Instances of violence against women have, unfortunately, been in the spotlight in recent weeks, though it’s no secret the issue is constant and unrelenting.
Latest data from the Office for National Statistics reveals an estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in a 12-month period ending March 2020, of which an estimated 1.6 million were women.
The government website explains white people (5.7%) were more likely to experience domestic abuse than Black people (3.7%) or Asian people (3.6%) in the same time frame, but the higher figures do not in any way negate the lower ones; a survivor of abuse is a survivor, regardless of who they are.
Erica Osakwe, a 22-year-old survivor of abuse, discovered the hard way that not everyone has this point of view when she went to the police after experiencing physical and emotional abuse.
The abuse took place between 2017 and 2020 and led Erica to a period of her life in which she was trying to understand ‘all the pain and trauma’ she had gone through. She began writing down her experiences, researching the meanings behind what she went through and connecting with those who had gone through similar abuse, though it was an unrelated incident that brought Erica’s abuse to the attention of the Metropolitan police.
The 22-year-old, who is Black, was advised to share her story under the assurance she would be met with understanding and support, so she went to the police station with a friend, who is white, to report what had happened to her.
Speaking to UNILAD, Erica explained she asked her friend to accompany her because she was ‘beyond nervous and scared’, and because her friend knew what she had been through.
Erica wanted to feel as ‘comfortable as possible’ while telling her story, though things didn’t start well as she was greeted at the police station with an officer who initially told her to make her report online due to coronavirus restrictions.
She recalled: ‘When first attending the station, as it was during the pandemic, after waiting 40 minutes there was a police officer present who was kicking everyone out of the station. He kept repeating ‘Report it online if it is not urgent’. Despite stressing I wanted to speak to the officer, we were all eventually forced to leave the station.’
It was only after Erica was left standing outside ‘upset and distressed’ that she and her friend were called back into the station, where they told the officer their report related to abuse. Upon hearing this, the officer ‘looked over at [Erica’s] friend and asked if they intended to make the police report that day.’
‘This is where I stood forward and said I was the one who came to make the report. My friend, being white and petite, was automatically assumed to be the victim. I didn’t fit the victim profile. Despite being the one doing the most talking and looking visibly distressed’, Erica said.
Prior to the start of Black History Month, which takes place throughout October, the domestic violence charity Refuge revealed Black survivors of domestic abuse were found to be 3% more likely than white survivors to report abuse to police, but 14% less likely to be referred for support than white survivors of domestic abuse over the same time frame.
Erica said these statistics did not surprise her as she ‘witnessed it first-hand herself’, adding: ‘A lot of officers don’t care.’
She described herself as feeling ’embarrassed, humiliated, ashamed [and] sad’, among other things, when the officer assumed it was her friend who wanted to report the crime. Erica told UNILAD she felt she ‘wasn’t a victim in his eyes’, noting that ‘not once did he even think to ask who was making the report’.
Describing the officer’s actions as ‘an immediate dangerous assumption’, Erica continued: ‘In that moment, I felt completely hopeless… I am a tall black woman. Standing six feet tall. There’s no way in their eyes I could be a victim.’
Once the officer acknowledged it was Erica who wanted to make the report, the 22-year-old realised she was being treated slightly differently to the way her friend had been approached, explaining: ‘[The officer] felt initially concerned with my friend as to him she was the victim. [He was] more sincere and soft in tone.’
Erica spent four to five hours at the station while the police documented her account, but five months later, following numerous calls asking for an update, she learned the officers had incorrectly filed her report. It did not exist.
‘I had so much anxiety and depression for a report that was never documented correctly in the first place. A torturous five months that simply didn’t need to happen’, she said.
After telling her over the phone that her report had been wrongly filed, an officer asked Erica to briefly share her experience. They then determined that due to the fact more than six months had passed, which is the time limit for common assault, there was nothing that could be done.
Erica claims police ‘refused to acknowledge the numerous witnesses and evidence that existed’, and after 20 minutes, the phone call was finished. ‘They said I could call back with any questions,’ Erica said, but ‘after one year and having tried to call them back [she] never heard from them ever again’.
In spite of having detailed twice what she had been through, Erica received ‘no help, no services, nothing’.
In a bid to stop other survivors falling victim of the same flawed system, Erica created the organisation Victims Too to fight for the removal of the six month limit in place for reporting domestic violence-related offences.
Furthermore, when it comes to the experience and treatment of Black female survivors reporting crimes to police, Erica believes police need to be ‘more empathetic to abuse’ and ‘remove the stereotypes behind Black women being strong’ so all female survivors can be treated equally.
Erica also feels police should undergo training to understand that ‘asking a victim why they simply didn’t leave is immensely gross and inappropriate conduct’. The need for training is something echoed by community-based non-profit Sistah Space, which is campaigning to make specialist training mandatory for all police and other government agencies that support Black women and girls affected by domestic abuse.
Earlier this year, the government responded to Sistah Space’s campaign to say ‘current training on domestic abuse should include recognising the specific needs of victims due to their ethnicity or cultural background’, and therefore the government ‘does not feel it is necessary to mandate it’.
Sistah Space is continuing its push for change, arguing ‘common stereotyping and unconscious bias of Black people must be understood and learned so that it is not reflected in a service providers’ ability to help [domestic violence] victims’, and that ‘distrust of police officers and government agencies within the Black community due to historic institutional racism’ must be ‘recognised and addressed’.
According to Sistah Space, 86% of African and/or Caribbean heritage women in the UK have either directly been a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse, or know a family member who has been assaulted. When it comes to reporting crimes, just 1% feel the current system supports Black women ‘just fine as it is’.
The statistics regarding women facing abuse are harrowing enough in themselves, but the fact so many survivors then feel let down by the people who are supposed to offer support highlights a stark new level of failure.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please know that you are not alone. You can talk in confidence 24 hours a day to the national domestic violence helpline Refuge on 0808 2000 247