IRISi invited VAWG organisations from across the UK to share the adjustments they put in place to continue providing high-quality services during the pandemic; and here is what they told us
In this extraordinary year, 2020, IRISi is excited to take part in the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence”, an annual international campaign that starts on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.
The campaign was started by activists at the inaugural Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991 and continues to be coordinated each year by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. It is used as an organising strategy by individuals and organisations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.
This year’s campaign’s global theme is “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!”, a response to the alarming increase of violence against women and girls during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In solidarity with this, IRISi’s theme for 2020 is “Look Beyond The Pandemic: working together as never before”.Our campaign is focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, but, more specifically, on how all of us in the VAWG sector have adapted to continue supporting women, children and families affected by violence and abuse, and how we have worked to do this together.
“The VAWG sector has faced a lot of challenges and obstacles so far in the pandemic and we have all had to adjust our work to keep providing high-quality support and services whether we are a frontline service or not. It has been a unique and difficult time, so the IRISi team thought it would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how much resilience and compassion we have shown and shared through all of this.”
“The VAWG sector has faced a lot of challenges and obstacles so far in the pandemic and we have all had to adjust our work to keep providing high-quality support and services whether we are a frontline service or not. It has been a unique and difficult time, so the IRISi team thought it would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how much resilience and compassion we have shown and shared through all of this.”, explains Medina Johnson, IRISi’s Chief Executive.
“As I have read through the testimonies below on the remarkable work that our sister organisations and their teams have achieved, I have felt tearful, angry, inspired, exhausted and proud.”
“We know we still have a lot to do and that we are not over the pandemic yet. We just want to create a place and a moment where we can all celebrate what we have achieved so far, share our learning, take a breath and pause”, says Medina.
To launch “Look Beyond The Pandemic” campaign, we invited Domestic Violence and Abuse organisations from all across the UK to share the adjustments they put in place to continue working, delivering and supporting during this difficult period. Here are their responses.
WOMEN’S AID FEDERATION ENGLAND AND THE PANDEMIC
“The first lockdown confined women and children living with an abuser to their household, almost 24 hours a day. Survivors experienced escalating abuse at a time when their routes to support and safety were restricted. We knew that for many women, accessing support on the phone could be unsafe – so we worked rapidly to expand our ‘Live Chat’ instant messenger service to ensure that women experiencing abuse during the pandemic are able to reach out for help online.
The pandemic was a ‘perfect storm’ for Women’s Aid’s life-saving network of member services, who deliver specialist support to women and children experiencing domestic abuse across England. It has posed huge challenges for women’s charities but their dedication and resilience during this period has been incredible. In particular, we have seen that teams and organisations have worked together to provide the best possible support for women and children during this time. The strength of survivors, and the women who work day and night to support them, has been remarkable”.
KARMA NIRVANA AND THE PANDEMIC
“Karma Nirvana provide the only government backed national Honour Based Abuse helpline. Before the pandemic started, the National helpline was delivered by call handlers in a central helpline call centre. The lockdown meant that the helpline team had to adjust and transition into remote home working, which presented real challenges to the helpline’s operating system.
We had to very quickly identify new ways to communicate and debrief from call handling. We also had to invest in adequate technology to be able to work remotely. Whilst the transition to remote working was exceptionally challenging, it was also very revealing of the strength, connection, and unity of the Karma Nirvana team. The team have worked in exceptional circumstances of increased demand and many staff absences linked to Covid. Despite the many hurdles thrown at us by the global pandemic, we have managed to overcome all of these (whilst still smiling!)”.
IDAS IN YORKSHIRE AND THE PANDEMIC
“COVID and the lockdown has impacted victims and survivors of domestic abuse with perpetrators behaviour becoming more violent and victims experiencing additional isolation. At the same time, many people assumed that services like refuge accommodation was not available due to COVID. Additionally, refuges quickly became full as onward housing was difficult to organise. At one point in June, there were just two refuge spaces across the whole of the UK.
During this time, IDAS delivered an uninterrupted service, our helplines and refuges have continued to operate in line with government guidelines, supporting thousands of people affected by domestic abuse. We have increased capacity on our helplines and extended our Live Chat times, we have mobilised volunteers to put up hundreds of posters to let people know that support is available and moved support groups online.
