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Technology – helping or hindering victim-survivors of domestic abuse?

In this latest blog post 'Digital Justice' student Heather Gordon looks at the role technology plays in domestic abuse issues.

Domestic abuse cases have soared during the Covid 19 crisis, with many victims increasingly isolated and perpetrators exploiting lockdown rules [1]. Present difficulties in securing access to traditional avenues of support and legal relief, mean the Government must consider alternative methods and procedural changes to best safeguard and protect those affected by domestic abuse.

Indeed, a cross party committee are currently urging Government legislate to remove time limits on prosecution of domestic abuse offences and have encouraged the creation of “safe spaces” for victims.[2]

These safe spaces have also emerged online, with organizations including Victim Support offering 24-hour Live chats for people affected by crime in England and Wales [3] and support from the Governments’ #youarenotalone initiative increasing funding to online services which advise and support victims of domestic abuse.[4] However, the focus on technology reignites debate surrounding the potential benefits and disadvantages of relying on online tools to empower victims. New technology can play a critical role in safeguarding victims, allowing individuals in remote areas to access support, and stay connected with loved ones they would have been isolated from otherwise (under the control of a domestic abuse perpetrator). It also provides a means of recording instances of abuse for building a case in court.[5]

However, research indicates technology is often exploited by perpetrators, with victims having their online communications monitored and controlled (confirmed by 50% of female victims interviewed for the Safe Lives Tech vs Abuse report). [6] It also highlights how technology can facilitate perpetrators in isolating victims from support mechanisms, providing extensive tools for abuse, to threaten, insult and dehumanise (indeed, there are services dedicated to tackling digital abuse in particular). [7]

The issue remains how best to ensure technology can be used safely by victims to access support, while simultaneously discouraging perpetrators from exploiting that technology to control their victims. This is a pervasive and fundamental problem, requiring a measured approach and innovative solutions to best secure the safety of victims online; discussed in partnership and collaboration between the Law Commission, Domestic Abuse experts and Tech companies.

As Women’s Aid joins with Twitter to develop a tool assisting victims in finding relevant support services [8], we may wonder if other online platforms will follow suit in trying to tackle issues surrounding domestic abuse, and ultimately what role technology will play in the process i.e. will it help or hinder victims in the long run? The question will likely receive a nuanced response in the future given the complexities involved.

If you are personally affected or fear a loved one is being subjected to domestic abuse, please contact one of the following for support:

The National Domestic Abuse Helpline – available online at https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ and telephone on 0808 2000 247

Women’s Aid (providing support and helpful resources for victims) – online at https://www.womensaid.org.uk/

Respect – online at https://mensadviceline.org.uk/ and telephone 0808 8010327

For more information on available support refer to The Citizens Advice Bureau website (https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/family/gender-violence/domestic-violence-and-abuse-getting-help/)

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