While the COVID-19 pandemic is having, and will undoubtedly continue to have, significant public health consequences for humanity as a whole, for many women and girls the consequences stretch far beyond the risk of contracting the disease. In addition to the various socio-economic implications, lockdowns and isolations place women and girls at even greater risk of domestic violence and abuse.
Evidence from a number of countries such as Germany, Greece, France, China, Japan, Brazil and India shows that domestic violence has increased dramatically since February 2020; sadly, this trend is becoming apparent in many other countries, including the UK. While COVID-19 containment measures, such as lockdown, school closures and channelling resources towards emergency service provision, may be critical to saving lives, they can also unintentionally exacerbate violence against women and girls (VAWG). The closure of schools and day-care centres, and the lack of refuge accommodation, has resulted in many victims having to return to violent partners and/or family members.
The National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since the lockdown, and this is only one of the figures we can tap into to understand the real scale of the problem.
For some women and girls, gender inequality is not the only structural challenge they face in accessing support: racial discrimination often means that the specific needs of black and minority ethnic (BME) victims are an after-thought, where they are not overlooked altogether. So, in the midst of a global pandemic, how do we ensure that we can keep BME women and girls safe?
COVID-19: the impact in the UK
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, BME women’s access to specialist refuge provision in the UK was severely limited and, on average, these victims had to stay in insecure temporary accommodation for longer than white victims. Specialist VAWG women’s organisations have for some time been struggling to sustain funding and consolidate their services given both austerity and the increased hostility towards BME communities, migrants and asylum seekers.
In the midst of the pandemic, this situation is only growing worse. In the last few weeks, VAWG services have reported a tripling in violence and abuse cases – and these are only the reported ones. Too many victims are afraid to report their abuse in the current climate. One Asian woman I have been supporting over the last few weeks said of her partner, “Nothing will be done, he will kill me and blame it on coronavirus. The government and the police do not care about immigrants like me.”
The UK’s Counting Dead Women project has recorded an increase in femicides – with many of the victims from minority communities – since the start of the lockdown; at least seven women have allegedly been killed by partners or former partners, while three have allegedly been killed by their father.
The current paucity of data on VAWG during the COVID-19 crisis is complicating efforts to direct government attention to the urgent actions that need to be taken; even apart from fact that investigations are ongoing in many cases, the lockdown is delaying many aspects of how individual reports to different statutory services are consolidated into useable quantitative data. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that the challenges facing survivors of domestic violence and abuse have been heightened by the current social distancing and lockdown measures.
Moving forward through practical interventions
At present, victims and survivors have no pathways to safely accessing support. The lack of adequate, ring-fenced funding and coordination of emergency programmes, coupled with the difficulties presented by the pandemic, is making it particularly difficult for women living in violent homes to assess their options for escaping violence and abuse.
The Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill that was introduced to Parliament in July 2019 is yet to become statute and will likely be further delayed because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, work towards passing this legislation provides an opportunity to allow for ‘protection before enforcement’ policies to be introduced. To achieve this, the government must create a strong infrastructure that encourages professionals to work in partnership across statutory services as well as with the charity sector, especially where BME victims are concerned, given their specialised needs.
Following my conversations with the Victims’ Commissioner at the beginning of April 2020, I recommended that she and her team pursue the following actions:
- Seek government support to implement pop-up drop-in centres in safe locations offering women a safe and accessible way to seek help when they are only able to leave their homes for short periods and for essential tasks such as food shopping.
- Give women and children whose abusers are curbing their movements access to support and resources that can trigger emergency intervention.
- Set up free text alerts directing people to helplines. For example, Boots has a system that alerts people when their prescriptions are ready to collect. Supermarkets and water, electricity and phone companies have systems that could be used for this type of intervention. Helpline information could be added to the bottom of automatic messages, or an extra message could be sent to all users to help spread the word.
- Provide information at daily government press briefings about various forms of VAWG and how to access support services.
- Work with news networks across mainstream and minority news channels (e.g. Al-Jazeera, BBC Asian Network, Sikh/Islam Channel) to share information and leaflets about violence against women and children.
Different victims will need to be reached in different ways, so the key is to disseminate information widely and through many different channels.
If all victims are to be treated equally, instead of structural inequalities being further entrenched, the specialised needs of BME women and girls must not be ignored in the design and implementation of measures.
Short-term interventions and long-term planning are not mutually exclusive: both are needed if we are to tackle the current crisis while also ensuring that good practice developed during the pandemic can be continued and expanded afterwards.
Professor Aisha K. Gill, Ph.D. CBE is Professor of Criminology at University of Roehampton, UK. Her main areas of interest and research focus on health and criminal justice responses to violence against black, minority ethnic and refugee women in the UK, Iraqi Kurdistan, India, and Pakistan.
She has been involved in addressing the problem of violence against women and girls/, ‘honour’ crimes and forced marriage at the grassroots/activist level for the past 20 years.
Her recent publications include articles on crimes related to the murder of women/femicide, ‘honour’ killings, coercion and forced marriage, child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in South Asian/Kurdish and Somali communities, female genital mutilation, sex selective abortions, intersectionality and women who kill.
You may also be interested in the Journal of Gender-Based Violence, the first international journal based in Europe to showcase the work of scholars across disciplinary and topic boundaries, and from a range of methodologies.
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Image credit: Aisha K. Gill