Our teams have shown incredible determination and courage in the face of unprecedented challenges. During this time, we have drawn on our inner resilience and continued to innovate, moving the delivery of training online and the recruitment and deployment of volunteers remotely. We have learnt that we can adapt and develop rapidly and that there are many ways that we can use technology for good.
This is not to say that the pandemic and lockdowns have not been difficult for our teams who are working with people who have experienced significant trauma. We have developed self-care guides, held all staff webinars and an online staff conference focused on well-being to support teams, there is much more we plan to do next year to continue that support”.
GALOP AND THE PANDEMIC
“Over the last month professionals and activists, agencies, policymakers, and government have faced an extraordinary set of circumstances in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including in relation to domestic violence and abuse. While work has been going on behind the scenes to ensure the delivery of services, the public face of much of the response has focused on reaching out to victims and survivors who find themselves isolated with an abusive partner to try and make sure that they know that help and support are available. Alongside this, there has been an increased emphasis on ensuring family, friends, and neighbours also know how to recognise the signs of domestic violence and abuse and what they can do to help.
As a network of agencies and practitioners, researchers and activists, working on LGBT+ domestic abuse, we recognise this work is vital, and we will continue to work with our statutory and third sector partners to ensure that victims and survivors are supported.
We would like to support all those working on the response to domestic violence and abuse to continue to recognise the experiences of LGBT+ survivors. Research tells us that LGBT+ survivors can face a range of barriers to identifying their experiences, particularly if they are not explicitly represented in the public story of domestic violence and abuse.
We also know some LGBT+ survivors are more likely to reach out to friends or family, rather than domestic violence services or agencies like the Police, so it is important to ensure the communication to friends and families also recognizes that domestic abuse affects LGBT+ people.
This is why we have developed advice and guidance for friends and/or family who are worried that the LGBT+ person they know is being victimised by their partner; for friends and/or family who are worried that the LGBT+ person they know is using violent/abusive behaviour towards their partner. This guidance is also useful for professionals and helpline operators who are receiving calls from friends/family who are LGBT+ either because they are being victimised by or using violent/abusive behaviour towards their partner”.
AURORA NEW DAWN IN HAMPSHIRE AND THE PANDEMIC
“At the start of the pandemic we turned one of our services into a 24/7 helpline for victims of domestic abuse in Hampshire. We are proud that we did this within a week of the first lockdown and have taken over 1,500 calls since the 30th March 2020. We know our responses need to be quick, empathetic and accessible and as such we made sure all our provision was available online, whilst also linking in with partners around the county to ensure victims and survivors knew we were there.
We have learnt a great deal from our experience and will continue to provide services virtually to those who prefer it. We are proud to be part of a sector that moves quickly and effectively. The male violence against women sector is a movement and as such we have moved, adapted, and responded to the desperate needs of victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking during the pandemic. We continue to fight hard to ensure that victims are offered expert services at a time they need it most.”
ASIAN’S WOMEN CENTRE IN HARLESDEN AND THE PANDEMIC
“During the COVID- 19 pandemic, the Asian Women’s Resource Centre has not slowed down, we have ensured that Black Minority Ethnic women experiencing Violence Against Women & Girls (VAWG) have continued to receive vital reshaped support services that they need via digital and online platforms.
Covid-19 has highlighted growing inequalities for Black Minority Ethnic women; therefore, the role of specialist provision has been critical. For BME women racialized discrimination and the disproportionate impact of structural inequalities has become exacerbated and not alleviated (for example, women with no recourse have little support and are therefore subject to further inequality).
We will look at blended model of delivery going forward, which will include face to face and the use of online platforms to deliver services”.
SPLITZ SUPPORT SERVICE IN SOUTHWEST ENGLAND AND THE PANDEMIC
“When the first Covid ‘lockdown’ was imposed in March, our dedicated team of Advocate Educators (AE) worked hard with the GP surgery staff to ensure that any victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence were still able to get the support they needed and our surgery partners were able to get the training and advice they needed.
Moving our services online and doing more support by phone was difficult in the beginning, but for some clients preferable. Using video calling can be just like being in the room with someone, but without the travel (which can be challenging in a rural area). This didn’t work for everyone though. For victims without access to internet or phone data this was not possible, and for those whose phones and computers were tracked it was not safe. Our GP surgery partners came up trumps and supplied us with PPE (which was scarce in the beginning) and a Covid safe space so our AEs could continue to meet these clients.
We will take what we have learned into the future and will take much more online, where this suits our clients’ needs. But we will never lose the face to face work that is essential for some”.
WOMEN’S AID IN RHONDDA CYNON TAF – RCT AND THE PANDEMIC
“As an organisation, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic staff and service users have adapted to ensure support continues in a safe and meaningful way. Our refuge services have continued uninterrupted, staff have maintained a presence at our refuge sites and provided support within the guidelines adopted by our organisation. Risk assessments for Covid-19 have been incorporated into the usual assessment process for clients accessing refuge. Social distancing and use of PPE have helped ensure the safety of clients and staff once in refuge.
Outreach services have continued uninterrupted, but delivery of services has changed somewhat in that client meetings were adapted to ensure safety. Outdoor meetings (weather permitting) took place with clients, and, for a period between lockdowns in Wales, in office meetings resumed, socially distanced and with use of PPE by staff and clients. Group sessions and courses have been adapted from face to face to delivery via Zoom and were very quickly up and running again in this new format. Working from home using Zoom, and telephone support ensured that clients still have access to high quality support tailored to their safety and support needs.
The recurring theme throughout has been ‘Adapt’ and this has been embraced by all staff. New ways to deliver services will no doubt carry forward long after face to face support is safe and possible again. Learning from the pandemic isn’t over yet”.
SAFER MERTHYR TYDFIL AND THE PANDEMIC
“At the start of the pandemic, SMT staff commenced home working and continued to provide support, advice and advocacy for existing and new service users, using a variety of remote communication methods, tailored to individuals’ needs. Service users have commented that this flexible, blend of communication has benefitted them and would like this to continue when we emerge from the pandemic.
Essential face to face appointments have continued for those who needed this method of contact and we have worked hard to reconfigure our buildings to provide a Covid safe space for our clients.
We have trained staff in the delivery of online training and recovery groups and will continue to use this method combined with face to face groups when restrictions allow.”
END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN (EVAW) AND THE PANDEMIC
“We’ve been focused on making sure the voices of women and girls and the vital services and support they rely on are heard by those planning the response to a dual pandemic of coronavirus and a foreseeable increase in violence against women and girls. Like so many others we rapidly organised ourselves to work remotely, conscious that this was a privilege not open to many essential workers. The VAWG sector’s experience of the pandemic has been of serious increases in the demand for support, as well as reduced capacity in our organisations. We hosted weekly sector-wide online meetings to discuss challenges and coordinate action to bring attention to the realities faced by women and children in lockdown.
Covid-19 was not a leveller, it landed on existing structural inequalities which were exponentially magnified. We will always seek to understand the challenges facing the most marginalised women and services, particularly specialist ‘by and for’ organisations to ensure this experience is truly informing our work.
We know having a collective voice calling for changes that will address injustice and inequality in all its manifestations is powerful. We will always push for policy and law that factors all women, intersectionality is a practise and it is about deep engagement and partnership working both to do our work meaningful, form effective alliances and create political and social strategies to end violence against all women.”
CARDIFF WOMEN’S AID AND THE PANDEMIC
“As with all VAWDASV services, the pandemic has had a huge impact on Cardiff Women’s Aid. We know that the risk to those in abusive relationships have increased at this time due to a number of factors that have enabled greater control by the perpetrator and isolation of the survivor from family, friends and professional support; this has profoundly impacted on the ability of survivors to access support. As a service, we quickly and efficiently amended our service to incorporate safe home working practices, transferring support to online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, installing an laptop based phone system to ensure survivors could continue to access the service and also enhancing the ability for survivors to contact via online chat & text messaging service.
