Sarah Andrews standing on a bridge, in London, at night, looking at the camera

Shining a light on the dedication needed to eliminate abuse

First published by Inside Housing

As part of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and UNiTE by 2030 to end Violence Against Women campaigns which begin on Thursday 25 November, at Sovereign we’ll be joining in with the social media candlelit vigil to remember the two women murdered each week in the UK by their partner or ex-partner.

The lighting of candles aims to highlight the issues faced by all women and girls affected by domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, and marks the beginning of 16 days of global activism.

As an organisation, we decided that we wanted to flag this campaign to our employees, as tackling domestic abuse, and ensuring that our customers feel safe in their homes is something we’ve really focused on over the last year. We’ll also be highlighting the services we offer to residents during the following 16 days, including our partnership with support charity Womankind.

The awareness campaign is online – it asks people to light a candle and share a photo – and it is a significant statement. But for us, this moment is also about flagging the very real advances we’ve been making both digitally and in the ‘real world’ to better protect our residents from domestic abuse – and the other dangers that go along with it, like financial and coercive control.  

In the reporting year to date we’ve seen 115 cases of domestic abuse being reported already, against 166 for the whole of 2020/21. I said in a previous blog that it might seem odd to celebrate more cases being reported – but we know from national statistics that this is still the tip of the iceberg.

Domestic abuse comes in many different shapes and forms, and we know that it takes vigilance, perseverance, time and effort from people across our teams to bring the perpetrators to justice, as well as giving victims a chance to retake control of their lives.

In fact, earlier this month, one of our ASB officers provided supporting evidence on a case that involved coercive control - something that only became a publicly acknowledged offence in 2015. The case was originally brought to our attention at a multi-agency risk assessment conference (MARAC) with the Newbury Domestic Abuse Policing Team and A2 Dominion – the referral service for domestic abuse in West Berkshire, several years ago.    

One of our residents was manipulating and controlling the everyday life of another of our residents – behaviour which included preventing her from seeing friends and family, taking control of her finances and making death threats towards her, making her frightened for the safety of her family. Towards the end of the relationship, he actually made her doubt her own sanity.

At the same time other residents reported that he was carrying out other threatening and intimidating behaviour – such as walking out at night with a headtorch, shining lights into women’s windows and loitering in communal spaces.

It was a complicated case which needed delicate handling, with details that were sensitive and emotive. Initially, we made our female resident safe, carrying target hardening; changing locks on the doors of her home and providing a high level of reassurance that action would be taken.

We also had to make a decision about how we could best support the other women in our community and keep them safe too. Initially, our ASB officer worked to seek a legal civil injunction for Anti-Social Behaviour to prevent our male resident from harassing his female neighbours.

Our officer gained the injunction, but in parallel, thanks to her involvement with MARAC, she also supported the police as they carried out separate investigations into our resident for reports of impersonating a police officer, harassment, public order offences, voyeurism and coercive control.

Over the next 18 months, during challenging Covid restrictions and due to personal reasons linked to the victim which meant all engagement had to be carried out over the phone. This meant no emails, no texts, no face to face visits - our officer continued to offer support. She gave the police witness statements and evidence and kept a highly vulnerable victim as positive as she could, ensuring that they felt able to continue with the high-stress situation of giving evidence.

This is the first case for Sovereign where we’ve given evidence on coercive control. Although under the current legal framework it does not sit under Grounds 7A ‘housing tenancy enforcement’ which lay out the conditions for anti-social behaviour – reframing this is currently being considered by Government. In this case, it was obvious that the female resident being victimised needed our support to speak up, to be believed, to take the situations they were reporting seriously.

The accumulated actions of our male resident built up into a disturbing picture of abuse, which the judge overseeing the case deemed as ‘extremely serious’, and, in October this year, our male resident was convicted of harassment, public order offences and coercive control and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.

So, when I light the candle today I’ll also be thinking about the fact that ending domestic abuse is not a quick fix. Situations like the case described above take months and even years of focus, dedication, and strong conviction to see through. We want our customers and employees to know that they can turn to us for long term support, any time of night or day, if they are experiencing something similar, simply by calling our team on 0300 5000 926, or by speaking to any one of our front line employees. It is only by uniting, by working collectively together, that we can end violence against women.