“It’s so strange walking into a city centre and seeing it so empty,” says India Rafiqi, a 24-year-old brand consultant from Birmingham. “Normally at protests I meet lots of new people and there’s a buzz. And I don’t feel so apprehensive about being there. But we followed social distancing measures and the cause was so worthy.”
Standing two metres from her co-protestor outside Birmingham’s empty Bullring shopping centre, Rafiqi held up a sign that read, “Home life isn’t sweet for everyone – some women need to walk”, logging the action as part of her permitted daily exercise. A few days later, in London’s Parliament Square, six more protestors, also positioned two metres apart, waved banners reading: “Fund Emergency Refuges”.
While these actions – both organised by the Some Women Need To Walk campaign – might have been tiny in person, they were backed by 78,000 online petitioners calling for the government to fund emergency accommodation for those experiencing domestic abuse during lockdown. This is what a protest movement looks like in the era of coronavirus.
Domestic abuse is rising during the pandemic, warn charities big and small – from Women’s Aid to Southall Black Sisters. Increased economic uncertainty almost always correlates with a rise in rates of domestic violence and the government’s “stay home” policy means victims have fewer ways of escaping their perpetrators, even for a short while.
Refuge has seen a 700% rise in calls to its helpline and homicide rates have risen too, suggest campaigners, who have counted 16 women and children killed in tragic incidents of suspected domestic violence.
The government has pledged to tackle the issue with an awareness campaign, using the hashtag #YouAreNotAlone, and £2m of funding to enhance online support services and helplines. Yet with official statistics showing 2.1 million victims of domestic abuse last year, the pledge equated to 95p per victim.
Recent polling by Amnesty suggests 72% of the UK public believe the government should do more to ensure all victims of domestic abuse are protected. The Labour party has called on government to do more to fund domestic violence services, including those for male and LGBTQ victims.
And as HuffPost UK reported exclusively this week, government ministers requested £70m from the Treasury to provide domestic violence services.
This money has now been pledged, as communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced when he led the daily coronavirus press conference on Saturday.
A spokesperson for Love and Power – the group behind the Some Women Need To Walk campaign – said: “The announcement is very welcome, but the devil is in the detail.
“There’s not yet any clarity on how much will help the women who need to walk - folks who need emergency accommodation to leave.
“ISVAs, helplines, phone lines are all great but for some women, those most at risk of being killed or injured, what they need is also accommodation to allow them to leave.”
Some charities have been understandably reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them – especially at a time when they are struggling to fundraise and the long-awaited Domestic Violence Bill is getting a second reading in the House of Commons.
But Love and Power had no such hesitation.
“When lockdown was announced I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread,” Martha Jephcott, the 26-year-old co-founder of Love and Power tells HuffPost UK.
She and her family suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her father. “If this had happened in my childhood, any source of stress would’ve been taken out on us, the control dynamics would’ve been worse and the abuse would’ve escalated,” she says of lockdown.
“To this day, I feel there’s very little recognition from the government that home is an incredibly dangerous and traumatising place for millions of Britons.”
“How, at a time when so many venues are empty and being offered, is there nowhere for survivors to go?”
The government has updated official lockdown guidance to clarify that “the household isolation instruction as a result of coronavirus does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse”. However, the messaging is just that, saying rather than doing the crucial work needed to combat the issue, insist Jephcott and her Love and Power co-founder Charlotte Fischer.
“Even before the coronavirus crisis, many women who tried to leave were refused from refuges because of lack of space,” Fischer, 33, explains, pointing to the hotel chains that have offered to convert into temporary refuges.
“How, at a time when so many venues are empty and being offered, is there nowhere for survivors to go? For those who need to leave, a helpline is not all they need, they also need to be able to leave.”
Jephcott and Fischer see the issue as gendered – over the past decade, 13 times more women than men have died at the hands of a partner or ex – and say their work on the protests has been informed by the Make Misogyny a Hate Crime campaign they worked on in 2016.
Joining forces with MP Stella Creasy, the campaign called for misogyny to be recorded in the same way as homophobia and racism and succeeded in getting seven police forces to record misogyny as a motivating factor in hate crime.
Fischer continues this work in her day job as a senior organiser at Citizens UK, while Jephcott, whose works in energy and climate policy for the National Grid, is training to be an independent advisor for survivors of sexual assault.
“Every organiser has to find the joy and culture of a community and channel that into public action,” says Fischer of maintaining activism when it’s hard to organise full-on protests.
“One space in the [lockdown] restrictions is that people are able to walk, which is why we’re called Some Women Need To Walk. Women protestors walk to help women who need to walk to escape an abusive relationship.”
Love and Power, which is currently awaiting charitable status, began in 2019, Fischer says, because “we were concerned with where women were going after MeToo and the Women’s March – how could we engage these women who care about women’s issues, particularly issues that affect women now?” Even in a time of social distancing, they’ve managed to key into that sentiment.
There are plans for further socially distanced protests and they are asking their online signatories to email MPs. “We so grateful for the 78,000 individuals who have supported the petition,” says Jephcott. “Now the challenge is to turn this into a force that makes MPs listen and take this seriously.”
While they welcome the government’s latest announcement, Some Women Need To Walk say they will continue to act to ensure the issue of domestic abuse is not forgotten.
As India Rafiqi in Birmingham says: “It’s monumental really, when people look back at the whole nation ‘closing down’, for there to be space for protest.”
• This story was updated on Sunday March 3 to reflect the announcement of £70m of government funding.
Websites and helplines:
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 in partnership by Women’s Aid and 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 802 0321