added: “But if you believe there is an immediate risk of harm to someone, or it is an emergency, always call 999.”

If you have been affected by domestic abuse of violence, you can call Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk

For more on Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid visit www.bswaid.org

For more from Refuge visit www.refuge.org.uk

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