1. Domestic abuse, including domestic violence, has risen dramatically as a direct result of Covid lockdown restrictions. The UN has described this phenomenon as a “shadow pandemic”. Multiple data points unequivocally confirm this: the BBC estimates that globally domestic abuse has increased by 20% during Covid lockdown; according to the ONS, the police recorded 206,492 violence against the person offences flagged as domestic abuse-related between March and June 2020, a 9% increase compared with the same period in 2019; and according to the Guardian calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose by 80% in June of 2020.
2. It is difficult to imagine a more horrendous scenario than being in effect imprisoned in one’s own home with a perpetrator who inflicts domestic abuse (very likely including domestic violence) on you, and possibly your children. There have been 3 lockdowns all of which lasted over a month (at least), and we are in the midst of the 3rd lockdown.
3. Compounding the severity of the situation, due to lockdown restrictions, the usual pathways to domestic abuse assistance have become unavailable e.g. schools; interaction with friends, colleagues and relatives; interaction with social services; space away from the perpetrator whilst at work and online – all of which ordinarily offer an opportunity to contact specialist services without being monitored.
4. Therefore, we are witnessing the simultaneous trends of a dramatic rise in domestic abuse alongside a dramatic recession of the pathways to access support for domestic abuse.
5. As well as being an odious crime which inflicts terrible damage on individual victims at the time of abuse, domestic abuse is well understood to be the origin of many subsequent societal problems such as: immediate and lasting psychological trauma, loss of homes for those who flee, children of victims performing poorly at school, the risk that victims of domestic abuse may repeat the cycle on their own family, and so on. Therefore, it is certain that this dramatic rise in domestic abuse will generate a proportionately dramatic rise in such societal problems for many years into the future
6. In direct response to this situation, in May 2020, Royal Mail and Hawkrose, created Online Safe Spaces (OSS) together with leading UK domestic abuse experts from: the University of Bristol, Hestia charity and Sussex Police.
7. OSS is a discreet, safe, no-internet history portal that sits at the bottom of a webpage and opens up a window on any website. The service provides support, advice and helpful contact numbers for those who are experiencing, or are at risk of, domestic abuse.
8. OSS was launched on Royal Mail’s and Parcelforce Worldwide’s websites 4 months later in September 2020. Please see paragraph 9iii below for details of other organisations who have also installed OSS on to their websites.
9. OSS has 4 objectives:
i. To offer expert support to persons suffering or at risk of domestic abuse. We believe we accomplished this thanks to the leading domestic abuse experts who supported us.
ii. To be 100% safe for users. This has been achieved thanks to Royal Mail IT experts: the software leaves no internet history and cannot be used to trace users. Furthermore, a key premise of OSS was for the software to be installed on websites which are not associated with domestic abuse. As such, should a user interact with OSS on e.g. http://www.royalmail.com, and then subsequently that user’s perpetrator examines the internet history, only the Royal Mail website would be listed – and this should not raise any suspicions on the part of the perpetrator.
iii. To be ubiquitous. Royal Mail offers OSS for free to any organisation who wants to install on to their websites; the onboard process is very simple. At the time of submission (March 2021), OSS is installed on 23 websites, for example: Royal Mail, Parcelforce, Ministry of Defence (intranet), 4 global law firms, Thames Water, Anglia Water, Southeastern Railways, Post Office. Over 18 additional organisations have confirmed they will install OSS on to their website, for example: eBay, a high street bank and a major UK telecoms company. Since launch, Royal Mail has continually strongly promoted OSS both with its customers and more generally through its social media. We expect many more participants.
iv. To raise the public profile of the issue of domestic abuse by virtue of OSS being on as many websites as possible. It is unquestionable that stigma and taboo surround domestic abuse and that this acts as a material hinderance to persons asking for help. It is only by raising this issue in the public conscience that we will rid the stigma and taboo and so begin to start to tackle this issue on a fundamental basis.
10. At the time of submission and 7 months after launch, we have recorded just under one million clicks across the OSS portals which are available online. We estimate that each user clicks 4 times, on that assumption, we estimate that just under 250,000 persons have used OSS. For the last 3 months, we have recorded an estimated 1,330 users per day. In order to maintain the 100% anonymity of the service, OSS does not record IP addresses – this would have provided much more accurate usage data.
11. OSS has received multiple endorsements at launch including: UN Women UK, 2 UK Government Ministers, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Sussex Police.
12. The initiative was called “Online Safe Spaces” so as to align with the Home Office and Hestia’s “Safe Spaces” campaign under which certain pharmacies offer shelter within their premises to those suffering from domestic abuse. Both initiatives benefit from and are mutually strengthened by this alignment.
13. We look forward to expanding the number of organisations who install OSS and so provide direct expert help to even more domestic abuse victims as well raising the profile of this issue in the UK.