From 25 November to 10 December, the world will celebrate 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence. In a context where the world’s population has been forced to retreat into the home due to the lockdown measures introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, marking this occasion is particularly significant this year. Unfortunately, the home is not a safe place for countless women who have found themselves locked in with their abusers and locked out of safety. Reports from around the world show an alarming increase in gender-based violence creating what has been described as a double pandemic.
At Southall Black Sisters, we have responded to the UN 2020 Unite campaign theme: “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect”, by gathering our own video diaries. In these diaries, you will hear the voices of six survivors of abuse who we have supported during the Covid-19 pandemic. What they tell us is that the lockdown measures have led to increased risks and vulnerabilities and that black and minority women in particular have been disproportionately impacted. Many have faced heightened forms of abuse and destitution and greater isolation and mental health difficulties that have often been exacerbated by their lack of settled immigration status. In each video, women share their individual stories about the challenges they have and continue to face and their journey to recovery, ending with their hopes and dreams for the future.
In many of the diaries, survivors highlight their initial reactions to the lockdown. Farah’s account for example, like that of many others, talks about how she felt trapped with her abuser and risked facing escalating abuse. Sana talks about how she felt even more vulnerable due to her pregnancy, which made her feel as if she was suffocating. Their accounts convey a strong sense of panic, helplessness and anxiety at being unable to cope with the new and frightening reality, at a time when were already trying to cope with the turmoil of domestic abuse.
Some survivors emphasise the barriers that they faced in trying to escape abuse, especially financial difficulties arising from being a migrant or subject to the No Recourse to Public Funds rule. Beena who is an asylum seeker talks about trying to survive on only £37 a week and the impact that this had on her mental and emotional health during the lockdown in April. Sonia recounts her devastating experience of contracting Covid-19 whilst struggling as a lone parent. In the process she sheds light on the very real and disproportionate risks faced by many in BME communities, particularly women and the heightened health inequalities that they face.
The majority of survivors recount how maintaining contact with SBS enabled them to stay positive and hopeful. They describe their joy and relief at being able to maintain social contact through virtual and face-to-face meetings with staff and other survivors at SBS that they have come to regard as their ‘family’. Even before the lockdown eased by August 2020, many describe how their participation in various virtual support group activities and workshops helped to lessen their feelings of acute isolation and despair. Alice speaks of how she was only able to get through the ordeal of being confined in the house of her employer (where she works as live-in carer), away from her children and familiar networks, because she had the help and support of her counsellor at SBS who was only a phone call away. Beena, repeatedly mentions how valuable it was for her mental health and wellbeing to have access to support from other women undergoing similar experiences which was made possible through our professionally moderated Whatsapp support group and online Zoom sessions. Sana documents feeling a sense of freedom for the first time in her life after she went on a day trip with other survivors organised by Southall Black Sisters when the lockdown eased in the late summer. For Sara, who had been controlled and confined within her marital home in a domestic servitude-like state for years before she managed to escape, the day trip was the first time she was able to eat food that she had chosen and in a place that she had always wanted to visit but had never been able to because she was never allowed out of the home by her abusers.
Finally, some survivors share stories of how they have made small steps towards recovery and re-settlement, despite the enormous barriers and challenges they have faced due to the double pandemic. They share hopes for the future and their dreams of having secure jobs, stable homes, enough food on the table and the right to reside in the country without the constant fear of deportation. But they also share their fears about a second lockdown. Those who were particularly affected by the first lockdown question whether they can survive another lockdown. Despite this, all the survivors acknowledge the tremendous help and support they have received from SBS throughout the pandemic and reiterate their hope of surviving another one as long as SBS remains by their side. For our part, we will endeavour to provide the vital lifeline that survivors so desperately need to stay safe and to build a future free from fear, abuse, enslavement, destitution and discrimination.
We are grateful to all our funders who have provided additional funds and supported our work in these challenging times.