‘The minute people find out I’m the domestic abuse commissioner, they want to confide in me’

Rosa Silverman
·7-min read
Nicole Jacobs believes 'the pandemic has really shown up the cracks in the foundations of our approach' - Rii Schroer/The Telegraph
Nicole Jacobs believes 'the pandemic has really shown up the cracks in the foundations of our approach' - Rii Schroer/The Telegraph

When Nicole Jacobs was a student, she volunteered at a rape crisis centre. It led friends to start approaching her, confidentially, during nights out and recount their own experiences of sexual assault. “They knew I understood it,” says Britain’s first designate domestic abuse commissioner.

Hearing these personal stories helped inform Jacobs’s choice of career. This wasn’t, after all, a problem that existed in some other realm which affected other people. Women she’d known for a long time were just as likely to have had brushes with abuse.

Jacobs, 49, was raised in Alabama. She exudes the Southern charm and friendliness familiar to anyone who’s spent time in that part of the world. But it’s clear she means business – and there’s plenty of business to do.

Britain – her home since she arrived in the late Nineties to be with her English partner, now husband – has a domestic abuse problem. This has become far harder to ignore since the pandemic. Alongside the Covid infection and death rates, other statistics have emerged suggesting a parallel crisis: the number of calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline run by Refuge was 49 per cent above average after the first three weeks of lockdown; by late June the helpline had received more than 40,000 calls and contacts. By November, the number was still rising week on week.

Last month, MPs listened in silence as Labour’s Jess Phillips read out the names of 118 women and girls killed in the UK in the past year where a man had been charged or convicted. Society, she said, had simply accepted such deaths as “one of those things”.

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It’s why, say campaigners, the Domestic Abuse Bill – which is going through its final stages in the House of Commons – is more important than ever.

So should we be treating domestic abuse and femicide as an epidemic?

“Well it is,” says Jacobs, speaking over Skype. “If you look at the numbers and how high they are, I would say so for sure. It’s the most prevalent reason people call the police... and yet it doesn’t have that priority yet.”

The mother of two secondary school-age children has more than two decades’ experience of domestic abuse policy and intervention work. And then there are all the times she has helped her own friends and acquaintances.

“The minute you tell anyone what you do, you’ll be at the next party or get-together and someone will say ‘can you help me?’” she explains. Once, she received a call from a friend out of the blue, asking her to meet her daughter at an airport as she was escaping from her abusive husband.

“I’ve had neighbours talk to me about issues they were concerned about. It’s something I’m happy to [help with] if I possibly can,” she says.

But if the official figures – and the numerous experiences she’s come across closer to home - tell a worrying story, there’s a mismatch, Jacobs says, between “the prevalence and the consequence” of domestic abuse and the amount of investment successive governments have been willing to make in services for survivors.

“The pandemic has really shown up the cracks in the foundations of our approach,” says Jacobs, who will drop her “designate” tag once the Domestic Abuse Bill receives Royal assent. “Sometimes the needs of people who are experiencing domestic abuse and sexual violence can be an afterthought.”

One woman is killed every three days at the hands of a man in the UK. Jacobs can’t help but wonder whether, if these deaths were happening “in a different context”, we might not be having a different national conversation. Yet these numbers surely imply a national emergency?

“If it takes calling it an emergency to get the kind of resource and prioritisation and impact we really need then yes, I would say that,” agrees Jacobs, who believes femicide should be classed as a separate category of crime. “It’s almost like we’ve become too used to these figures. We’ve become a bit desensitised and we’re getting used to this level of violent crime.”

The conversation is changing, however. The recent death of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who disappeared while walking home in south London, catalysed an outpouring of anger. Women shared their innumerable horror stories, ranging from online stalking to rape. Jacobs cites the idea that all these behaviours – from street harassment to assault and abuse – are “grown in the same soil”.

“Our society largely tolerates the treatment of women in this way. I don’t think people applaud it but these issues can get sidelined and not prioritised,” she says.

Although Everard’s death unleashed a reaction, other women’s deaths have not. Jacobs believes the reason lies with our assumptions about how we ourselves would respond if we lived with an abuser: rightly or wrongly, we imagine we’d be able to call for help. What Everard’s disappearance brought to the fore was a fear of powerlessness: “That feeling of apprehension walking alone - there’s often not a place to go with that. It has tapped that thing of ‘I’ve always felt strongly about this but I’ve never known how to express it,’” says Jacobs.

While no-one would wish to take away from the “pain and horror” of what Everard’s family are going through, she suggests there is “an uncomfortableness” about why we have not seen a similar outcry following the deaths of some black and ethnic minority women.

So what’s the answer? Do schools need to step up more and teach boys how to avoid becoming abusers?

Jacobs points out that relationships and sex education is already mandatory in primary and secondary schools (the new curriculum was made compulsory last September) but says we should be asking how it’s actually going.

Domestic abuse helplines
Domestic abuse helplines

But the solution can’t be confined to schools, she believes – citing the Australian state of Victoria, which has a 10-year framework for prevention: “It includes schoolwork but also bystander work – what do you do if your friends are saying things that make you feel uncomfortable?”

We lack the same level of public campaigning work in Britain “because here we’ve been very focused on the funding for crisis intervention”, says Jacobs. “We never get to the really good long-term prevention, early intervention plans.” This could take place in youth clubs, places of worship and other community-based settings, she suggests.

The creation of the domestic abuse commissioner role will, it is hoped, be part of that solution – driving improvements and making recommendations on what more can be done to better protect victims and bring offenders to justice.

Jacobs’ long experience working in the sector, both in the US and UK, makes her a natural fit. She has done refuge work, run a group in a women’s prison and worked across various charities. All of which should help her grapple with various thorny issues in her new job.

How, for instance, to reconcile the needs of trans women with the concerns of those who believe refuges should be the preserve of cis women?

It’s not a hypothetical problem: in February it emerged that Brighton and Hove City Council had sidelined the independent domestic violence charity RISE due to a “women only” policy at its refuge services.

Provision must be inclusive, argues Jacobs – not only of trans women but also disabled women, migrant women, male victims, older women and others.

But, she adds: “Anything that could add some complexity to that kind of communal living has to be managed really carefully by the service. And I think we have to be very mindful of that before we criticise refuges that take a very careful and thoughtful approach to how they address these issues.”

Is it realistic to hope we might eventually see an end to domestic violence in Britain?

“I think it’s realistic in the very long term,” says Jacobs. “What’s absolutely realistic in a much shorter term is to be able to offer help and support at a much earlier stage. We could improve so much in the way we offer those routes to support and independence. I think those could be relatively short term wins if we would take a much more ambitious approach.

“We could do significantly better.”