Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 17 March 2020
How many times do we have to say it? Home is not a safe place for thousands of women who live with abusive men. Yet the government’s latest response to the coronavirus epidemic – advising whole swathes of the population to isolate themselves at home – appears to have been drawn up without considering the potentially devastating consequences for vulnerable women.
According to its own figures, an estimated 1.6 m women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse in the year to March 2019. We already know that reports of domestic violence shoot up in the summer and over the Christmas period, when men have time off work and spend longer with their families. In Northern Ireland, police recorded ‘a significant increase in reporting’ over the Christmas and new year holidays in 2018.
Now, though, individuals at higher risk of contracting Corvid-19, including those aged 70 and over, are being told to stay at home for up to 12 weeks. Younger people with underlying health conditions have received similar advice, while families where a member displays symptoms of the virus are expected to isolate themselves for two weeks.
This is no doubt sound medical advice, judging by the alarming rise in infections (and fatalities) in Italy. But ministers seems to have given no thought to the impact on women and children of being forced to stay at home for lengthy periods with angry, impulsive men. In London alone, the police recorded just over 145,000 incidents of domestic abuse last year, with spikes in June and December.
Most victims were aged between 25 and 34 but four per cent were aged 65 and above, and most experts think that domestic violence against older women is under-reported. According to the latest Femicide Census, 23 of the female fatalities recorded in 2018 were aged 66 or older – the very age group that’s been asked to bear the heaviest restrictions over the next three months. They aren’t just at risk from husbands or partners, either; seven women in this age group were killed by a son, son-in-law or grandson
Also according to the report, domestic homicides had reached a five-year high before the coronavirus epidemic broke out. Women are most likely to be killed by a current or ex-partner and 68 per cent of such killings took place in or immediately around the family home, in places such as a garage or garden. Overall, more than half of the killings in 2018 occurred in households which already had a history of domestic abuse.
If abusive men can’t even cope with the summer holidays without turning on their female relatives, how are they likely to react to the added pressure of financial insecurities – being laid off or losing a job altogether? With sports fixtures being cancelled left, right and centre, they won’t even be able to distract themselves by watching football or rugby, and some will be unable to resist the temptation of drinking heavily.
In China, there have already been anecdotal reports of an increase in domestic abuse in areas worst affected by Corvid-19. ‘The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence’, according to Wan Fei, the founder of a domestic abuse charity in Hubei province. Incidents reported to a local police station are said to have tripled in February, compared to the same month in 2019.
In this country, organisations that offer support to victims of abuse are braced for a big increase in the volume of calls at a time when resources are already stretched to breaking point. Providing emergency accommodation and making sure women know how to access it could literally save lives over the next few months, yet the government has put nothing in place.
On the contrary, Boris Johnson reacted with astonishing complacency when he was challenged to increase funding for victims of domestic violence at prime minister’s questions last week. ‘We’ve just put record funding back into councils to support them in all their responsibilities’, he boasted.
There’s no extra money to deal with fallout from the coronavirus epidemic, in other words – and local authorities faced with a raft of competing demands might not use the cash that’s already been allocated to provide more refuge places.
Instead, Johnson seized the opportunity to highlight the government’s domestic violence bill, a piece of legislation that’s already been criticised for its failure to provide desperately-needed resources. And it may well be delayed if Parliamentary business is interrupted by the epidemic.
In the midst of a national emergency, it is vital that the most vulnerable members of society are not left to fend for themselves. Helplines and refuges urgently need extra resources to cope with higher demand, and the police could be asked to check on households with a known history of domestic abuse. Friends and relatives need to be on the lookout for signs of distress that might be evidence of abuse, especially among the over-70s.
This is the worst crisis the UK has faced since the Second World War. Many families are going to be forced into exactly the kind of conditions in which frustrated, angry men lash out. Let’s not make it worse by leaving thousands of women to cope with a silent second epidemic of abuse on their own.