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.
The need could not be more urgent. According to the Counting Dead Women campaign, since lockdown on 23 March at least 10 women and children have been killed by men they knew. Six more killings of women by men in that period are yet to be confirmed as domestic homicides. 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.
Dwyer is trying to anticipate the level of funding needed both now but also after the crisis, when she expects services to be inundated.
“Even in the healthiest relationship, being cooped up is extra pressure. We’ve now got a situation where perpetrators may never have worked from home and end up becoming even more abusive. Then if you’ve got someone using it as an opportunity to further isolate you, saying ‘we need to self-isolate, we can’t go out’ – well, it’s really difficult. And we don’t know how long this will go on for.” Victims only have bad options, she points out. “Either you leave and become homeless, or you end up sleeping somewhere really unsafe, or you stay at home and risk your life.”
And as the risks soar for victims, so too does the pressure on staff at domestic abuse charities. They are now cleaning refuges daily but have not been able to access personal protective equipment (PPE), despite a number of suspected Covid-19 cases.
“Whole houses have had to self-isolate, but they have not been tested, despite some people being very unwell,” says Dwyer. Solace is now having to deliver food to its refuges that are in complete lockdown, and there have also been suspected Covid-19 cases among employees which, she explains, has had an impact on staffing levels and heightened the anxiety of the workforce. “We have developed a redeployment list so that staff from other services are supporting each other,” says Dwyer. “All senior managers have also volunteered themselves for the list.”
“Yes I’m really stressed, because it’s stressful,” she adds. “We have amazingly resilient staff and working through it all together has been great, but what we want is to be able to continue to support our services. That’s the biggest thing. My concern as well is for the wider sector, because we know the smaller specialist organisations will be completely drowning at the moment.”
Of course it doesn’t help that domestic violence services have been slashed since 2010 .
Although the domestic violence bill introduced by Theresa May’s government is seen as a big step forward, it looks unlikely to be passed any time soon – and none of the £16.6m pledged by the government earlier this year to help fund domestic abuse refuges has yet reached those providing services. And while Dwyer welcomes the creation of the first domestic violence commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, she says on its own it’s not enough.
She insists that the government and society need to take domestic abuse more seriously. “It’s become normalised for a lot of people, it’s become seen as inevitable,” says Dwyer. “But it’s not.”
Lives North London
Education St Gerard’s school, Bray, Co Wicklow; Trinity College Dublin (Spanish, economics and Portuguese BA); University College Dublin (MSc, international development education); University of London, UCL and Queen Mary (LLM, public international law, and higher diploma, human rights law); Cranfield University (studying for MBA)
Career 2019-present: chief executive, Solace Women’s Aid; 2016-19: strategic lead for violence against women and girls, Haringey council; 2012-16: violence against women and girls strategy manager, Tower Hamlets council; 2008-12: national children and young people manager, Women’s Aid Federation of England; 2007-08: programme manager, All Ireland Programme for Immigrant Parents, Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC); 2002-07: various roles across international development and human rights, focusing on human rights defenders, rights of women and the rights of children, in Mexico, Peru, Switzerland and Dublin.
Interests Brewing, cooking, travel and social justice.
24hr National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247
Solace Advice helpline: 0808 802 5565 (London). Monday to Friday 10am-4pm. Additionally, 6pm-8pm on Tuesdays.
If you are in immediate danger, call 999