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“I feel guilty for not being stronger sooner. I’m exhausted and I just want a way out.”
Nicola had reached the end of her patience with her boyfriend before the coronavirus lockdown began and had made preparations to leave him.
But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the lockdown restrictions forced her to change her plans.
“I had prepared to leave my boyfriend and organised to go and stay with my mum.” she told HuffPost UK. “But then when the restriction came in, I wasn’t able to travel and with my mum’s already poor health, I couldn’t risk going there.
“I just told my mum that everything had got better with my boyfriend so that she wouldn’t worry. But it’s not true.”
In reality, Nicola, who is in her 20s and whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is living in fear at home with her boyfriend and her young daughter, desperately trying to keep safe.
I felt like I was trapped before quarantine happened, but now everything is a hundred times more intense.
Nicola, who is trapped in an abusive relationship during lockdown
“My partner is drinking a lot and his mood swings are really difficult to deal with.” she admitted. “He can’t go to work so he is at home all the time.
“He hasn’t been physically hurtful – yet – but he threatens he will sometimes and I believe him.
“Normally, I would have some time to myself during the day to look after my mental health. But now it’s constant stress for me.
“I felt like I was trapped before quarantine happened, but now everything is a hundred times more intense.
“I want to leave and go to my mum’s but I can’t cause more hurt to my family than I feel I already have from being with this person.
“I feel guilty for not being stronger sooner, even though I never asked for any of this. I’m exhausted and I just want a way out.”
Nicola’s tale depicts the plight of thousands of women across the country feared to be trapped in domestic abuse situations during lockdown.
Latest figures from domestic abuse charity Refuge show that since lockdown started, there has been a 66% rise in demand for its National Domestic Abuse Helpline, while there has been a staggering increase of more than 950% to the Refuge website.
While the government has made it clear that those suffering domestic abuse should seek help from services, and that escaping an abusive relationship is a lawful reason to leave the home, it is feared many victims are living in fear as they don’t want to worry their families at a troubling time and feel they have nowhere to go.
Campaigners’ fears centre around what will happen when lockdown is lifted as the most dangerous time for abuse victims is when they try to escape. It is then that violence increases – and for some people, it leads to death.
However, they point out that coronavirus and the lockdown or the lifting of it aren’t to blame for domestic abuse or a rise in the killing of women – but the actions of abusive and controlling men.
And they want to ensure adequate support services are available for victims all year round to make sure they are protected from potential harm.
The Counting Dead Women project, which identifies UK women killed by a man or where a man is the principal suspect, revealed to HuffPost UK that their latest figures show there were 32 suspected domestic abuse killings of females at the hands of men between March 23 – when lockdown began in the UK – and May 17.
One of the most infuriating things for an abuser is the feeling that they have lost control … so they take back control by taking their life.
Karen Ingala Smith, Counting Dead Women
Karen Ingala Smith, founder of Counting Dead Women, told HuffPost UK it is important to stress that coronavirus doesn’t cause men’s violence and hasn’t increased the number of abusive men in the world.
However, she spoke of her fears that there might be a rise in women being killed after lockdown lifts due to a sense of losing control for the abuser when the victim makes her escape.
“One of the most infuriating things for an abuser is the feeling that they have lost control.” she said. “The actual leaving of the relationship by the woman is when men realise they have lost control.
“There is a potential for an increase in killings post lockdown because of a perceived loss of control by the abusers. So they take back control by taking their life.”
Smith says around a third of women killed by their partner or ex-partner are killed after separation and that as women may be finding it harder to leave abusive men in the current circumstances, there is a real risk of an increase in intimate partner homicide as lockdown eases.
Smith is troubled by the thought of the women such as Nicola and children who are currently trapped in lockdown with their controlling abuser.
“It must be soul destroying and horrible to have your life clipped by an abuser who is controlling you.” she said. “It erodes people’s confidence and their very essence.
“Domestic abuse is always a concern and worry – not just in lockdown but all the time. However, lockdown will be making it harder for some women to get help and the controlling behaviour posed on some of them will be greater than normal.
“Lockdown is another tool for abusers and abusers will pick up any tool they can to further their agenda.”
