The BBC journalist talks exclusively to Stylist about her Panorama investigation into the effect of lockdown on domestic abuse victims. Trigger warning: there are descriptions of sexual and physical abuse.
Since lockdown began on March 23, at least 30 women and 10 men are thought to have been killed by a partner, ex-partner or family member.
This is one of the most disturbing statistics revealed in Panorama which airs on Monday night at 7.30pm on BBC One. Presented by BBC journalist Victoria Derbyshire, this is the first study (by charity Women’s Aid) into the impact that lockdown has had on people enduring domestic abuse.
The programme also reveals that almost two thirds of those in an abusive relationship said the violence had got worse as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. And over three quarters of them said it had made it harder for them to escape their abuser.
The investigation could not be more urgent as we also await the passing of the domestic abuse bill and the recent news that the number of rape convictions in England and Wales has fallen to a record low despite the 260% rise in reports to the police.
Why was this such an important issue for you to highlight, Victoria?
Two to three weeks into lockdown domestic abuse shelters were recording massive surges in calls and contacts. Domestic abuse never goes away, but the fact that it was surging was alarming, to say the least.
I care about this issue for many reasons. As a kid I grew up with a violent father until I was 16. I know what it can feel like. When I was growing up, sometimes I could get out of the house: I could go to school. I could play outside. In lockdown, whether you’re a kid or the partner of a violent individual, you couldn’t. So I thought what has been going on? We need to find out otherwise no one will know.
What were some of the most shocking things you discovered while making this?
There’s a number of things. The fact that almost two thirds of women living with an abusive partner said the violence got worse under lockdown is horrifying. The violence is already bad, but the fact that it got worse… I went to meet a woman, Jess*, in a refuge, who had managed to escape. She was watching Boris Johnson announce lockdown with her husband Peter. She’d been with him for twenty years and he’d been violent throughout that time. He turns to her and says: “Let the games begin”. That is just horrific. It makes your skin go cold, doesn’t it?
He proceeded to rape her over 100 times, she said, in a period of four to five days. He was gloating about lockdown he said: ‘If I killed you know no one would know’. That’s what we discover in this programme: that the intensity of the violence, torture and control got worse. The brutality was even more severe.
What was Jess’ state of mind when you met her?
She was really really upset. What she had experienced was utterly traumatising. The reason that she risked her life to contact the police was because he’d said to her a few weeks into lockdown: ‘Today is going to be the last day you’re going to see daylight.’
He didn’t allow her to be in a room alone so she had to wait until he fell asleep on the sofa. Then she googled ‘how to contact police without calling’ and found out that you could register using text message and you get a response and can send your address. It’s a lifesaver for somebody like Jess. Within minutes, the police arrived at her house and had taken him to the police station. She wanted to talk to Panorama because she said: ‘If I can help save one woman’s life then what I’ve been through, it’s worth it.’
There’s a moment where you’re interviewing a group of women at a refuge and out of five, three of them said they thought they’d be dead by now had they not escaped…
One woman was kidnapped by her own partner in lockdown. He wouldn’t allow her to go out at all, she was kept in that house against her will. And by eventually texting friends and family to rescue her she escaped. She was traumatized, they all were. The support they got from staff, and fellow survivors, was really important.
Was it a common experience that lockdown has exacerbated people’s experience of abuse?
Yes. Another woman, Alex*, said: ‘It was like he didn’t have to hide anything now, because who was going to know?’ According to some of the exclusive data for Panorama, many said that the pandemic was used as another form of control. ‘You can’t go out now: the government says we can’t go out’. So as Alex said, and as Jess experienced, they can pretty much do what they want.
The documentary shows that despite the best efforts of the people working for the refuges and charities, there is a lack of beds and funding, which has got worse because of lockdown. Was that shocking?
Absolutely. I understand why there’s a massive pressure on refuges. Staff are working from home, there’s a surge in calls, fewer people are able to be in a refuge. And there’s massive financial pressures. What Fiona O’Dwyer, the Chief Executive of Solace Women’s Aid [London’s s largest provider of domestic abuse services] asked was why couldn’t they treat domestic abuse victims like they did homeless people? A few days before lockdown, a government edict had gone out saying we need we need to help homeless people off the streets because it’s dangerous.
Not one person we interviewed said they’d seen any evidence that the government had considered the impact of lockdown on domestic abuse. Fiona said they were slow and their inaction to respond made what was an incredibly challenging period even more challenging.
Why does she believe the government was slow to act?
She said, ‘The cabinet seems to be full of white privileged men. Perhaps it’s not an issue for them.’ The safeguarding minister [Victoria Atkins, MP] who I interviewed denied that they were slow to respond and that there was government inaction. She said: ‘We were alive to the risks of domestic abuse. We were very conscious of it, which is why we were talking to charities from the get go.’ And that may be true. But it took ninenteen days after lockdown was announced before the Home Secretary appeared at a Downing Street briefing, addressed the issue of domestic abuse and announced the £2million pounds for helplines and the social media campaign.
Why is funding and action so important?
Because it can help save lives. If there are enough refuge spaces available, then women– and men – are able to get out of their home and find safe accommodation. Because it can help protect kids because it can help stop the beatings, stop the control. There has to be sustainable funding.
What was the feeling you were left with after making this episode of Panorama?
Over the years I’ve interviewed, it must be, hundreds of people about domestic violence. I’ve experienced it myself. I have never heard stories like the ones I’ve been told during this period. The brutality has shocked me.
The other emotion was: Come on people in public life. We’ve got to do something. You did do something, it took some time, now let’s sort it forever. We may potentially be heading to another spike in winter. We know what’s going to happen, so let’s not make it so that organizations that help victims have to push and struggle. Let’s give them the money.
Many people will want to know what they can do to help those in need?
There are many things people can do: being alert to what might be happening to a family member or neighbour. If you feel worried, do something. You can contact your MP if this is an issue that you care about, and say that now is the time for statutory funding.
And if you can, support the charities that provide these services. Like Sistah Space, a small charity for African heritage domestic abuse survivors in Hackney. Or Llamau in Wales. I’ve been there a couple of times: it was safe, it was bright, it was loving, There’s lessons for the women who go there to improve their self-esteem and to help them understand what domestic abuse is. Sometimes women arrive in a refuge and say: ‘My relationship wasn’t as bad as yours.’ It’s all domestic abuse. There’s different forms.
Anyone can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 200024, or on 0800 027 1234 in Scotland. Or via nationaldahelpline.org.uk.
You can find out more about the work Llamau does here.
Panorama: Escaping My Abuser is on BBC One on Monday 17 August, 7.30pm
*Names have been changed to protect identities.