There have been many shocking statistics to have emerged throughout the coronavirus pandemic so far, but one particularly concerning one is the increased rate of domestic abuse.
Reports of domestic abuse-related crimes during the first lockdown - between March and June 2020 - were up 7% compared to the same period the year before, according to government statistics released in November. The police recorded 259,324 offences flagged as being domestic abuse-related, which is an unthinkable number when you consider the ongoing advice to 'stay at home'.
Now, in a bid to support anyone experiencing abuse inside their home - be it physical, emotional or coercive - the government has teamed up with independent pharmacies and Boots pharmacies across the country to launch a new code word scheme. The 'Ask for ANI' scheme is designed to enable domestic abuse victims to seek immediate help from police or other support services.
As of right now, anyone currently enduring domestic abuse can ask a pharmacy employee if they can "speak to ANI" and the trained workers will be able to offer a private space where they can find out more about what the person needs. There, they will be able to help survivors contact the police, or access support services such as national or local domestic abuse helplines.
In coercively controlling relationships especially, it can be very hard for the survivor to gain enough freedom to leave the house and find help. By equipping thousands of essential retailers with trained staff and a safe space, the hope is that victims will be able to sound an alarm if they are unable to get help in another way.
Discussing the new scheme, Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins said: "I know that lockdown restrictions are especially difficult for those experiencing domestic abuse. Home should be a safe place, but for those confined with an abuser it is clearly not.
"The codeword scheme will offer a lifeline to all victims, ensuring they get urgent help in a safe and discreet way."
Domestic abuse charity Women's Aid backed the scheme's ability to open up avenues for domestic abuse survivors to seek help, but also shared some concerns about it being put into practice. "Women's Aid knows that, most often, the first time survivors speak about domestic abuse is to friends, family or someone in the community. Improving gateways to support and safety in our communities is essential," said Nicki Norman, acting chief executive at the charity.
"However, we remain concerned that the proposed national scheme does not meet critical safeguards." Women's Aid went on to air concerns over whether training for pharmacy workers will be "robust" enough to equip them adequately for such serious situations.
"It is neither not fair nor safe to expect staff members to respond to a survivor effectively without robust staff training, facilitated by an expert trainer. Harmful attitudes and persistent myths about domestic abuse in our society also must be challenged," said Norman. While the government confirms pharmacy employees will undergo training as part of the scheme, it is not clear yet exactly what this will involve.
Women's Aid also highlighted that the ‘Ask for ANI’ scheme may not be accessible to all marginalised groups. "We know that migrant women will continue to fear reporting abuse and seeking help because of the data-sharing arrangements between the Home Office and health services," the charity said, adding that it continues to support urgent calls for safe reporting mechanisms for migrant survivors via the domestic abuse bill, which is currently going through parliament.
While the implementation of this scheme is undoubtedly a positive step forward, enabling the possibility of help to many more women who may not have previously felt able to access it, it's also important that more work is done to allay the concerns of specialist charities such as Women's Aid. The bottom line and the mutual goal, after all, is helping as many survivors as possible to free themselves from dangerous situations.
You can contact the Freephone 24h National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0800 2000 247. Alternatively, you can visit Women's Aid's website for more information and resources. Live Fear Free provides support for women in Wales (0808 8010 800). Scotland’s Domestic Abuse & Forced Marriage Helpline is available 24/7, on 0800 027 1234. For anyone in Northern Ireland, call Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland 24 hours a day on 0808 802 1414.
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