Lockdown exit must consider the lives lost through fatal domestic abuse
Lockdown is a relatively new concept in modern pandemic management; it is largely untested, and its implications and unintended negative consequences unplanned for. As the government debated and delayed the inevitable, a significant proportion of the female population, one in four of us, living with a controlling partner, waited to find out our fate. Already existing in a world where everyday actions are scrutinised, the prospect of spending an extended period fully and formally cut off from friends and family, jobs, the hair salon or just the shops seemed grim.
On the evening of March 23rd our fate was sealed; we were entering into a fully sanctioned state of control, our abusers were given further authority over us and sadly, some of us did not survive.
A spike in domestic homicides occurred almost immediately; one of the first of us to be killed was a nurse, stabbed in the street by her husband, in front of her neighbours.
As the pandemic went on, many of us stood at our doorsteps to clap for our NHS staff and carers. I thought about this nurse every time and wondered what this must be like for her children, her family, her neighbours, and those who witnessed her die.
At the time of writing 29 women and 4 children have been killed; in all these cases men who should have loved and cared for the victims have been charged with, or suspected of murder or murder-suicide.
Increased household tension, forced coexistence, economic stress, and fears about the virus have been used to explain the increase in reports of abuse and homicide. Refuting this victim blaming style of narrative is crucial; men have for too long been afforded excuses for killing their partners. None of these men are likely to have been first time abusers and despite the tendency for the media to find family, friends and neighbours who testify that he was “a lovely man who loved his children”, in the words of respected homicide expert Laura Richards “no-one starts with murder”.
If we are to eradicate fatal domestic abuse of women, we need to promote the position that this abuse is a purposeful intentional choice. Lockdown has provided abusive men with enhanced opportunity to cause harm, to achieve greater surveillance and it has ultimately enabled more abusive men to kill.
It is evident that social distancing and self-isolation, recommended protective public health measures have been used deliberately and systematically as a tool of coercive and control by some perpetrators. Traditional routes to safety like schools and health centres are closed or operating remotely, therefore access to support services for victims, particularly in the health, police and justice sector has been blocked.
Routes to safety which had been carefully set out through over a decade of intensive partnership working and collaboration, were disrupted; there has been no time to establish new methods to exit abuse.
Organisations that support women are braced for impact as lockdown ends, it is anticipated that services, already under stress following a decade of enforced austerity measures will be inundated. It is early days in lockdown easing and already services are capturing new narratives of prolonged stress and trauma and perpetrators’ distortion of the rules of restriction to control their victims.
Services are concerned, however, that what they are now experiencing is the calm before the storm as many women try to weather the current crisis either unable to seek help or too afraid to leave their homes. This could create deep seated trauma for many women and children and the specialist support needed to help them recover is insufficient. An immediate concern is the emerging evidence that referrals to Children Social Care have fallen by as much as 50 per cent in some areas of the country.
Funding to alleviate the impact on services responding to domestic abuse has been chaotic and piecemeal, coming from multiple sources with little or short notice. Services have struggled to respond but they know they must make the most of every penny because right now domestic abuse is in the public eye but already fading. A rise in violent crime outside the home, binge drinking in parks and beaches, anti-social behaviour and disorder on the streets and once more domestic abuse fades into the background. Out of sight out of mind.
Every life lost during this pandemic should be recorded and remembered, those who died in our care homes, in hospitals and in their own homes. We should also ensure we remember the lives of those lost to domestic homicide. As we endeavour as a society to prevent future deaths caused by covid-19 to hopefully, one day create a vaccine to ensure the whole population is immune so too should we seek to immunise our society against violence to women and children.