Edinburgh Women’s Aid
Katharina Heisig (co-editor WomenBeing Mag), interviewed Linda Rodgers, CEO of Edinburgh Women’s Aid, an organisation which provides support and advocacy services to women, children and young people affected by domestic abuse.
Since the social distancing measures have been implemented, domestic abuse helplines have seen a significant increase in calls and online requests for help. How does violence against women escalate in times of crises, is the number of those affected increasing or does it get worse for those who are already exposed to it?
I think the data for the increase came from Refuge, the charity that operates the helpline for England. Speaking to the Scottish National Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline and from our own experience, I would say that this isn’t what we’re seeing in Scotland, more worryingly, I would say that we’ve seen a drop in new referrals coming in. We have seen an increase in agencies contacting us looking for support to work with women and children that they are concerned about and looking for us to share our expertise. The reality is that for women and children who are living with an abuser, lockdown makes it that much harder for them to reach out. We are really concerned for those whose small breaks from control were crucial to their survival. For example, going to the shops, when the perpetrator was out at work, when they went to appointments, taking the kids to school. All of those opportunities to step away for a minute or two have gone.
I suspect that domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily increase as a result of the lockdown – in terms of the numbers of women and children exposed to, but I am concerned that the risks to women and children from perpetrators increases. We’ve seen Karen Ingala Smith from ‘counting dead women’ stating that 16 women have been murdered by their partners or ex-partners between 23 March and 12 April. This is significantly higher than normal. Domestic abuse – as coercive control – involves the micromanagement of women’s and children’s lives with rules which, if broken are punished with violence or the believable threat of violence. The level at which someone can be micromanaged, if they are in the vicinity of the abuser 24/7 is increased, and the likelihood of a perceived infraction of the rules is also going to be increased. Many women speak to us of walking on egg-shells, of the rules shifting and changing all the time so that they don’t know what they are going to do wrong, only that it will be ‘wrong’, far too many women tell us that they thought he would kill them. Living in close proximity to that abuse under lockdown must be terrifying.
Why is it more difficult for victims to reach out for help during lockdown?
It’s never easy for survivors of domestic abuse to reach out for help. They will have been told by the abuser that it’s their fault. Non-specialist services that they come into contact with will have told them, intentionally or unintentionally that it’s their fault. And there is a good chance that the abuser is the perfect partner/father/family man/provider and the reality of living with abuse has impacted on the woman’s confidence, self-esteem and mental health. The women we work with are amazing and strong. Every woman we work with will have managed their situation and will have managed their own safety and the safety of their children in an impossible situation.
However, this lockdown will make it harder for women to come forward, because the monitoring of their movements will increase under lockdown – the small gaps and spaces for action will be all but closed to them.
We are seeing perpetrators of abuse, using COVID19 and the lockdown to abuse in different ways. (I’m always cautious about giving examples in the media – abusers read the media too, if a woman is using social media, her abusive partner will be using the same social media. If we give examples of the tactics abusers use, other perpetrators will use that to abuse.)
Since face-to-face meetings are no longer possible, what alternative services do you provide to support victims and how are you trying to minimise the risk for those who reach out?
We had a pandemic action plan so our amazing team here at EWA moved seamlessly from providing face to face services to telephone and online modes of support. We contacted all the women and children we support to explain to them what the support they would be receiving would look like under the lockdown.
As soon as we saw the way that the world was going we arranged meetings with all of the women in our refuges to explain to them what might happen. Our refuges are shared spaces, so this meant that we had to explain to women that they would be considered a single household and what this would mean for them if someone in the house had to self-isolate.
We had plans for ensuring that if we had spaces in refuge that we would still be able to admit new women while meeting social distancing criteria.
We recognised that if women weren’t able to make contact with us, the police might be the first agency to engage with them. So as soon as the lockdown started we worked with the police to develop an emergency admission process so that we can admit to refuge at any time day or night if the police become aware of a woman / woman and children at risk.
Edinburgh Women’s Aid co-ordinates the MARAC in Edinburgh (a meeting to increase the safety of victims at high risk of murder or serious harm). We realised that it might not be easy for agencies to conduct risk assessments and of the key role of the police as first responders. We’ve included an additional criteria which takes into account if victims are unable to engage with other agencies so that we are not missing out on women at high risk just because we don’t have a risk assessment for them.
