On 29 April, the UK’s Domestic Abuse Bill passed both Houses of Parliament and was finally signed into law. The new Act aims to provide greater protections for survivors; better measures to tackle perpetrators; and a more wide-ranging legal definition of domestic abuse - one that goes beyond physical violence, to also include emotional and economic abuse and coercive or controlling behavior.
It’s about time, say many. The pandemic has seen a significant surge in domestic abuse reports, with lockdowns forcing survivors to spend much more time with their abusers. In an April 2020 survey conducted by Women’s Aid, over two-thirds of respondents (67%) told the national charity that the abuse had escalated under lockdown and almost three-quarters (72%) agreed that their abuser had more control over their lives since the pandemic hit.
It’s been relentless for many survivors, says Kat, a domestic abuse support worker at Women’s Aid, and the need for help, support and advice has never been greater.
The pandemic has made it harder for survivors to leave abusive partners, to access the support of friends and family, to protect their children from witnessing abuse and experiencing it themselves. It’s absolutely not the case that lockdown causes domestic abuse, but it’s certainly escalated the situation for a lot of women. When you can’t leave the house, you can’t get a break - there’s been no let-up.
Reaching out for help
All this means that many more people have reached out to the charity for help, many through an online Live Chat service that Women’s Aid launched in late October 2019.
This service, accessible via the charity’s website, saw a 41% surge in use during the UK’s first lockdown, according to Kat, with many users reporting they find it easier to type than to talk, especially when discussing deeply upsetting experiences. Plus, for many women, it’s not always safe to make a phone call when their abuser could be listening in or use email, when their abuser might be monitoring their online activities, she points out. In short, it’s another way for them to get in touch with fully trained female support workers who help them explore their situation and provide information and support.
The vulnerability of people using the service was a massive consideration in this project, according to Giles Colbourne, CEO of cxpartners, a human-centered design agency that developed it, now part of French IT services company Sopra Steria.
Women’s Aid Live Chat is largely based on bespoke software, he explains, because many of the off-the-shelf live chat products that the company might have otherwise used do not necessarily take these issues into account. It’s not the company’s first experience of delivering that kind of sensitivity in design, he adds; his team previously developed a live chat service for emotional support charity, Samaritans, and regularly helps corporate clients address inclusivity needs. He says:
We also put a lot of thought into the language used to welcome a visitor and guide them through the process, because for a survivor reaching out for the first time, it can be hard to identify with terms like ‘abuse’. That can be intimidating and we needed to make things as open and welcoming as possible.
These efforts paid off. In its first year, Women’s Aid Live Chat support staff had conversations with over 2,600 women. Over 111,000 visited the Live Chat page. And 99% of users said they would recommend the service to someone they were worried about.
More recently, Women’s Aid extended the hours of operation of the service, which now runs 10am to 6pm, seven days a week. Today, one support worker can support around ten women per day, in chats that last an average time of around 45 minutes, says Kat.
The service has also helped Women’s Aid to reach a younger demographic, in line with its mission to keep women of all ages safe and educate them about what abuse really looks like. In a 2019 pilot of the service, some 65% of the women using it were under 35 years old and 17% under 25, according to cxpartners. Says Kat::
The live chat service has very quickly become a very important part of the support that Women’s Aid provides. It’s a real lifeline for many survivors, at a time when so many of them face situations at home that have deteriorated rapidly and become extremely frightening.