Emily Menger-Davies speaks to a representative from the Women’s Equality Party about the rise of domestic abuse cases in Scotland during lockdown.
Content Warning: This article contains discussion of domestic abuse and violence
As the country goes into lockdown, there’s one simple rule: “Stay Home, Save Lives”. But what if staying at home also puts your life at risk? What happens if, during the Covid-19 outbreak, you retreat from an unsafe public space to isolate in an unsafe home and are living in lockdown with an abuser?
According to the Scottish government, over 60,600 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded by the police in the year 2018-2019 with 83% of victims being women. The Covid-19 outbreak is revealing with harsh clarity the many gaps in funding and cracks in our social care systems, but it is also shedding light on what is happening behind closed doors in our homes. Over the past few weeks, domestic abuse helplines have been experiencing an increase in calls as the lockdown has left victims locked in with their abusers. To find out more about this issue, I spoke to Ruth Wilkinson, the spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party in Scotland. The party was founded in 2015 by Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer, and one of their main objectives is to end violence against women.
GG: I’d like to hear your views on the rising number of cases of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown. This is obviously an extremely scary and very difficult issue, people who are already very vulnerable and often invisible in society are now even more so and being told to stay at home. Right now, the home is where you are supposed to be safest but what if your home environment also poses a threat?
Ruth: It is undeniable that there has been an increase in domestic violence with the lockdown. It’s happened in China, it’s happened in Spain and we’re already seeing it happen in the UK. Home is not a safe place for around 50,000 Scottish women, and the more they are stuck indoors with abusers, the more likely it is that they will be subjected to violence. Obviously, it’s not just women, but the vast majority of domestic violence is carried out by men against women and children so that’s what we’re concentrating on here. Charities dealing with domestic violence are struggling in terms of technical issues; getting the help to people who need it, having staff who are off sick is also a struggle and more funding is needed. However, the Scottish government has set aside quite a lot of extra funding for charities dealing with domestic abuse.
GG: So, do you welcome the £1.35m for Scottish Women’s Aid that was announced by Nicola Sturgeon earlier this month?
Ruth: Absolutely, yes. What we’re disappointed about is that they didn’t include Emergency Protection Orders (EPOs) in the Coronavirus Scotland Bill which is something that the Women’s Equality Party has been campaigning for. An Emergency Protection Order would give the police the powers to remove a perpetrator from a home, keeping women and children safe at home. We were also hoping for court fees for domestic abuse cases to be waived so that money is not an impediment there, and for emergency funding and accommodation to be supplied to refuge services which are under immense pressure. So, those are the three things we were particularly wanting and were disappointed that EPOs were not included in the bill, but we are glad at least that the problem is being taken seriously and that the extra funding has been forthcoming. I think it is also very important that we stress that people must know that, in spite of the lockdown, stay at home does not mean stay at home if you’re not safe there. People who are being subjected to violence are free to leave and to seek help and, if they call the police, the police will come. It is very important that the people who are trapped know that the refuges and the support services are still there and that the help is available.
GG: What would your advice be to anyone experiencing domestic abuse during lockdown? What kind of support services are available to them and what role does the internet play right now in terms of maintaining contact?
Ruth: It’s difficult because a lot of people will be finding that their normal support networks aren’t there in terms of friends and family that they might contact. However, the helplines for Glasgow Rape Crisis and Glasgow Women’s Aid are still open and being staffed [the contact details of these organisations are included at the end of this article]. The important thing to stress is that the help is there. Do reach out for it. Also, for neighbours or friends who are concerned about people, there are lots of ways to help, whether that’s phoning or texting to make sure they’re ok or phoning the police if the circumstances seem to warrant it. A big concern is if the victim’s partner has taken their phone and is limiting their access to the internet as this makes it very difficult to reach out. Women may also be particularly vulnerable for other reasons. For example, I think it’s worth mentioning that refugee women may be concerned that their immigration status might prevent them from seeking help and disabled women are particularly vulnerable as well.
GG: How do you think Scotland is placed to deal with this issue in comparison with the rest of the UK?
Ruth: I know there are efforts being made UK-wide and that MP Jess Phillips is very active in trying to get escape strategies and support services in place on a UK basis and I think I’m just very glad to see that the Scottish government does know about this and is working on it. But, as I said earlier, it is many thousands of Scottish women that are at risk and possibly more at risk from the people they live with than they are from coronavirus. So, this is an emergency.
GG: I think it’s interesting and really important that you talk about this in terms of an emergency as this is a crisis that isn’t so visible, this is much more behind closed doors and is therefore very challenging to combat.
Ruth: Absolutely, it’s shocking enough that UK-wide it’s usually around two women a week who are killed by a partner or ex-partner but, in the last fortnight, I have a nasty feeling this has reached double figures. Certainly, the rate is much higher and the rate of calls to helplines is significantly higher than they were for March 2019. It’s really happening and it’s very widespread.
GG: What do you think of the route some charities are taking, of turning hotels into women’s refuges so that they can self-isolate away from abusive partners? Have you heard of anything like this happening in Glasgow?
Ruth: I would certainly like to think that the possibility is being explored. The problem always with refuges are that they are no good unless they are properly staffed. They need the support staff there, otherwise the abusive partner is just going to find out where the woman is. Hotels are not particularly set up to be safe spaces in that way so, whilst it’s a wonderful idea to be providing spaces for women who are fleeing abusive relationships, there is a concern about the proper staffing and security of wherever they stay. But again, that needs funding and that needs staff. It always comes down to those two things, unfortunately.
GG: At the moment, I am self-isolating with someone whose work involves various chemicals, so his work made him do a risk assessment in order to work from home. This made me wonder about the risks of working from home when there is an abuser, do you think employers have a certain responsibility towards employees who are being asked to work from home to make sure that they are safe to do so?
Ruth: That’s a very good question. I guess most employers aren’t thinking on those terms at all. The assumption is that home is a safe space and they might be thinking about how practical it is if people have caring responsibilities, for example. Of course, if someone is coming to work, there is a duty of care to that person in their place of employment. At the moment, it’s difficult to know what an employer could do. If the place of work is shut, what could they do to make sure that someone working from home is safe?
GG: When we come out of this lockdown, the world is going to look very different. Are you hopeful?
Ruth: I’m so conscious that I don’t know what society is going to look like when we come out of lockdown but yes, I always want to be hopeful that things can be better. I think there’s so much disruption happening over the lockdown and certainly there will be a lot of reassessment to be done about what jobs are valued and how people are valued. I would hope that by bringing the issue of domestic violence to the fore, we make people aware of the scale of the problem because, for so many people, home is not a safe place to be. I would hope that, by having this chance to make people think hard about the reality of what staying at home means for so many people, this increases awareness and funding. This is a good chance for domestic violence charities to make their case because too often people don’t see it as urgent. For every individual person at risk, it is urgent, it is life threatening and that’s what we need to remember. Right now, refuge spaces are just as important as ventilators and ICU beds.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article or think you may know someone who has, the contact details for support services are listed below, including email addresses and web chats if phone conversations are not an option. These helplines are open and available during this difficult time. Help is still out there, so stay safe, not silent.
Glasgow Rape Crisis:
08088 00 00 14
Glasgow Women’s Aid:
0141 553 2022
You can also find a link below to the Women’s Equality Party open letter requesting the government to extend Domestic Violence Protection Orders to cover the full isolation period, if you wish to add your signature.
WEP open letter: