Dr Rachel Fenton

Funding awarded to help more people in Wales tackle rising cases of domestic abuse

Delivery drivers, neighbours and colleagues in virtual meetings could help tackle rising domestic abuse with the right training and support in a world changed by COVID-19.

Dr Rachel Fenton at the University of Exeter Law School is an expert in bystander intervention training and she has teamed up with Public Health Wales and the Wales Violence Prevention Unit to investigate radical new solutions to stop abuse in the home. The ground-breaking research will look at the experiences and behaviours of those who witness domestic abuse and its warning signs during the pandemic.

Since lockdown measures came into force early in 2020, there have been stark warnings from global leaders about the risk of a “shadow pandemic” of abuse taking place inside people’s homes*. In Wales, there has been a 41% increase in the number of contacts made to the Live Fear Free helpline since the beginning of lockdown**

According to the Office for National Statistics, Police recorded 259,324 domestic abuse offences in England and Wales between March and June - 7% up on the same period in 2019. During and after the first lockdown in April, May and June, around one-fifth of offences involved domestic abuse. The charity Refuge said earlier this year that more than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first three months of lockdown, most by women seeking help. In June, calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual.

As much of the population continues to minimise social contact and time at their place of work, there are fewer opportunities for survivors to seek support and for bystanders, such as concerned family, friends, volunteers and colleagues, to intervene. However, with many people now conducting much of their daily life from home, there are new opportunities for different groups of people, including neighbours, colleagues in virtual meetings and delivery drivers, to spot the warning signs of abuse and take safe action.

The innovative study, led by the Wales Violence Prevention Unit in partnership with Exeter University Law School and funded by Public Health Wales, will explore how bystander experiences and behaviours have changed and developed  during restrictions put in place to control COVID-19***. The research will help develop long-term bystander intervention training programmes which will be invaluable to equip more people in society with the knowledge and skills necessary to safely intervene when they are witness to or have concerns about abuse.

Jonathan Drake, Director, Wales Violence Prevention Unit, said: “Preventing domestic abuse is everybody’s business and many people may be finding themselves in the position of being a “by-stander” for the first time.

“It can be incredibly hard to know what to do in this position and it’s important we understand how the pandemic has impacted on what can be a life changing intervention for survivors of domestic violence and abuse.

“At a time where, unfortunately, we are seeing less of our family and friends than we would like, it’s essential that more people are aware of how to safely intervene in instances of abuse to maximise the support available for vulnerable people in our communities.”

Dr Rachel Fenton, Exeter University Law School, said:“Bystander training teaches people to recognise the early warning signs of abuse and to be confident to take action in their communities in a safe way to prevent more abuse occurring. We know from our research into bystander interventions that anyone can take action around domestic abuse if given the right training, and that trained bystanders use their newfound skills across all areas of their lives.

“This new research study is essential to understand more about the people who have physical and online proximity to victims under the new lockdown social conditions and what action they take. This means in future we can mobilise new bystanders and provide mechanisms to support these bystanders, thus equipping communities and society to prevent abuse both in lockdown conditions and beyond”

Professor Mark Bellis, Director of Policy and Health, World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre on Investment for Health and Well-being, Public Health Wales, said: “The public health measures associated with the coronavirus pandemic, including lockdown and social distancing restrictions, are essential in containing the virus. However, for some people this has meant surviving more harm and abuse whilst having reduced access to support services and social interaction.  

“There is little research into the experiences of bystanders to domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic so this study will provide timely guidance to inform policy and prevention work in Wales and beyond.”

Sara Kirkpatrick, CEO, Welsh Women’s Aid, said: “From speaking with survivors, Welsh Women’s Aid knows that the first time a someone discloses experiencing abuse, it is most often to someone they know personally. Receiving a positive, empathetic response at this time is absolutely crucial to a person’s ability to get the support they need. Bystander interventions break the silence on domestic abuse and sexual violence in communities; raise awareness of vital specialist support services and ensure that wherever and whenever a survivor shares their experiences they are given the most helpful response first time, every time.

This year, in times of lockdowns and social distancing when survivors have been more isolated and their routes to support less accessible, the engagement of communities has been crucial in tackling violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. Welsh Women’s Aid were able to adapt and apply learning from our delivery of the Bystander Initiative and Change that Last “ask me” Scheme, to continue to provide advice and guidance to communities across Wales. Following the publication of our Stand With Survivors Bystander toolkit, calls to the Live Fear Free helpline from concerned others rose significantly - we welcome this investment in evaluating the changes in the bystander approach during COVID 19 and believe the learning can truly help us all create a change that lasts.”

 

  • *UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, launched a public awareness campaign in May, focusing on the global increase in domestic violence amid the COVID-19 health crisis - https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/in-focus-gender-equality-in-covid-19-response/violence-against-women-during-covid-19
  • **Data provided by Welsh Women’s Aid to the Wales Violence Prevention Unit as part of its monthly violence monitoring report. Data received from WWA is based on weekly statistics collated via data collection software about contacts to the Live Fear Free Helpline via calls, webchats, texts and emails. It is intended to provide a breakdown of contacts of the impact the current coronavirus pandemic is having on how and when people access the Helpline, and is provided to interested parties in good faith, based on the available at the time of publication. It should be noted that this is subject to change should additional information become available, and as it is based on data drawn down on a weekly basis, may not align entirely with monthly or quarterly reporting. 
  • ***As part of the study, the Unit will be conducting a survey of people who live and work in Wales. The survey will ask participants about their experiences of being a bystander during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey will take place in the New Year and people can register to take part by visiting www.violencepreventionwales.co.uk and completing a contact form.

Date: 9 December 2020

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