“I hate to say it because it’s brought tragedy to so many, but the coronavirus has really lifted this old veil off of domestic abuse and has exposed it for what it is. It’s given people an opportunity to actually think about how awful it would be, because they’ve now experienced isolation.”
Charlotte Kneer is CEO of Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid, a refuge based in East Surrey, for women and children fleeing severe domestic abuse.
Charlotte felt “driven by force” to act when she heard about the lockdown restrictions in March. “I had just the biggest sense of connection to all the women that would be experiencing lockdown with their abusers.”
Hidden in Plain Sight
The coronavirus has devasted many communities, but Charlotte is glad to at least see much needed attention being paid to the issue of domestic abuse. “I think the very first step that we as a society and a community need is to stop believing that it is not our business to get involved. We need to make the private public because it is everyone’s business.”
In Surrey it is estimated there were 21,400 female victims of domestic abuse prior to the coronavirus crisis. Frustratedly, Charlotte says “You know, the one thing I hear time and time again? Is that domestic abuse doesn’t happen in Surrey. And I can tell you that actually it does happen in Surrey – it happens across all socioeconomic groups, races, religions. There is no area of society that remains untouched by domestic abuse.”
Nationally, some estimate that the number of women killed doubled during lockdown. The difference between a women surviving her abuse and being killed often rests in her ability to leave. Something that Charlotte states plainly, “I know that sounds awful, but that is the reality. This is what these women are fleeing from, the risk of murder.”
This has becoming increasingly difficult as the number of refuge bed spaces in England is 30% below what the Council of Europe recommends.
According to Charlotte though, the county of Surrey is a “leading example” of a local authority that recognises the critical need of these safe refuge spaces for women. “I think that [when there is a needs assessment done] we will all find out that Surrey is providing what it should be providing and is a leading light in provision of refuge spaces.”
The New Refuge
Acting on the urgent calls from community groups, like Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid and Your Sanctuary, Surrey County Council, the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) and the Community Foundation for Surrey partnered to create a new building for survivors of domestic abuse.
Over £58,000 was awarded to the domestic abuse charity by the Community Foundation for Surrey. This funding came from the Foundation’s Coronavirus Response Fund Phase 2 grant-making, as well as from the Dora Fedoruk Memorial Fund and the Netherby Trust Fund, both managed by the Community Foundation. Extraordinarily, in the span of four weeks, a building provided by the Council has been fitted with all the benefits of home.
As Charlotte says, “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves really to get it open [for when lockdown ended] because I wanted to be open for when women may have their first opportunity to escape. Literally every friend and their dog has been helping out, getting this place up and running. I haven’t stopped working nights and weekends for the last six weeks really.”
They’ve been able to welcome eight families, with the scope of eventually growing to 20. The quick response by the Community Foundation for Surrey meant the families had all new soft furnishings and white goods. An absolutely vital detail according to Charlotte, “I stayed in a refuge years ago. My son was seven when we went, and I remember him being terrified of this big old building that we stayed in. He wouldn’t even go to the bedroom on his own. So I know that women need to arrive somewhere that feels homely and that makes them feel safe.”
There’s still much to be done. The capacity for the refuge means they must slowly accept new families, and within a minute of a space opening up it is filled. The weight of having to disappoint so many women is tough on Charlotte.
But she remains hopeful. She enjoys seeing what this new building means to the families living there.
“We’re still putting finishing touches to it, but we’ve had women and children come and they absolutely love it. It was important to make this place nice because I think it says to the women when they come in that you’re valued, that you’re worth it.”