We are teleconferencing regularly with a variety of agencies that come into contact with women and children affected by domestic abuse so that we can minimise any service generated risks and plan how best to support them to safely confide and be directed to specialist services. We are lucky that our partners in Edinburgh – the local authority, Police Scotland Domestic Abuse Investigation Unit and NHS Lothian Gender-Based Violence Services – are all committed to working together to increase women’s safety.
Police Scotland have distributed posters about what to do if you are affected by DA to every supermarket and pharmacy in Edinburgh. We are aware that some supermarkets and pharmacies are only allowing one member of a household in at a time, this might give women a space to make contact with us. We are working with NHS, local BME women’s organisations (Shakti and Saheliya) and the local authority to ensure that the information is available in community languages. We are working with the local authority to ensure that their resilience centres have spaces where disclosures can be made safely and training has been provided on what to do if someone discloses, how to support their safety and signposting.
The government has increased the support and the funds for charities and domestic abuse services will receive an extra £2m. Will that be enough for you to adapt to the circumstances and provide the support needed?
My main concern is what is going to happen when the restrictions begin to be lifted. I think that our services could easily be overwhelmed by the numbers of women and children seeking support at that time. We know that leaving is the most dangerous time for women – most women murdered by partners or ex-partners are killed when they are trying to leave. Therefore I think there will be a high point of danger as women take the opportunity to leave when the restrictions are lifted.
People are speaking about the potential for PTSD as a result of the lockdown in general. I think the mental health impact of having been locked in with an abuser for weeks or months will be tremendous and we need to have the services in place to deal with this.
It feels at the moment, that rightly, the funding and activity focus is on what we need now, but I think as a frontline specialist service, we need to be given the space to work out what we are going to need when…
Finances are going to be needed at that point and not just for one-off payments such as computers and wifi, but for long term additional staffing resources to ensure that all women who need our services are able to access them.
How has the financial struggle of potential donors affected your capacities?
It has been inspiring how amazing people have been during this crisis. At a time when we would expect people to be thinking about themselves, their own struggles, their own families we have been blown away that so many are also thinking of the women and children we support and making donations to us. It’s a real testimony to humanity – each individual who has donated money to us, each student taking part in a fundraiser, each worker who has donated an Easter egg, each small business who has donated some of their stock and all of this at a time when there is so much uncertainty in their own lives. I honestly tear up every time I think about it. It feels like it’s those in society with the least to give and the most to lose that are thinking about the women and children in our services just now and I’m just so grateful.
We have seen requests for foodbank and supermarket vouchers for basic food items increase significantly since the lockdown. Women are experiencing poverty as a result of losing jobs and income as a result of the lockdown and are having difficulty accessing benefits. Compared to the same period last year we have provided more than double the amount of vouchers to women. A significant portion of the amount raised by individuals will be spend on supermarket vouchers.
We are really lucky that our main funders – the Scottish Government, City of Edinburgh Council, Robertson Trust, Children in Need, RSMacdonald, State Street Bank have all been really understanding about the changes we’ve needed to make to the way in which we deliver our projects.
Going forward, obviously, the uncertainty of the financial markets may have an impact on how much major funders have to give, and that’s something we are thinking about now.
What can we do when we suspect someone might be a victim of domestic abuse?
If you are worried about someone who you think may be being abused or is in a toxic relationship, pick up the phone to us 0131 315 8110 or the 24hr Scottish Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline – 0800 027 1234 which also has a webchat on their website sdafmh.org.uk.
We can help you to work out what to do.
Domestic abusers rely on isolating their victims. Reassure your friend or family member that you are there for them and that you’re not going anywhere. Reassure them that they don’t deserve to be treated this way. Understand that they are the expert in their own safety, they may make choices that you don’t understand, but be there for them. Remember, leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous, choosing to say is sometimes the safest option. Reassure them that there are services like Edinburgh Women’s Aid that are there for them, that will believe them and respect their choices.
Where and how do you reach out to the public to raise awareness for this pressing issue?
There are posters with the national helpline number on them in every supermarket and pharmacy
We are online at www.edinwomensaid.co.uk
We are on Facebook – Edinburgh Women’s Aid
We are on twitter @edinwomensaid
We are on Instagram “edinbwa”
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