'I'm petrified about being trapped inside this house 24/7 with a man who has raped me in my sleep and threatened to cannibalise me,' says Stephanie*, 24, who lives in South West England.
'I'm scared I won't see the end of all this. I don't think I have it in me to keep fighting if I'm forced to be trapped with him and have no face-to-face contact with anyone else.'
Home is not a safe place for Stephanie, who lives with her abusive, alcoholic ex-partner, from whom she hasn’t been able to escape for financial reasons since they broke up last year.
The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, and the encouragement to distance yourself socially or 'self-isolate', means that she is currently living in fear that the sexual, physical, emotional and financial abuse that already torments her, will intensify.
'I could be raped again and if he can’t get his alcohol fix, he might get angry and violent or even kill me.'
As this coronavirus spreads across the UK, women and children looking to escape an abusive relationship are terrified. The current advice to socially distance ourselves by avoiding non-essential travel, working from home and avoiding pubs, clubs, theatres and more general gatherings, is potentially dangerous for women trapped inside with their abusers, whose actions may be aggravated by the fallout of the current crisis.
And it could get worse. If enforced lockdown measures are introduced in the UK – as they currently have been in countries including Italy, Spain, France and Belgium – it would mean transformational curbs on our personal freedoms.
Other countries have suspended public transport, closed all shops other than supermarkets and pharmacies, forced people to carry a document certifying why they are outside, and permitted outdoor exercise only when it’s done alone or with someone you live with.
All of which would leave people currently experiencing domestic abuse in a life-threatening situation. Not only does Stephanie fear for her life, she is afraid that a lockdown would affect her contact with her young son from a previous relationship, who lives with his dad to protect him from her abuser.
'1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse last year, and self-isolation has the potential to aggravate pre-existing abusive behaviours by perpetrators,' says Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of national domestic abuse charity Refuge.
'While in lockdown or self-isolation, women and children are likely to be spending concentrated periods of time with perpetrators, potentially escalating the threat of domestic abuse and further restricting their freedom.'
The link between isolation and domestic violence
Isolation is already a tactic used by many perpetrators of domestic violence, within a pattern of physical, emotional, economic, psychological and/or sexual abuse. There are already indications that the pandemic has increased rates of domestic abuse in other countries. Incidents in China skyrocketed after a lockdown was introduced, with the number of cases recorded by one non-profit almost doubling since it began, according to local reports.
'Having to stay at home can give abusers more opportunity to control and restrict women's activities and freedoms,' says Andrea Simon, from the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
Stephanie says the abuse is more frequent when she is alone in the house, especially for concentrated periods.
'When he's around other people, he's the most charismatic, charming person. In private, he scares me. We were alone together for a few years in a different city and that's where the bulk of the abuse happened.'
The last time Stephanie was trapped inside with him was when they were snowed in for a few days and trains were cancelled.
'I couldn't wait to leave and be away from him. He was nasty and drunk almost the entire time.' It came after a particularly intense period of emotional abuse: his infidelity, gaslighting, followed by him encouraging her to take her own life.
At other times, while they were still together, he abused Stephanie sexually and financially: 'I’d often wake up to him trying to rape or sexually assault me in my sleep,' and she is still in over £2,000 worth of debt after routinely paying for his rent.
Not being able to work because of the virus – Stephanie’s job can’t be done from home – could also reinforce her abusive partner’s power.
'We know that 95% of domestic abuse victims experience economic abuse and that the current context will provide abusers with more opportunities to control, exploit or sabotage their partner’s economic resources, thereby further curtailing their freedom and choices,' says a spokesperson from Surviving Economic Abuse.
'An abuser may interfere with their partner’s ability to work from home by refusing to share childcare, or preventing them from accessing the equipment they need, such as a laptop or phone.'
The added pressures on support services
The preventative and restrictive measures to halt the spread of Coronavirus could also also put support systems for victims at risk, making accessing safety even more difficult. Services for domestic abuse victims were already under pressure – with refuge's budget having been slashed since 2010 – and the current pandemic could aggravate the situation.
It’s clear the government needs to take urgent action.
'Refuge services who have to "lock down" and stop taking referrals due to the virus may need additional financial support, as they will not receive the same level of rental income,' Women’s Aid said this week. 'There is also a risk that staff absences due to the virus will impact on the safe provision of these life-saving services.'
How to access help during self-isolation or quarantine
As it stands, helplines and accommodation-based services remain open and refuges are 'preparing for women and children contracting the virus whilst living there – ensuring they can self-isolate from other residents,' Women’s Aid says.
Some charities, such as Women for Refugee Women, have stopped or partially limited face-to-face support to protect their vulnerable women, while shifting to new ways of working – including providing their service over the phone, online, by text or by email.
'Refuge wants to reassure those experiencing abuse that they are not alone. Our services remain open and we have contingency plans in place for all of our services, including refuges, community-based services and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge,' says Horley. The Helpline has an online contact form, with additional support resources available for survivors, friends and family.
Those at risk can still connect with local Women’s Aid services, and the charity is continuing to support survivors directly through online means including its Live Chat, Survivors Handbook and Survivors Forum.
Meanwhile, Chayn provides online support for victims, advice on online safety, mental wellbeing, law and finance. The service will be sharing daily tips through a webchat to advise survivors on collecting evidence and staying safe from surveillance.
It’s vital at this critical time to check in with family or friends who may be at risk, says a spokesperson for Hestia, a charity that provides services for victims. 'Advice and support can be found on Hestia’s Bright Sky app to those experiencing domestic abuse and for those concerned about someone they know.'
If you feel powerless and want to help services under strain, you can donate to always donate to any of these charities too.
Stephanie doesn’t have a plan in place to escape her abuser before a potential lockdown is introduced, and there are no refuges where she lives. 'More housing needs to be accessible quickly to abuse victims. I just need to be given the opportunity to have a home where I feel safe, where my son feels safe, and where we can go back to feeling normal again. Even if we were forced into quarantine, at least we’d be together.'
*Name has been changed to protect the victim’s identity.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing abuse, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, which is open 24/7 365 days per year, or via their website.
If you are in immediate danger, call the police on 999.
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