Fiona Dwyer, the chief executive of Solace Women’s Aid, the capital’s largest provider of domestic abuse services, sounds incredulous at the inadequacy of the advice coming from the government. “Priti Patel, saying that victims of domestic abuse don’t have to stay in the house, they can just leave, shows she has no understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse, and no interest in it either,” says Dwyer.
Over the weekend, the home secretary announced a campaign of support for domestic abuse victims that involves people drawing a heart on their hand, plus £2m for the sector.
The need could not be more urgent. Since lockdown on 23 March, at least 10 women and children have been killed by men they knew. Six more killings of women in that period are yet to be confirmed as domestic homicides, though two arrests have been made and a further four men have been charged. As well as domestic homicides, Dwyer warns that “what we’re also going to see is an increase in suicides – people who really want to flee but can’t and feel they have no other choice”.
Solace’s 23 refuges across the capital are now completely full, and because nobody can move on from the 159 spaces, none of its 45 self-contained units are coming free.
So will the extra £2m from the government be enough? “For any individual charity focusing on violence against women and girls, that amount would be huge because we run things on a shoestring,” Dwyer replies. “Spread across the whole country, it’s pitiful.”
She thinks the money will mainly be spent on the national domestic abuse helpline, which refers women on to organisations like Solace to provide a roof over victims’ heads. “Regarding accommodation, we’ve sent numerous letters to various secretaries of state, including Priti Patel, and had no response to any of them,” she says.
“We welcome the inclusion of tackling perpetrators in her announcement, suggesting that they should be the ones to leave, and would like to see how the home secretary plans to put this into practice. In the meantime, we are still funding accommodation from our emergency appeal for those women and children who have managed to flee.”
Since the lockdown began, Solace has had to pay for emergency accommodation for 10 women who have fled their homes, including a heavily pregnant Muslim woman with three children who was turned away for help by a council housing department.
It wouldn’t step in because the government advice has been that nobody should move – so housing officers are interpreting that as everyone should go home, Dwyer explains. “It’s a madness, and it’s really terrifying us that we are still seeing people turned away at this time.”
All her organisation’s face-to-face support to help traumatised victims make safety plans, or organise the best way to flee, has had to go online. Unplanned spending on tablets, laptops and other communications tech for Solace’s 200 support workers to keep in touch with clients has been expensive. The charity, which has an annual income of just under £12m, is burning through money it has not budgeted for.
Solace and the Public Interest Law Centre wrote a letter last month asking the government to provide emergency funding for domestic abuse organisations during the pandemic. “Right now, we need money. If we don’t get that funding, more people will die,” she says.
This extract is taken from The Guardian - The Society Interview Tuesday 14th April 2020