Some women have told domestic abuse services and supporters that their relationships which weren’t particularly controlling or abusive before lockdown have escalated into unhappiness.
Anita, who lives in Birmingham and has changed her name to protect her identity, told HuffPost UK that her relationship with her husband wasn’t too bad before lockdown – but things have got a lot worse.
He is blaming it on the virus, but I think that’s just an excuse for him to control me like he always wanted to.
Anita, who is trapped in a controlling relationship with her husband during lockdown
She said: “Before lockdown, he was controlling to a certain extent, but eventually, he would back down once I managed to reassure him that I wasn’t doing anything disrespectful when he wasn’t there.
“He never really liked me going to work or going out to see my sisters because he thought I might cheat on him or talk about him behind his back.
“Since social distancing has come into practice, it’s like the controlling part of him has taken over. He won’t even let me go to the supermarket or out for a walk.
“He is blaming it on the virus, but I think that’s just an excuse for him to control me like he always wanted to.”
Anita says her husband is now saying he wants her to stay at home after lockdown ends and not return to her job even though he knows she loves what she does. “I am so frightened of what will happen when I finally tell him I don’t want to stay at home forever,” she added.
“The other day, he slammed a door on my hand when I was trying to leave to go for a walk. He apologised but it didn’t feel genuine.
“I can’t worry my family, they are already going through too much in their own lives. I feel isolated and totally alone.”
Helen Victoria, 31, who was herself in an abusive and controlling relationship between the ages of 15 and 23, is the founder of Living Liberte, a social enterprise that aims to prevent future relationship abuse by educating young people in the West Midlands about what a healthy relationship looks like and how to spot red flags of abuse.
She told HuffPost UK that during the lockdown period, she has had many enquiries from young women asking for guidance and she has been offering a free, confidential mentoring service for those in abusive situations to give then a safe space to share their experiences.
She says that since lockdown began, she has seen a spike in enquiries which shows no sign of waning.
“National lockdown has actually given us all the opportunity of insight into what it’s like to live within a controlling relationship.” she said.
“We are battling financial limitation, loss of personal empowerment and distinct uncertainty about our short and long term futures. These emotional experiences are correlative with those of being in an abusive relationship.
“Now, more than ever, we should be able to identify with the need of domestic abuse victims across our country.”
She added that while she signposts everyone she speaks to to further support from organisations that might be able to help them, she has found that most women just want to be heard and for their experiences to be validated.
Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, told HuffPost UK that those trapped in abusive situations during lockdown must be finding it increasingly difficult to cope.
“It must be tortuous for them.” she said. “Those who have been locked down with their perpetrator must be finding it incredibly hard as it will be non-stop and inescapable and it will be generating mental health issues for the future.”
She said that domestic abuse services are working and resources are available so people should seek help. However, she acknowledges that many victims are reluctant to do so as they don’t want to worry their loved ones at an already turbulent time.
“By and large, the families of those suffering abuse do not know about it as the perpetrator does his best to isolate her from her family and keep her away from them so he can block off all the escape routes.” she said.
“Many victims might feel they can’t tell people about the abuse while they are in lockdown as they feel there is nowhere for them to go.
“If there is someone in their family who is sick or vulnerable to Covid-19, they might think why pile more worry on them when they can’t come and rescue them.”
The most dangerous time for abuse victims is when they try to leave. That’s when the abuse and violence ramps up and even killings occur.
Dame Vera Baird, victims’ commissioner for England and Wales
Dame Vera says that although domestic abuse services such as Refuge have seen a huge rise in demand for support, police reports for domestic abuse have only seen a single digit rise.
She says it seems this is because victims either feel they can’t call the police in their current situation – or don’t dare contact them because they fear the repercussions.
“At the moment, victims of abuse are getting advice and support but they don’t dare to make that dramatic escape.” she said. “Police are gearing up for a spike in reports of domestic abuse when lockdown is over.”
She says it is important for resources to be in place for victims of domestic abuse when lockdown ends.
“The most dangerous time for abuse victims is when they try to leave.” she said. “That’s when the abuse and violence ramps up and even killings occur.”
If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
- The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
- In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
- In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
- In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
- Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 8024040