There were wealthy career women and stay-at-home mums; wives of politicians and surgeons, and asylum-seekers reliant on food banks.
Aged from their 20s to their 70s, they often had little in common except one thing: they had all been abused by their partners.
Meeting up for counselling at the charity Woman’s Trust provided a much-needed respite. ‘The women would hug. There was that warmth and connection of getting out to where they were safe,’ says Beth Thompson, the therapist who ran support groups for up to 50 women a week.
Since the coronavirus lockdown began on March 23, however, the Woman’s Trust centre in West London has been closed. The meetings have gone online — helpful for women who have left violent relationships but little use for those still living with abusers, who can’t escape to log on and have lost a vital lifeline to the outside world. ‘They are trapped with the person who abuses them,’ says Thompson. ‘It’s like torture.’
Experts who offer support to victims of domestic abuse, revealed the difficulty of continuing amid lockdown. Pictured: Kelly Fitzgibbons and her daughters who were found dead in a suspected murder/suicide in West Sussex
If they want support, they must risk the wrath of violent partners who monitor their every move.
‘It’s almost impossible for them to get in touch,’ says Thompson, who is trying desperately to help by working remotely. ‘They’ll email or text to say they are struggling. They may have to go for a walk to call me from outside. I always ask: “Is it safe? Is there anyone in the room?” Sometimes it’s a stilted conversation, where I ask a question and they reply yes or no.
‘If I felt a woman was in danger and having to whisper, I’d have to say: “Let’s terminate the call.” Our primary concern is safety.’
For abused women, being put under virtual house arrest gives an already traumatic home life a terrifying twist.
‘People say: “At least you get to bunker down with your family.” And that is a lovely thing — if you’ve got a loving family,’ says Thompson, who is in her 40s. ‘Being isolated with your perpetrator is a nightmare that can make women feel different and ashamed.’
Research shows that when households are under strain, incidents of domestic violence increase. ‘Perpetrators may have lost jobs or have financial stresses,’ says Thompson. ‘They may be drinking more, which massively increases an already stressful environment.’
According to UN Women, a global organisation for women’s rights, activists have reported a surge in domestic violence in China, where a coronavirus lockdown began in January. Some police stations had three times as many reports of domestic violence in February compared with that month last year.
Domestic abuse charity Refuge, revealed they've experienced a 25 per cent increase in calls to their helpline. Pictured: Robert Needham, 42, who was found dead with his partner, Kelly Fitzgibbons, and two young daughters in West Sussex
In Britain, the charity Refuge says calls to its helpline have risen by 25 per cent since lockdown began.
Stories that may be linked to domestic violence in lockdown have already emerged. On Saturday, March 28, a man was charged with having committed Britain’s first self-isolation murder, after his 67-year-old wife was found dead at their home in South Wales.
Just a day later, a man was arrested on suspicion of murder after a woman was stabbed to death in South Yorkshire. On the same day, Robert Needham, 42, was found dead with his partner, Kelly Fitzgibbons, and two young daughters in a suspected murder/suicide at their home in Woodmancote, West Sussex.
‘I think we’ll see an increase in suicide,’ says Thompson. ‘The women I speak to don’t see the point in going on.’
Refuge says its staff are ‘working round the clock’ to keep services open. It suggests abused women keep their mobile phone charged and with them, and try — as best they can — to avoid areas that might contain potential weapons (such as the kitchen and garage).
Other campaigners have written to ask hotel chains to give unoccupied rooms to abuse victims.
Hannah Martin, 47, from Worthing, West Sussex, who was once in an abusive marriage says women in isolation don't have a place for safety (file image)
Home Secretary Priti Patel has reminded sufferers that refuges are still open — though some women may hesitate to use them.
‘I’ve heard there are women thinking about returning to the perpetrator because of the fear of living in communal accommodation with Covid-19,’ says Lucy Hadley, of the charity Women’s Aid.
Hadley stresses that the charity is still open, though with many local services shifting support online.
Even those who have taken the first steps towards freedom may return to the abusive relationship now they are stuck at home.
Karen Holden, managing partner at legal practice A City Law Firm, says she has been asked by women in volatile marriages to stop divorce proceedings, even though courts are still — this week, at least — conducting telephone divorce hearings.
One of the hallmarks of an abuser is their ability to manipulate their partner into thinking they can’t escape. And in the current climate, that is easier than ever.
‘Women in isolation have no place of safety, nobody to hug and no respite from the abuse,’ says Hannah Martin, 47, from Worthing, West Sussex, who was in an abusive marriage between 2001 and 2006.
With external support harder to come by, a skilled abuser may present a façade of comfort, says Hannah. ‘An abuser will often charm their victim between episodes of violence — and right now, these women are more in danger of going back.’
Gemma Evans, 37, who is an ambassador for Women’s Aid, has been told by three women that their abuse has got worse since lockdown (file image)
For those hoping to bring criminal proceedings against a partner, or who have done so and now rely on the justice system to keep them safe, the situation is even worse. All criminal trials have now been put on hold.
And even getting to the phone to report violence may now be impossible. ‘Victims are frightened of being seen at their computer or on their phone,’ says Gemma Evans, 37, an ambassador for Women’s Aid, whose independent Facebook support group for victims has 500 members. Since lockdown, she has noticed a dramatic fall in public activity.
