The government’s latest coronavirus measures are designed to keep people safe by keeping them at home. But for the 1.6 million women who experience domestic violence every year in England and Wales, these restrictions may put them in even greater danger. That is why the Women’s Equality Party is calling for emergency measures to protect all domestic violence victims and their children, including evicting perpetrators from the family home for the duration of the lockdown.
Many will have been dreading last night’s announcement from the prime minister that everyone should stay home except in a small range of very limited circumstances. Being trapped with a violent partner creates new opportunities for abuse, such as withholding medical support or money, and takes away any freedoms that victims have preserved, including alone time, financial independence through employment and contact with friends and family. Those freedoms are not only respite from the violence, but a chance to seek help out of earshot. That help might seem even more distant when emergency services are consumed with dealing with another life-threatening epidemic.
Yet from a charity in Hubei to a domestic violence hotline in Oregon, all reports suggest that social distancing and lockdown measures result in an upturn in cases of domestic violence. We have to act now to prevent the same thing from happening in the UK.
Being trapped with a violent partner creates new opportunities for abuse, and takes away any freedoms that victims have preserved.
It is already the law that police can remove perpetrators from the home for up to 28 days without charge, if they consider the victim to be in danger. This is vital in England because, unlike Scotland and Wales, those fleeing violence do not have a legal right to accommodation and refuges have been decimated by cuts to the point that they are having to turn women away. Domestic Violence Protection Orders (DVPOs) at least give victims the breathing space to make decisions about how best to protect themselves, away from the immediate threat of violence. We are calling for that to be extended to cover the whole period that people are forced to stay at home.
But we also need to make sure that police forces are able to use this tool effectively, which is not currently the case in every part of the UK. A recent report by Victim Support found that some areas of the UK are failing to enforce DVPOs because of the cost, administrative burden and lack of awareness. That is why I am calling for the court fees that police forces are required to pay out of their own budget to be waived during this time, and for cases to be prioritised in court and delegated to trained magistrates as justice services are scaled back.
None of this can replace the highly-skilled work of specialist organisations that help victims and their families rebuild their lives. Those frontline organisations are going to be under immense pressure during this crisis and must be recognised and supported as key workers, just as with NHS staff. Many of them are having to think about how they continue to provide services, what services they can deliver remotely via online platforms, and how they will cope with the increase in demand when they can barely cope with current demand.
The government must release emergency funding without delay to enable those organisations to plug the gaps in whatever ways they see fit, and it should make sure that wherever DVPOs are enforced women are connected to those services.
We are living in extraordinary times, but we have also seen the extraordinary measures that can be taken when the political will exists. Instead of simply accepting that domestic violence will increase in this time, let us choose to do something about it — something that is well within our reach.
Mandu Reid is leader of the Women’s Equality Party.