Although there have been difficult challenges and limitations in the way we have had to work, we have learnt a lot too. We have learnt to be even more flexible in the way we provide support to be able to fit in with the needs of the survivors, we have been able to continue to build relationships with partner agencies, stakeholders etc remotely, and we have grown in confidence in using technology in order to deliver training and group work sessions during a time where we can’t meet face to face. While we will be very glad to return to a greater level of in person working, we hope to keep this flexibility, confidence and increased ‘can-do’ attitude to provide more rounded support in future whatever the barriers”.
EAST SURREY DOMESTIC ABUSE SERVICE AND THE PANDEMIC
“Like many organisations we have had to move all our services online and operate remotely in most instances. However, we tried to be prepared when we thought lockdown was coming, reaching out to those survivors we knew would be ‘locked in’ with their abusers and attempted to safety plan with them.
The number of client referrals increased dramatically from the same time last year. Like in many other countries, the anticipated increase means we have had to plan, finding the necessary resources to manage up to a 40% uplift in demand.
Survivors are incredible in their resilience and their ability to manage very unsafe situations. So many have found creative ways to stay in contact with us. Sadly, we have undoubtedly seen and are increasingly concerned about the trauma survivors and children are experiencing whilst ‘locked in’ with their abuser and the longer-term impact that this will have on their emotional and physical well-being.
The pandemic has meant a smaller window of opportunity for survivors seek help. Working in partnership with others for example, GP’s through IRIS project has been crucial in identifying abuse and supporting survivors.
It has highlighted the importance of partnership working in identifying and supporting survivors. The need for education and a greater understanding of domestic abuse across professions and communities. The hope is that the pandemic may have enabled more understanding and empathy towards survivors and all they have experienced”.
SURVIVING ECONOMIC ABUSE (SEA) AND THE PANDEMIC
“In June 2020, just as the UK was coming out of its first national lockdown, SEA began conducting a rapid review of the immediate and emerging needs of women experiencing economic abuse in the context of Covid-19. This was supported by a grant from the Standard Life Foundation. Nine out of ten respondents to our survey reported feeling worried about their long-term economic situation as a result of the perpetrator’s actions during the pandemic. Victim-survivors have also reported heightened concerns about getting into debt, including coerced debt. SEA is using the project findings to develop recommendations for policy and practice that would enable women to access the support they need during the Covid-19 outbreak and in any future public health emergencies.
Like many other domestic abuse organisations, SEA experienced an increased workload due to coronavirus and the ensuing restrictions. We saw an 85% increase in website traffic, and visits to SEA’s resources increased by 163%. In response, we produced four new resources to help victim-survivors, their friends, family, neighbours and employers to identify economic abuse and know how to access support during the pandemic.
Additionally, our financial support line for victim-survivors of domestic abuse, which is run jointly by SEA and Money Advice Plus, saw a sobering 65% increase in calls during the first lockdown. Close to half of those accessing our financial support line face priority debt, meaning they are at risk of being made homeless or having their utilities cut off. At the same time, our Covid-19 rapid review indicated that it may not be safe for many victim-survivors to be in contact with domestic abuse services at the current time — particularly if they are isolated at home with an abuser.
As a result, service providers such as banks and utility companies are increasingly likely to be the first point of contact for disclosures of economic abuse. Through our work, we have been hearing about an increase in disclosures since the pandemic started, including from Monzo and Lloyds Banking Group.
These learnings are vital for informing our ongoing work with the financial services sector and other industry partners to improve professional responses — it is essential that they feel confident responding to victim-survivors’ concerns during this time”.
SAFELIVES AND THE PANDEMIC
“This year has been a challenge for us all. With COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions, SafeLives had to quickly adapt our activity to support frontline domestic abuse staff to support their clients.
In a timeframe that felt like overnight, we adopted a behemoth project called Staying Safe At Home that brought in every team in SafeLives to pool together our expertise to create guidance and lobby the government to ensure that frontline staff and therefore victims and survivors were safer.
We developed countless pieces of guidance, surveyed survivors and wrote COVID-19 consultation responses. We also created some slightly more social content like podcasts”.
