The Importance of Combating Domestic Abuse During A Pandemic

As a current DPhil student studying whether gender impacts the criminal justice response to domestic abuse, I am highly interested in how the current crisis is affecting these issues. 


Time to read

3 Minutes

I write this post, from my home, in Winchester, UK. You can see my view from my window below. As someone studying domestic violence, I have been, like so many others, deeply concerned at the surge of violence within the home, during this pandemic. In the post below, I set out some of the challenges posed by the current health crisis for victims, as well as some of the ways in which the UK government is aiming to assist them.

Staying at home is far more dangerous for some than others, and always has been. Prior to the UK lockdown, for example, domestic abuse was already a severe problem. According to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in normal circumstances, the police receive a call concerning domestic abuse every 30 seconds.  Notwithstanding fears about ‘stranger danger’, women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by someone they do not know. Indeed, Jonathon Herring has pointed out that globally, for women aged 19–44 the risk of death from domestic abuse is greater than that posed by war, cancer or car crashes.

Since the pandemic has taken hold, more people are living behind locked doors than ever before. With individuals only allowed to leave their house for a few authorised reasons, it has become far harder for those living in the tumultuous and damaging climates of domestic abuse to seek help, support and respite from their partner, homelife and the abuse.

Previous means of escape or support -- like employment outside the home for instance -- are now closed to victims, as over 70% of UK companies have furloughed workers, while anyone who can, now must work from home. Compounding matters, evidence suggests that alcohol consumption at home is  rising, a situation that is only likely to increase violence, for as Michael Johnson has suggested, alcohol increases intimate partner violence across subtypes.

Being trapped in a violent home environment can cause severe emotional and psychological effects for victims and their children. Such experiences are likely to have future impacts as the chance of experiencing abuse in later relationships, or of perpetrating violence is higher among children who witness domestic abuse. Marianne Hester and Lorraine Radford have also shown that domestic abuse is often inter-connected with child abuse, with children being purposely or inadvertently harmed by abuse. With schools closed to all, except those identified as vulnerable or with a parent who is a key worker, and with Universities closed, it is important to remember the severe impacts that this situation can have on children’s learning.  

Since lockdown was introduced, just 5 weeks ago domestic abuse services have experienced between a 26.86% and 120% increase in calls, including a 16.6% rise of calls to male only victim support services. Services directed at helping domestic abuse perpetrators change their behaviour have also experienced a 25% increase in calls. This shows the intense support needed for these victims and the increasing pressure that victims and services are under to ensure their safety. The increased dangers of domestic abuse are evident from the already high rate of domestic abuse homicides steeply increasing (according to the Office for National Statistics, 48% of all homicides in 2019 were related to domestic abuse). In the past 5 weeks alone, the Counting Dead Women Project has recorded that 14 women and 2 children have been murdered in relation to domestic abuse.

For this reason, the government is hoping to introduce codewords into supermarkets and other essential shops, to help victims communicate their need for help. This is following suggestions by Dame Vera Baird, the Victim’s Commissioner, that the UK follow France in providing support to domestic abuse victims through essential shops such as supermarkets and pharmacies. This scheme would work in a similar manner to the code ‘Ask Angela’, previously used in British bars and restaurants to request help for sexual assault. It could be life saving for these victims who are suffering from increased isolation and having their every movement monitored. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has also explained that victims can leave their homes during lockdown to seek support and refuge -- with train companies providing free travel for women and children fleeing domestic abuse.

The Home Affairs Select Committee is calling for greater housing provision for victims, easier access to legal aid, an extension of the time limit for prosecuting domestic abuse related offences and the development of creative solutions to combat domestic abuse. They argue that without this, society will be suffering from devastating consequences for generations. It is hope that the government will be able to introduce these changes and help many vulnerable victims in society to curb these extensive increases in domestic abuse.

The reality of the dangers posed by domestic abuse in this time of crisis is all too clear. It is crucial that domestic abuse continues to be a high priority matter for the government and that it works hard to develop methods of helping those trapped in dangerous home environments during this time. It is necessary that actions are taken to support victims of domestic abuse, that awareness of domestic abuse continues to be raised and that it remains high on the government agenda following the pandemic. It is clear now, more than ever that domestic abuse is affected by social and political decisions, requiring a multi-agency response to help vulnerable victims in our society.

Today’s post is by Lucy Pearce, a current DPhil student at the Centre for Criminology.