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Fionola Meredith

One unintended consequence of the lockdown: a dramatic surge in incidents of domestic abuse

Fionola Meredith


With families cooped up indoors, urgent support must be given to victims of violence in the home

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Lockdown has put many women in harm's way with calls to a charity spiking last week

Lockdown has put many women in harm's way with calls to a charity spiking last week

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lockdown has put many women in harm's way with calls to a charity spiking last week

Every action has its consequence. The coronavirus lockdown is an act of unprecedented public restriction, on an unparalleled scale. The government's scientists say it is absolutely necessary in order to save lives, and to avoid the NHS collapsing under the strain of too many seriously ill patients.

But the consequences of this vast social experiment - for people's lives, their livelihoods, their liberty, their mental and physical health - are enormous, and radically unpredictable.

The aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic will reverberate around the globe for many, many years to come. The world we return to, once we are finally released from our homes, will be a very different one.

One group of people that I'm particularly concerned about, right now, are the women - and a smaller number of men - who suffer as a result of domestic violence.

Many people are chafing uncomfortably under the rules which confine us indoors for most of the day. Those of us who haven't come down with corona fever are certainly feeling the effects of cabin fever: the sense of restlessness, irritability and claustrophobia which results from being cooped up for hours on end.

The impending crisis is acute in Northern Ireland, where the domestic abuse statistics are already an absolute obscenity, an appalling stain on our collective conscience

But how infinitely, unimaginably, worse must it be if you are effectively imprisoned alongside your abuser?

That is the current fate of huge numbers of women.

Calls to the UK national abuse hotline went up by 65% last weekend. A letter has been sent to the government, signed by 30 civil society organisations and lawyers, warning that the lockdown will increase rates of domestic violence. Nicole Jacobs, the UK's domestic abuse commissioner, says that charities who provide lifeline services to victims of violence in the home need urgent financial support.

The impending crisis is acute in Northern Ireland, where the domestic abuse statistics are already an absolute obscenity, an appalling stain on our collective conscience.

Latest police figures show that in 2019 there were 31,705 incidents, a rise of 399 (1.3%) on the previous year and one of the highest recorded levels since 2004. The number of crimes with a domestic abuse motivation shot up to 18,033, an increase of 2,322, or 14.8%.

Women's Aid NI says it is bracing itself for a surge in victims, and has urged Stormont ministers to provide a guaranteed commitment to increase resources. The PSNI, too, says it is preparing to deal with a rise in cases as homes are put under strain by the restrictions on movement.

Priti Patel, the UK home secretary, has stated that domestic abuse victims are permitted to leave home to seek help at refuges, acknowledging that being instructed to stay indoors is more difficult for people whose "home is not the safe haven it should be". She had a message for abusers too, telling them: "You will not get away with your crimes."

Those of us who have never been victims of domestic abuse can have little idea of the way it can ruin a person, leaving them a traumatised shadow of their former selves

But reassuring abused women that the cops won't stop them if they flee their homes in terror, is not enough, nowhere near enough.

Other countries are already taking decisive action.

Following an enormous spike in France - officials say that domestic abuse reports have leapt by about one-third, since restrictions were imposed on March 17 - the French authorities are housing women who have been beaten by their partners in hotels. A secret code word has been introduced, which allows victims to seek help privately in pharmacies across the nation.

We need similar creative thinking, substantial funding and special measures, enacted without delay, in order to protect the vulnerable. This includes the children whose young lives are maimed by the fear and horror of seeing their mother brutally attacked by their father. With schools closed, their exposure increases.

Even when the victim escapes, the horrific after-effects can remain, in the form of intense flashbacks, and a sense of being continually on edge

Those of us who have never been victims of domestic abuse can have little idea of the way it can ruin a person, leaving them a traumatised shadow of their former selves.

Even when the victim escapes, the horrific after-effects can remain, in the form of intense flashbacks, and a sense of being continually on edge.

I will never forget speaking to a local woman who told me what it was like to suffer such soul-shattering abuse. "I was wiped out as an individual," Jane (not her real name) said. "I thought I was going to die. Near the end, I thought the only way out is when he kills me."

Right now, it feels as if the only thing happening in the world is the coronavirus pandemic.

But behind the closed doors of this government-enforced lockdown, tempers are rising. Fists are flying. Children are weeping. There is more than one way for a life to be destroyed.

Belfast Telegraph