Instead, women have started contacting her directly at erratic hours — and those messages are increasingly fraught. ‘You have to make sense of what they are saying. They’re on edge and frightened.’
Three women have already told her their abuse has got worse since lockdown, with perpetrators losing their jobs ‘and taking it out on the victim’.
Gemma adds: ‘One woman is a key worker. While she’s at work she’s worried because her children are with her partner. He’s never done anything to them before, but he has to her . . . it’s all very well saying make sure the children are safe, but she’s got to make sure there’s still money coming in.’
Gemma says the internet can’t replicate face-to-face counselling — and many women are also being robbed of the solace of their careers, which may feel like the one place where they can salvage some control over their lives.
It’s a toxic cocktail of circumstances that poses a very real threat to women’s safety — and their lives.
‘He’d kick me off the bed — I still have the bruises’
Being trapped at home with an abuser puts victims at great risk. Here, one woman in her 30s tells how she spent two weeks in lockdown with a violent partner, before fleeing for her own safety. She is now staying with relatives.
A couple of policemen stood on the doorstep of the flat I shared with my boyfriend to ask their list of dark questions.
Among them: ‘Are you pregnant? Has he threatened to use weapons against you? Are you scared of him?’
I’d heard these questions before, after a big row at the start of this year. It had turned violent — the first time he’d hit me in our year-long relationship — and I’d called the police.
That time, they had come inside and kept my partner in a separate room while I gave my answers. My boyfriend was arrested and spent the night in a cell. But I’d asked for the charges to be dropped after the officer in charge (a man) suggested heavily that it wouldn’t get anywhere in court: my word against his.
One woman in her thirties, revealed she became afraid of her partner as arguments escalated and the police was called by neighbours (file image)
This second time, two months later, it was our neighbours who had called police. But now we were in lockdown, so the officers couldn’t step over the threshold — and as they asked their questions, I knew my boyfriend was listening to every word.
I lied and said ‘no’ to everything, and the police left.
In truth, our arguments had escalated and I was scared — of him, and of who I was becoming. We are both professionals in our 30s and I’d never experienced anything like this before.
But lockdown meant our options were slim. We rented an expensive one-bedroom flat, but the landlord wouldn’t let us leave our contract early, despite knowing about the arrest.
We were also still in love, or something was convincing us we were. Love, I’ve learned, can have a devastating delusional sway.
You remember the person they were in the beginning. He’d bought me flowers, told me he loved me more than anyone he’d ever met, wanted to discuss marriage and kids. He said he’d never done that with anyone else, that this was ‘different’.
That was the excuse we used when things got bad, too. We were ‘different’; this was ‘different’. It had to work.
We did break up for a few weeks after he was arrested, and he left the home we share — but came back the day after the lockdown announcement, saying he had nowhere else to go.
The woman recalls her abuser hiding the WiFi box when they weren't getting on, spitting on her face and calling her a 'whore' (file image)
I’d enjoyed being there on my own. It was lonely but I could work, as he wasn’t there to unplug and hide the WiFi box when we weren’t getting on. No one spat in my face or called me a ‘whore’. Before, if we weren’t getting on, he’d pour drinks over my food or not let me use items he’d bought (even though we shared the food shopping).
Once he had come back, I was shocked to realise how unapologetic he was for assaulting me. Instead, he expected me to comfort him for being arrested.
Once lockdown started, I couldn’t go to stay with my parents, or rely on friends to give me a bed for the night.
Going out once a day for a walk isn’t enough to cool things down when you argue all day and night. If I tried, and he let me leave the house, I’d return to find him wanting to carry on the ‘talk’ (which meant argue).
I’ve never been intimidated by a man before — I’m tall, strong, confident — but it was frightening. After I threw half a glass of water at him in anger, he held me down and poured another over my head. He wouldn’t let me sleep in the bed if we’d had a row, and if I tried, he’d kick me off.
I still have fingerprint bruises on my arms and there’s a pear-sized, greeny-blue bruise on my back, too.
The anonymous woman who is now staying with relatives, said she got away from her abuser after seeing domestic violence reports on the news (file image)
He hurt himself, too — and that was my fault, he said. Seeing someone repeatedly box himself in the face is shocking, the first time. By the end, I was used to it.
But the situation was making me feel weaker and also causing explosive bouts of anger. I lost my cool twice after being screamed and spat at and penned in the corner of rooms.
That feeling of being trapped — both in a tight space with him shouting at me, and more widely because of lockdown — unhinged something in me. I hit him several times trying to get past him, and he threw me over the coffee table. It shocked us both.
After two weeks of lockdown, I knew I had to leave. I hadn’t gone sooner because I didn’t want to carry the coronavirus back to family members, especially as my dad is in his 70s.
A lot of trains were cancelled and there was talk of £600 fines for unnecessary travel. But domestic violence reports on the news, and the fears of my friends, began to prove to me that it was necessary travel: I wasn’t safe.
The relief when I finally got away — I’m now staying with relatives — was overwhelming.
Some names in this article have been changed.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse, call the freephone 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit womanstrust.org.uk, womensaid.org.uk or refuge.org.uk.