Covid-19 has upended everything. Domestic abuse is a major social problem at any time. But during a pandemic that restricts people’s capacity to leave the home, vulnerability to abuse is intensified and the provision of support for victims becomes even more challenging.

SafeLives staff and Pioneers with SafeLives Patron HRH The Duchess of Cornwall

One of our Pioneers explains how survivors of abuse “should feed into decisions because they are the experts by experience… by gathering the experience of survivors and understanding their reality an appropriate and realistic response can be formulated.”

SafeLives is a UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, for everyone and for good. We work with organisations across the UK to transform the response to domestic abuse. We want what you would want for your best friend. We listen to survivors, putting their voices at the heart of our thinking. We look at the whole picture for each individual and family to get the right help at the right time to make families everywhere safe and well. And we challenge perpetrators to change, asking ‘why doesn’t he stop?’ rather than ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ This applies whatever the gender of the victim or perpetrator and whatever the nature of their relationship. 

To realise these ambitions, we work directly with the SafeLives Pioneers (a name they adopted themselves) – a group of survivors who have come together to use their experience and passion to change the world. Their personal experiences and insights inform everything we do and together we aim to transform the response to domestic abuse in the UK. 

One of our Pioneers explains how survivors of abuse “should feed into decisions because they are the experts by experience… by gathering the experience of survivors and understanding their reality an appropriate and realistic response can be formulated.”

Another adds: “Sadly, inter-agency partnership doesn’t always work as it should, and the impact and consequences these failures have on the lives of those victims during their most vulnerable time can have long-term and devastating consequences.  Only those with lived experience are able to provide that much needed first-hand knowledge of what it is like from a victim’s perspective when things aren’t necessarily working as they should.”

Survivors tell us that almost two thirds have not asked for help since Covid-19 restrictions, most commonly because they were finding it difficult to reach out for support as a result of lockdown restrictions or felt let down previously by professionals.

When Covid-19 hit, we quickly identified the increased risks and focused on three priorities: keeping individuals and families safe during increased isolation, supporting staff and frontline practitioners, and ensuring the sustainability of specialist domestic abuse services.

From the start of lockdown, we established rolling surveys to hear directly from survivors and frontline services about the challenges they were facing and the support they needed. 

Survivors tell us that almost two thirds have not asked for help since Covid-19 restrictions, most commonly because they were finding it difficult to reach out for support as a result of lockdown restrictions or felt let down previously by professionals. Three quarters have concerns about their mental health and over a half, concerns around finances or fears for the safety of their children. 

Specialist domestic abuse services have told us about their escalation in caseloads, most caused by an increase in clients being referred, but also because of staff absences. One in ten believe they had unsafe staffing levels; over a third that their ability to deliver a safe service has been compromised.

Drawing on these findings, we have worked with survivors to shape services that recognise the additional challenges that Covid-19 generates. One Pioneer highlights the “incredible opportunity of being invited to speak at the ‘Hidden Harms Summit 2020’ hosted by the Prime Minister. I spoke alongside an IDVA [Independent Domestic Violence Advocate] explaining how vital the role of an IDVA is. Within days the Ministry of Justice announced that IDVAs would have immediate access to court listings which they had been fighting for, for months. A real win!”

SafeLives will continue to work to ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are heard, during the pandemic and beyond. We need to respond to their insights if we are to end domestic abuse.

Another speaks of the importance of the surveys and interviews that have informed their work within the police and SafeLives. “The result was ‘Ask for ANI’ which felt impactful and proactive”. Ask for ANI (pronounced Annie), a codeword scheme rolled out by the Home Office into pharmacies in 2021. It enables anyone experiencing abuse to indicate the need for emergency police response or help to find support. ANI stands for “Action Needed Immediately”.

These are just two examples of the ways in which the powerful insights of survivors have been brought to bear on decision making during the pandemic. Their perspectives have informed other actions, including the regular Covid-19 calls hosted by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the Ministry of Justice; the successful lobbying alongside sector partners that led to emergency funding from government; ensuring schools are a safe place for frontline providers to deliver work with children and young people; and conducting risk assessments for reopening community-based services. 

SafeLives will continue to work to ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are heard, during the pandemic and beyond. We need to respond to their insights if we are to end domestic abuse. As one our Pioneers stresses: “Those with lived experience should be at the heart and centre of all decision-making processes, both at national and local levels. They should be consulted at the very beginning and have continued input throughout the entire process. Their powerful voices should be heard and listened to”. Another makes the simple observation: “We know the reality as we have been or are living it.”

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Martha Tomlinson has been a Research Manager at SafeLives since June 2018 after originally joining as Senior Research Analyst a year previously.