With the cost of living crisis preventing women from fleeing abuse, the government must act now to support survivors

Originally published on the Women’s Aid website.

A blog by Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid, and Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, CEO and Founder of Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA).

We’re all worried about the cost of living crisis. From interest rates to groceries, utility bills to petrol, everything is getting more expensive. But for some women, this crisis could mean the difference between life and death.

Lack of economic safety forces women to stay with abusers longer than they want to, meaning they experience more harm as a result. For those that leave, economic abuse can long continue, preventing women from rebuilding their lives, sometimes for decades.

Women’s Aid carried out a survey looking at the impact of the crisis on survivors of domestic abuse. An alarming two-thirds (66%) of survivors told the charity that abusers are now using the cost of living increase as a tool for coercive control, justifying further restricting their access to money.

Economic abuse is a form of coercive control that seeks to restrict, exploit and/or sabotage a victim’s economic resources and independence. This abuse is as far-reaching as it is horrific: survivors tell us about abusers controlling access to their bank accounts, preventing them from working or making it harder to work, or using their credit cards without permission. Abusers can control every aspect of a woman’s life, making it impossible to find safe and secure housing.

Heartbreakingly, survivors said they were prevented from fleeing by the stark reality of not being able to support their children (50%), getting into debt (52%), or concerns that benefits wouldn’t cover increased living costs (48%).

Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) enables the training of frontline professionals to recognise and respond to economic abuse. In recent sessions, the charity has been told that the cost of living crisis will bring “a tsunami” of abuse as usual routes for safety or respite won’t be available because friends and family may not have capacity to support survivors during this time. Abusers could put increased pressure on their partners to move in together, sooner, to combat the rising costs; they may berate and punish survivors for not being better prepared for the crisis or deliberately keep all appliances on whenever they can.

We know that services that support women and provide safe housing accommodation, from refuges to community-based services, are already under significant pressure. COVID-19 put an already overstretched sector under a significant amount of demand – and this has not gone away. One Women’s Aid member service recently told us that:  “We have just renewed our energy costs with our bulk supplier and the costs have increased by 300%. We built a 45% increase into our budgets, but the 300% increase has completely blown our financial plan for this year.”

They went on to describe the impact this could have on women seeking safe accommodation: “We would normally pass increases on to our residents in the refuge…but this would not be affordable – it would stop victims from moving into refuges.”

This crisis is having an unprecedented impact on women and children and requires urgent action. While the government has made some positive progress such as the Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan and clear commitments in the Domestic Abuse Act, a failure to act on the cost of living crisis could risk meaningful change for survivors of domestic abuse.

We are urging the government to:

  • Provide an Emergency Support Fund for Survivors to offset the impact of the cost of living crisis
  • Offer discounts on energy bills to domestic abuse services that provide lifesaving support.

At Women’s Aid and SEA, we’ll be working harder than ever to ensure we are doing everything we can to support survivors. It’s never been more urgent for the government to do the same. We are quickly approaching the winter months where the crisis will only get worse – we must act now to ensure every woman has the support she needs this winter, a safe roof over their head, and a life free from abuse.

If you are experiencing economic abuse or know someone who is, please visit the Surviving Economic Abuse website for information and resources, or speak to a specialist worker at Women’s Aid Live Chat.

Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner, said: “I will be working with the government as a matter of great urgency over the coming months to ensure that all domestic abuse victims get the help and support they need to get through this unprecedented cost of living crisis. There is no doubt that everyone is under financial pressure, but the effects could be far more extreme for those experiencing domestic abuse.

“Victims may well be in increased danger because of these additional financial pressures which mean they are forced to stay with perpetrators. The gendered nature of domestic abuse means that there will be a disproportionate impact on women and children.”

To read more of Women’s Aid’s cost of living research, click here.

Further details of support that may be available and important considerations if you are experiencing economic abuse can be found on SEA’s new cost-of-living information resource.