MY SISTER’S PLACE IN MIDDLESBROUGH AND THE PANDEMIC
“My Sister’s Place have always put our service users at the heart of everything we do, we are small, agile, creative and focused entirely on ensuring no women is turned away. The pandemic made us more determined and as we experienced more and more services around us either closing due to COVID restrictions or offering a limited response, at MSP we increased our offer. We developed online services, a chat line with extended hours and we lobbied to get staff recognised as key workers so we could open our doors and continue to provide our open access one stop shop.
Our client’s needs are more complex due to the COVID restrictions. The pandemic and government response to tackling the health risks it poses has by its very nature increased the risks to the women we work with, forcing them into the home, 24/7 with their abuser. Women living with domestic abuse are facing Increased risks of physical abuse and homicide; significant deterioration on health and wellbeing due to coercive and controlling behaviour; increased risk of self-harm and suicide; An escalation in violence and abuse which becomes more frequent and less predictable.
In response we set up COVID safe measures to continue our vital counselling services –the pandemic has had a significant impact on our communities’ mental health and we knew our clients needed this emotional support now more than ever. We have delivered food parcels, clothes, vouchers for utilities, we have ensured women and their children have safe housing options.
We are proud of our staff who have worked long hours, they have given up weekends to ensure we continued to deliver much needed services, they are tired but the pandemic continues and has a long tail that will stretch into the future by many years. We have learnt how resilient small charities like MSP are and that local communities turn to us because we are trusted. We have learnt we desperately need more help financially if we are to continue to deliver the services our communities need.”
CENTRE FOR WOMEN’S JUSTICE AND THE PANDEMIC
“Due to the huge increase in legal enquiries we have received from women’s sector organisations since the beginning of the UK Covid-19 lockdown in March, we have had to increase capacity by recruiting an extra member of staff and reallocate funding. The number of legal enquiries we have received from women’s sector organisations has increased substantially since the beginning of the UK Covid-19 lockdown in March this year. Whilst the majority of these enquiries are not directly Covid-19 related, we believe this significant increase is partly due to indirect consequences of the pandemic such as diversion of police resources and a reduction in the capacity of the criminal justice system.
Collaboration and networking with the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector is integral to our work. We have strived to remain connected and been aware of the impact of the Covid-19 on frontline service providers, providing advice and input where appropriate to strategic approaches. We are closely monitoring where the pandemic may have had an impact on women’s access to justice. For example where a court case has been delayed indefinitely or where cases may have been dropped for reasons related to the lockdown. Monitoring and strengthening of relationships between the legal and VAWG specialist sector is imperative at this time so we can work together to hold the state to account and challenge discrimination in the criminal justice system around violence against women and girls”.
LATIN AMERICAN WOMEN’S RIGHT SERVICE (LAWRS)
“As a led ‘by and for’ community-based service, our offices are a safe space for Latin American migrant women experiencing gender-based violence and other forms of abuse such as labour exploitation and trafficking. Before COVID19, our doors were open for women to come and ask for help, support and to avoid isolation. By delivering holistic, linguistic and culturally sensitive support to migrant women, we advocate and inform them about their rights and provide them with the tools and resources to be safe.
Like many other charities, the lockdown was a disruption in the way we have provided service having a direct impact on the women that come to the organisation. Despite the unprecedented situation, we immediately adapted our services to support women remotely. We set up helplines, video conferencing for our group work, and translated critical information about COVID19 and the effects of social distancing in domestic abuse. We implemented more planning and evaluating to understand what worked and what could be improved. Despite the structural barriers such as austerity cuts resulting in an underfunded VAWG sector, we did not stop providing services for a single day.
As evidence has shown, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. For instance, as a result of digital exclusion and increased forms of abuse and isolation, some of our service users are struggling to contact us and receive help. To reach these women, we have developed outreach strategies that involved working closely with our community activist projects, the use of Whatsapp, and other social media platforms and informing statutory services that we continue providing remote services. During this pandemic, we have learnt the importance of continuously re-think our outreach methods and the methods of delivery of services.
The wellbeing of our staff became a priority for the organisation. We increased support for our team, particularly clinical supervision for frontline workers who are dealing with a difficult situation and an increase in demand, the complexity of cases, and high-risk cases.
