Kat Araniello is the Founder and chairwoman of the #Metoo forum for women working in the city, a UK SAYS NO MORE Ambassador, friend, family member, colleague and advocate against domestic abuse and sexual violence. 

This has to be one of the strangest weeks of my life.  When writing this blog, I wasn’t sure whether to focus on this from a personal, professional or activist perspective; upon reflection I realise it has to be from all of those angles. 

Domestic abuse is everyone’s business and responsibility – an estimated 1.6 million women and 786,000 men experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019 (source Office for National Statistics). And in 2018, 173 people were killed in domestic violence-related homicides, (data obtained by the BBC from 43 police forces across the UK).  And where health concerns and job losses and financial difficulties may also add pressure, this could cause some people to experience abuse for the first time.  Domestic abuse isn’t limited to violence, it covers an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.  It is very common. In the vast majority of cases it is experienced by women and is perpetrated by men.

Activists and survivors have reported they are already seeing an alarming rise in abuse on a global level.  In Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, domestic violence reports to police have more than tripled in one county alone; during the lockdown in February, this increased from 47 last year (2019) to 162 this year.  In Brazil a state-run drop-in centre has already seen a surge in cases it attributes to coronavirus isolation a rise of 40% or 50%.  The Catalan regional government said that calls to its helpline had risen by 20% in the first few days of the confinement period; in Cyprus, calls to a similar hotline rose 30% in the week after 9 March, when the island had its first confirmed case of coronavirus.

Lockdown and domestic abuse is no joke yet I’ve seen some horrific “jokes” and content on social media.  Let me be clear, this is not “banter”, it serves to normalise this crime and as the diagram below shows, tolerance at this level supports or excuses those higher up.

On a personal level, and as someone with lived experience of domestic abuse, I am familiar with feeling unsafe and unsure.  That feeling of living in a constantly vigilant state is how survivors live their daily lives – and the last few weeks will have triggered and heightened these.  During my darkest times, work was somewhere to escape to, where I could be myself, being good at my job was my validation.  In my case, coming into the office literally saved me.  I was finally free of my perpetrator, it’s where I felt safe to make a disclosure about what happened to me without someone monitoring me and I could speak freely.  Without this safety net, I’m not sure where I would have turned to for help, or what could have happened if I didn’t make that disclosure. 

What plays on my mind is how are those stuck in the terror of domestic abuse coping during lockdown?  When that safe space of the office is taken from you, where is that escape?  Where is that control over your life and how it is affecting your mental health? 

Which leads me onto how I feel as a manager – I work with mostly women, statistically I am working with people who are at increased risk of domestic abuse.  I have an overwhelming feeling of responsibility, I feel there is more I could and should do.  To say I am worried is a massive understatement.  I want to make sure my team is safe while they work – and these are people I genuinely care about. 

So what can I do as a line manager?  In the current climate, where and when does it cross the line of line manager and colleague? Do I venture into what might be “too close” or asking leading questions?  And what on earth should I do if I get the response I dread hearing?

The activist in me says this is absolutely NOT the time to observe that professional distance, to worry about metaphoric lines, or to not ask those awkward questions. 

We ALL need to look out for each other, especially those who are vulnerable and where you have a “gut” feeling that everything is not okay.  Social isolation is a perpetrator’s dream, their victim is restricted to being indoors, the lack of freedom to come and go, where nipping to the shops (maybe to make that important call to a friend to disclose what is happening) is now limited to going out for essentials. 

Through my work as an activist, I’m aware where a perpetrator has moved back in (it’s a great excuse, they say you need help with the kids, you can’t do it all alone, where will I go?) – and is now monitoring that individual’s every move, every phone call – constantly there, listening and watching.  

I recommend daily check ins as a minimum – this is not the time to reduce your contact and/or visibility. 

Agree on a safe word i.e. a fictional colleague at work and make this part of the conversation to ask about to serve as an indication of how things are at home.  At a time where we are physically more distant and disconnected, we need to up the ante and look out for changed behaviours and any other changes in people – are they behaving differently?  Also, please, please download the Bright Sky app – you will have critical helplines to hand. 

Please don’t feel you have to come up with all the answers for that individual.  Sometimes it is enough simply for you just to offer your support and care.  Don’t think you have to hold this space on your own, reach out to a trusted source for support.  Dealing with this can be really tough and triggering, and it can affect you personally. 

Please know where to go for that support – is it your functional leader, is it HR, is it someone in this circle?  But please know where to draw the confidentiality line and when you need to ignore it.

If you are an employer, consider joining EIDA.  Their website has a range of resources available for employers and their social media feeds on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are updated regularly with information.

Please be kind, and please be patient.  Ask that person if they are okay, and ask them again if they are really okay.  If they see that you are genuine in asking, they might just put their trust in you.

My final words: going back to those “jokes” and “it’s just a bit of banter”, the activist in me calls on you not to be a bystander.  Where it’s safe to – say something and call this out.  We can all try to put a stop to this escalating from the “banter” mindset at the bottom level to something more sinister.

The National Domestic Abuse Helpline is available 24-hours a day, for free and in confidence on 0808 2000 247.

Domestic Abuse and Coronavirus
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