Long Reads

Essential advice for anyone worried about being isolated while in a toxic relationship

At least 15 women’s anti-violence groups have signed a letter calling on the government to provide emergency funding for women’s refuges. If the coronavirus pandemic means you’re worried about self-isolating with a partner, or you’re concerned for someone you think might be at risk, we’ve spoken to experts and charities about the best way to seek advice and support.

Entire countries, including the UK, are in lockdown. New York’s Broadway, where the show has indeed gone on for decades, is dark. Major events, from Coachella to the Premier League, have been postponed.

The World Health Organisation has officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic, and it continues to dominate the headlines while normality grinds to a halt. And with the UK now well into lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation has become a necessary part of our daily lives. 

Prime minister Boris Johnson declared that we should all avoid unnecessary contact with others in order to try and slow the spread of the virus.

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Last month, MP Jess Phillips expressed concern about self-isolation on Twitter, writing, ‘Thinking of all the women working and living in a refuge at this time and those who will be terrified of the idea of social distancing that will keep them at home.’ 

Jess is right. What happens now to people in abusive relationships? How can they stay safe when confined to the one place they fear most – their own homes? 

Also in March, UN Women UK Executive Director, Claire Barnett, issued a statement that said: “We need to be conscious of the impact of people’s freedom being restricted on their safety. Women who are living in an abusive relationship could lose both their emotional lifeline and their financial independence during self-isolation – which can be very dangerous.

“Public services are going to be increasingly stretched beyond their means, so there is a role for us all to play in reducing the impact of social distancing, reaching out with emotional and practical support, and acting fast if we see or hear signs of abuse happening. This must be done sensitively and under the right guidance to ensure proper care is taken. It will be important to use technology to provide a lifeline to the vulnerable. In the Sustainable Development Goals we talk about leaving no one behind - ensuring that we’re supporting the vulnerable to have equal access to safety, health and freedom - and this is particularly important at difficult times such as this.

“UN Women UK is setting up an ‘Everyday Allyship’ platform, where we can share practical tips on reaching the most vulnerable, as well as staying in touch with a positive community of experts who understand the issue. Get in touch to be a part of this – it is more important than ever that we provide a lifeline, and information about access to critical services, to vulnerable women and girls.”

If someone is unable to seek face-to-face help, then having support in the digital world is crucial, says Hera Hussein, founder of CHAYN – a global network that helps abuse survivors access free online resources on everything from mental wellbeing to law and finance.

To help those at home feel less isolated, and less afraid, CHAYN’s team of volunteers – many of whom are survivors themselves – will be sharing daily tools, tips and supportive words via a webchat. 

“Self-isolation is going to put more people who are in an abusive home at risk."

Hussein said: “Self-isolation is going to put more people who are in an abusive home at risk. We know that stress of any kind – including financial – can act as a trigger for violence and coercion.

“CHAYN has been providing online support for seven years to encourage survivors to make informed decisions, and compliment in-person services, such as shelters. This is all the more important right now. We’re seeing an increase in demand for our resources now that more people are getting anxious.

“We’re going to be running an online support group, and increasing content on our chatbot so it can direct survivors to resources and online courses to educate survivors on collecting evidence and staying safe from surveillance.”

What should the government be doing to help women and children in abusive relationships?

Echoing Hussein’s concerns, women’s charity Women’s Aid is urging the government to ensure life-saving services such as refuges can cope during this time.

A spokesperson told Stylist: “Coronavirus will impact the most vulnerable in our communities. Self-isolation could make it more difficult for women to access support and safety. It may be harder for them to find time away from the perpetrator to seek help, and to practically access public spaces that often serve as access points for support, such as GPs or schools.

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“Life-saving refuge services, which are often communal forms of accommodation, will already be preparing for women and children contracting the virus whilst living there – potentially by making arrangements for them to self-isolate from other residents. However, refuges will face challenges in staffing and funding on top of the existing pressures they are already coping with daily.

“We urge national and local government to take swift action to ensure that all survivors are supported to find suitable, safe, self-contained accommodation where they can self-isolate if needed, and include specialist refuge and community-based services in contingency planning to ensure they can continue to deliver life-saving support.”

What support can you access if you are isolated with an abuser?

Showing solidarity, Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of charity Refuge, has reassured women that the Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline is still operating.

She told Stylist: “An estimated 1.6 million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse last year. To put it simply, home is not a safe place for these abused women, or their children.

“Refuge is always concerned for the safety of survivors experiencing domestic abuse during any period of isolation with their perpetrators.

“We want to reassure women that the Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline is still operating 24 hours a day, and confidential support is available if they need it. If it isn’t safe to call, women can access the Helpline’s web form to request a safe time to be called back by a member of our specialist Helpline staff.”

How can you help if you think someone you know is in an abusive relationship?

Women’s Aid has also offered general advice for those worried that someone they know may be in an abusive relationship.

A spokesperson said: “It is important that she knows that the abuse isn’t her fault, and it happens to many women. The perpetrator of the abuse is always to blame; he chooses to act this way.

“Support her, but don’t force her into decisions. Remember, she may not have been able to make decisions for herself within her relationship, so might need time.”

In terms of practical support, the spokesperson suggested accompanying the survivor in reporting the abuse to a GP, the police or a solicitor, using the charity’s directory to find the nearest service.

We must ask ourselves what we can do to keep the vulnerable from falling through the cracks.

Adding that the charity’s Survivors’ Handbook has lots of information on creating a safety plan, the spokesperson continued: “It can be very difficult helping somebody through this situation, so look after yourself. Your safety is important.”

Whilst we don’t know what the next news alert will bring, let alone the next few weeks, kindness and community-mindedness are key. We must ask ourselves what we can do to keep the vulnerable from falling through the cracks. We must unite – two feet apart, but together.

For more information or further support, call the Freephone 24h National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 247 2000, or visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk 

This piece was first published on 12 March 2019 and has been updated throughout

Images: Getty, Unsplash