‘I was scared to death of my husband. Lockdown finally forced me to acknowledge it was abuse’

As a result, Refuge saw a significant increase in the number of women seeking help, with visits to the site increasing tenfold on some days. Although the charity operates 48 sanctuaries across the UK, its services are available in many forms. The toll-free national domestic violence hotline (0808 2000 247) is operated by women and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Refuge launched its live chat service on ahead of schedule to meet demand; it now runs Monday to Wednesday 3pm to 10pm. In addition, a webform is available to arrange a callback, with an agreed code word to ensure women can speak safely.

“We’ve found that not only are more women wanting to reach out, but they also want to talk to us longer — perhaps because services like GP visits, women’s groups and health visits, and friends and family aren’t as accessible,” says Charlotte, who manages an army of women who answer calls via the hotline. “Women have lost some of that personal support, and for someone with an abusive partner, increasing isolation can be very dangerous.”

Not only is domestic abuse on the rise, but trying to leave an abusive partner becomes even more difficult in a lockdown or under other animal restrictions. The hotline provides women with information on how to stay safe in their relationships.

“We offer support tailored to each situation,” says Charlotte. “This can include agreeing on a code with a friend — ‘If you get a blank message from me, I need help’ — staying away from rooms that could lock you in if an argument escalates, and empowering women , if necessary, to call the police for assistance.’

Charlotte says that the coronavirus itself has not only faced increased isolation, but has also created additional anxiety among Refuge’s customers: “Some offenders engage in risky behaviors, such as We’ve heard from women concerned about traveling during lockdown, the rules of staying with friends and family and the prospect of being fined. Some women are even reluctant to go to hospital after an attack because they don’t want to put pressure on the NHS.

“In many cases, the lockdown makes it very difficult to leave a partner,” adds Mariana*, a service manager at one of Refuge’s 48 safe houses. “Women who want to move out can’t always prepare – for example by hiding a packed bag somewhere – because their partner doesn’t leave the house. We’ve seen women forced to pretend to go to the stores and then leave with nothing.”

The risk of financial and technical abuse — when a man is withholding money or having access to a partner’s texts or emails — raises even more practical considerations. “We can’t give women our address in case they put it on Google Maps and their phone is compromised, so we have to arrange an alternative meeting point,” says Mariana. “And even then, women may not have the money for a train or bus.”

During a lockdown, women’s shelters face the added challenge of finding laptops for children to use for homework and dealing with delays in moving homes that prevent women from moving on. In cases where space is not available, shelter staff refer women to alternative sources of support, such as B. other shelters with available space or community-based services in the area.

“Escape from domestic violence is an emergency,” says Mariana. “And while we’re doing things a little differently at the moment, it’s important for women to know that we’re still there to help them.”

For some, lockdown has proven to be a trigger to leave an abusive partner. “The majority of abusers secretly abuse women over a long period of time,” says Lisa King. “Women can end up blaming themselves or making excuses for their partner’s behavior. Lockdown has amplified this behavior and given them the opportunity to identify it as domestic violence.

For Sarah, the lockdown turned out to be “a blessing and a curse” as it shed a light on her husband’s behavior that she could no longer ignore. “When lockdown came and we were locked in together, it finally forced me to acknowledge what was happening,” she says. Thanks to a Facebook ad, she found herself on the Refuge website reading a list of signs of domestic violence. “I was stunned – it was like someone had observed our relationship and written about it. It was a real aha moment where I thought, “This isn’t normal and it’s not my fault.”

Up until that moment, Sarah had assumed that domestic violence was always accompanied by physical violence. Although her husband has never hit her, she admits that sometimes she wished she had “then it would have been clear that something was wrong”. Since visiting Refuge’s website, she has filed for divorce and is moving out of the family home with her children: “I didn’t want them to think this was a normal, healthy relationship. It won’t be easy, but it would be much more difficult to stay.’

Lisa King hopes the lockdown will lead to greater awareness of the different types of abuse women can suffer, which prosecutors define as “any incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behavior, violence or abuse”.

“Everyone thinks domestic violence is physical violence, but actually it’s about any form of control,” she says. “When you change your behavior because you’re afraid of your partner’s reaction, that’s essentially domestic violence, whether it’s financial control, emotional control, isolation, you’re being prevented from doing what you want to do, or you change your appearance. It’s important that we spread this message and let women know that Refuge is there to help.”

She also hopes the lockdowns have shed a spotlight on a crisis that usually hides behind closed doors – and will encourage the public to donate to Refuge.

“The world was so small for so long,” she says. “People didn’t have much to do and they were consuming media like never before. It gave us an opportunity to talk about domestic violence and people really got a sense of what that could be like for women.

“Abused women are already living a life of lockdown – they are prevented from doing what they want, going where they want and can be isolated from friends and family. By talking about it now, you’ve given people the opportunity to follow in someone else’s footsteps.” 

Call Refuge’s 24-hour toll-free helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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