As we understand the essential relation between our service provision and our policy work, we continue campaigning for the rights of migrant women and influencing policymakers. We continue raising the importance that all women, regardless of their immigration status, are protected from abuse. We have joined multiple calls on the government to end the Hostile Environment”.
WOMEN FOR REFUGEE WOMEN
“COVID-19 has hit the refugee and asylum-seeking women in our network particularly hard, making it even more difficult for them to find safety in the UK. Since the virus forced us to close our face-to-face services, we have been supporting over 300 women in our London network with regular calls for a friendly chat, and online activities to share solidarity and build confidence. We have also responded to the urgent needs of the women in our network by providing increased emergency hardship support and working in partnerships to provide mental health support and quality immigration advice.
Empowerment and sisterhood are the heart of our work. But at the start of the first lockdown, very few women in our network had access to the internet and devices that could enable them to stay connected. We have been working to improve digital inclusion and learning how to grow safe and trusting online spaces, so that refugee women can continue to build their confidence and skills as campaigners while we can’t meet in person. This work will be invaluable in the future as digital skills are so vital to life in the UK. Working online has also enabled the #SistersNotStrangers coalition of grassroots refugee women’s groups across the UK to work more closely together, sharing learning and building a powerful movement for change. Refugee women show time and time again that, even in the most challenging of times, there is always hope!”
“A chatbot was introduced to our website to help victims in confinement with their perpetrator to contact us more easily. In April and May, this addition literally saved lives, with two separate families who got in touch online being rehoused in our emergency refuge accommodation. We put more resources into interpreting, removing barriers to support those from our BAME community and we brought our popular Freedom Programme online.
We delivered training session virtually to GP surgeries which gave excellent outcomes for GP’s and patients by reminding them our services were still available. Our newsletters were increased to keep the IRIS project in touch with surgeries. Virtual training enabled us to build even better relationships promoting more flexibility around how we worked in partnership with GP’s.
We knew that once lockdown lifted the floodgates would open. As the only provider of refuge accommodation in Bolton, we have worked flat out to meet victim’s needs. Our 24 hours advice line has had a 38% increase in calls and our high-risk specialist team has seen referrals increase sharply.
Online courses have worked well for many women. Referrals have increased and engagement is higher. Many women have commented on how much easier it is and it is less daunting for those with anxiety issues. Victims are sharing more, quicker, with phone counselling rather than face to face.
It has been difficult to engage younger children with online courses. Working in schools has become more challenging with bubbles and children leaving sessions mid-course due to self-isolation or Covid.
Going forwards, we will continue to adapt our projects to meet individual needs”.
COVENTRY HAVEN WOMEN’S AID
“We’ve seen a significant increase in referrals into service since lockdown and they’ve remained consistently high and we’ve remained in service throughout. During the first lockdown we provided an online chat function which victims advised was an easier method of communication while locked in with their abuser, where its unsafe to make a call.
We’re always looking for ways to make our services accessible to all victims including older women and this is where the IRIS project comes into its own. There are very few spaces a victim can go alone without it causing an incident, and the GP surgery is one of them”.
“Pre-lockdown, our service predominantly supported clients by meeting face to face and provided a more physical presence of support. Due to the effects of lockdown this could not be continued as a standard level of support.
SignHealth already had a paperless system in place so the transition for all the domestic abuse team to work from home was fairly seamless. With additional office equipment sent to team members home, the team was able to continue providing support via video due to how we communicate with our clients through sign language. New referrals for clients were assessed via these platforms and current clients were also checked in regularly during this time. We felt that during the pandemic clients have needed more emotional support than normal, this may be due to lack of accessible information from the Government and the upset of the pandemic restrictions.
In cases where clients were high risk, they were exempt from this style of remote support and staff would meet the clients face to face. This was in cases such as being placed in a refuge, seeking emergency accommodation and urgent court dates. In these situations, staff followed the government guidelines and wore PPE provided by the organisation.
This pandemic has shown that the team are able to support our clients very well via video relay services outside of an office environment and were able to adapt safety to cater to the needs of the clients”.