Domestic violence is a "shadow pandemic", according to specialists coping with a steady rise in incidents after restrictions were imposed in response to Covid-19.
Zainab Al Sharif, a domestic violence advocate, helps women who turn to the Al-Hasaniya Moroccan Women’s Centre in the borough of Kensington, one of the most prosperous in London.
Those, such as Ms Al Sharif, know that abuse in the home does not discriminate by class, race or religion, and that particularities within communities mean that some groups are harder to reach.
Their occupation requires cultural understanding and the means to communicate sensitively but effectively, as well as patience and emotional fortitude.
“It's not for everyone, sitting with a woman or hearing a woman crying on the phone for half an hour because of something that's happened,” she says of her work at the women’s centre set up for Arabic speakers.
“I have the honour to be able to support a client, who has told me the most horrendous things that have happened and I've been able to help her in some way.
"To be safe, to be free to bring up her children how she wants in a safe and free environment. That's what makes it worthwhile."
Al-Hasaniya has seen a 100 per cent increase in domestic violence referrals during the past year. For the first time, too, it has also received calls from men at the receiving end of abuse. “It doesn't have to be physical abuse, but controlling [or] verbally abusive,” she explains, and it often manifests in overt racism or Islamophobia from partners.
Although the focus of the service is women, Ms Al Sharif says that the policy since the doors opened in 1985 has been to help anyone in need.
As of 2015, it has been part of the Angelou partnership, an umbrella of nine specialist organisations that support women and girls experiencing domestic or sexual violence.
The strength of the partnership is in being able to offer victims – or clients as Ms Al Sharif refers to them – aid according to their specific needs, and the ability to speak to them in Arabic.
"When they see us, they feel like oh, my God, I can just talk to you," she tells The National. "And they tell me everything, because it's so much easier for them to speak in Arabic, and to have a response in Arabic as well. That's what's great about our service, is that we are here speaking in the client's language."
She says that the centre's role is a challenging one, made all the more so as the bridge between social services, housing offices, police, and solicitors.
Hence, Ms Al Sharif, who trained with Refuge, the UK’s largest single provider of specialist domestic and gender-based violence services, considers her remit to be much more than her title might suggest.
The multi-layered difficulties often facing victims mean that she - and others like her - provide emotional, legal, housing and financial support.
The problems are particularly acute when dealing with immigrants whose legal right of abode is tied to their abusive spouse.
Partners who are in the UK on a settlement or spousal visa are prohibited from accessing public funds, and they cannot apply for housing, benefits or legal aid. Technically, the abusive partner can also contact the home office to say that the relationship is over and cancel their victim’s visa, potentially triggering automatic deportation. These threats often form part of the intimidation tactics used by abusers to ensure their partner's silence.
But Ms Al Sharif is keen to provide reassurance. “There's always a solution. And that's the message that I really want to put out there for women is that there is always a way out when you are a victim of abuse,” she says.
Options include applying for a Destitute Domestic Violence Concession, which informs officials that the recipient of the order is a victim of abuse. The concession opens up the availability of public funds, including the possibility of moving to a council-owned house and applying for leave to remain in the United Kingdom.
If children are involved then social services have a legal obligation to help the parent being abused. Ms Al Sharif says that children are also used as pawns in the psychological warfare inflicted on domestic abuse victims.
“A lot of the women have a fear of social services because of the abuser scaring them," she says. "I have to explain to her who social services are, what their role is. There are so many things that I think an Arabic client has to get her head around, because it's so different to other countries. You don't have social services in other countries. You don't automatically go to the police when something happens and report it.”
The childless can sometimes fall through the cracks. Without access to public resources or a friend to stay with, they’re forced to remain in an abusive environment until their immigration status is resolved.
“This is where government policy is actually against the victim and it needs to be changed," Ms Al Sharif argues. "We don't want this no recourse to public funds to exist; a woman should be able to leave at any time and not have restrictions."
Religion and culture
Religious and cultural issues can further complicate interventions – but also make them all the more crucial. Some women that Ms Al Sharif has spoken to resist taking action because they feel it isn’t part of their Muslim or Arab backgrounds to do so. She is quick to disagree.
“If he's doing something that hurts you, there is a consequence, which is breaking the law, and he needs to be punished for it. And I try to work … on challenging the woman in a gentle way. I don't want to alienate her. I don't want to dictate to her what to do. Ultimately, it's her decision. But, at the same time, we try to work with women so that they can change their mentality of 'this is not in our culture'.”
When women do overcome the cultural impediments and seek advice from religious authorities instead of specific domestic abuse centres, they can often be let down by a lack of understanding regarding the dynamics of what is being perpetrated on them.
“Unfortunately, when they go and tell them their experiences, they are told: 'The first thing we need to do is mediation.' And that is the complete opposite message that we as a domestic service call for. You can’t mediate between a perpetrator and a victim, especially if the abuse is very severe, or the police have been involved, or social services are involved.”
She adds that the lack of a uniform, cohesive Sharia council can further confuse and alienate vulnerable women.
Lobbying and laws
The statistics were discouraging even before coronavirus lockdowns began. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, an estimated 5.5 per cent of adults aged 16 to 74 years – or 2.3 million people - experienced domestic abuse in the year ending last March.
The situation has only grown worse since tight restrictions began, with police forces and domestic abuse helplines globally recording a significant rise in incidents.
As concerns for victims trapped with abusive partners became apparent, the government moved to specifically include escaping domestic abuse as one of a few “reasonable excuses” for leaving home in the latest lockdown.
Additionally, a scheme known as Ask For ANI (Action Needed Immediately) was developed by the Home Office to allow victims of domestic abuse to access help by using a code-word at their local pharmacy.
The government also announced an extra £40 million ($55.7m) of funding for support services that help victims of rape and domestic abuse in England and Wales, and it has also committed to amending the Domestic Abuse Bill to make threats of sharing intimate images a criminal offence.