Sabia Kamali reports on the rise in abuse against women during coronavirus and the Sisters Forum support initiative

The term “domestic violence” was first used in a modern context, meaning violence in the home. While domestic violence affects both men and women, women comprise the overwhelming majority of victim-survivors worldwide. Many advances have been made in recognising the problem and to tailor help towards victims, the most recent legislation being The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. 

According to the Office of National Statistics, murders related to domestic violence are at a five-year high. The majority of victims are women and the majority of suspects are men. 

On average, two women are murdered every week, and 30 men are murdered every year, due to domestic violence. Sixteen per cent of violent crime is domestic abuse, though domestic abuse is least likely to be reported to the police. There are more repeat victims of domestic abuse than repeat victims of any other crime. On average, domestic abuse victims will have been assaulted 68 times before reporting it to the police. Domestic abuse is the single most quoted reason a person becomes homeless.

However, the last decade has seen a decrease in services and provision for victims of domestic violence.  Government cuts to funding for women’s refuges make it harder for women and children to escape domestic violence, with 2,000 women a year affected. Sixty per cent of referrals to refuges were turned away in 2016-17, with additional funding cuts making the situation worse. Data from 144 out of 210 UK councils contacted reveals that council funding for women’s refuges overall fell by 6% over the five years to 2018.

It is in this context of funding cuts that the Sisters Forum was established in East London, with a general focus on women’s empowerment and a particular focus on supporting the victims of domestic violence. As public services were reduced, we saw an increase in the demand for our services. 

Coronavirus has been a challenge for the Sisters Forum and the women we work with. The women, many from BAME backgrounds, are victims of a range of domestic violence, from verbal and emotional to physical abuse. Most of these women are hampered from seeking external help from agencies by the stigma attached to being a single mother or a divorcee. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has resulted in increased stress levels at home, victims being forced to spend prolonged periods with their perpetrators, and limited access to support services – all contributing to the increased vulnerabilities victim-survivors face. 

Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic violence charity, reported a 700% increase in calls in a single day under lockdown. This is just the tip of the iceberg as it does not take into account the unreported cases. Many victims are petrified to make a complaint under the circumstances, or fear the effect on children in those households. Whilst the government has acknowledged the increase in domestic abuse, little attention has been given to women in BAME communities who suffer in silence.

With a Government and public institutions unwilling to recognise or meet the growing need of these women and their families, the Sisters Forum decided to step up and help. At the beginning it was really difficult for us to tell the difference between those who were self-isolated and those who had been cut off due to violence. It was hard to intervene as we had very little access to women, complicated by the restrictions of trying to provide a remote service on the phone as the abuser can always listen in to any conversations. 

As a solution we put a message – by word-of-mouth and through social media – to the wider community to help to identify victims, encouraging everyone to speak to their neighbour, friends or family members. 

In addition, we provided a service, with volunteers, through cooking warm food and dropping off shopping to make sure these women were safe. We came across horrific incidents of women suffering marital rape, and treated as objects, solely to fulfil sexual desire. Living in constant fear, the mental health of many victims had deteriorated over the lockdown. 

The Government has made much fanfare over the plight of domestic violence victims in Covid-19, with the Hidden Harms Summit in Downing Street, but nothing yet has happened in terms of additional practical help. This ‘do as I say not as I do’ approach is seen pre-coronavirus with the Government’s attitude to the proposed new Domestic Violence Bill, announced with fanfare but, on inspection, vital protection to victims is missing from the proposed legislation. 

The political will to tackle domestic violence is the bellwether on societal and Governmental attitudes towards gender equality. As the journalist and social commentator Aysha Taryam, said: “If we are to fight discrimination and injustice against women we must start from the home, for if a woman cannot be safe in her own house then she cannot be expected to feel safe anywhere.”

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