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by Sundari Anitha and Aisha K. Gill
26th January 2021

Based on the report Domestic violence during the lockdown: the needs of Black and minoritised communities during the pandemic. University of Lincoln and University of Roehampton.

During the pandemic, shortages of essential resources and the devastating economic fallout mean that people across the world are living under uniquely stressful conditions. In particular, evidence from around the globe demonstrates that COVID-19-induced lockdown has resulted in a significant increase in violence against women and children.

Domestic violence and abuse in Black and minoritised communities in the UK

Black and minority ethnic (BME)[1] women and girls are more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of their partners and from multiple family members. They face greater barriers to accessing services and are more likely to experience inappropriate professional responses from statutory and voluntary agencies. This increased risk of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) cannot simply be explained by individual circumstances, access to education, family/community context or socio-economic factors.

We interviewed 26 practitioners in specialist, independent DVA services in England and Wales (n = 16) run ‘by and for’ BME women, to explore these practitioners’ experiences of the ‘double pandemic’ – the spread of COVID-19 coupled with the subsequent rise of DVA in lockdown – and its impact on their organisations, the sector and the communities they serve.

These practitioners observed the same escalation in both the prevalence and intensity of abuse within days of the first lockdown being announced in the UK in March 2020:

Even in the most awful circumstances, women could get a brief moment of respite by going to the shops, dropping their children off at school […] Here it’s 24/7 you are imprisoned, and the psychological impact of that is much greater.

DVA organisations working with BME communities reported enhanced levels of psychological abuse and trauma-related mental distress. For women who had decided to end an abusive relationship prior to the lockdown, the pandemic delayed the separation process:

He chooses when he wants to go out, putting my children and me at risk of catching the virus. […] I’m trying to shield my children from it [COVID], but I can’t.

Practitioners across the sample reported that the abusers used lockdown restrictions and/or the risks of COVID-19 and its consequences as part of their abuse, reaffirming other findings. Several organisations interviewed also reported that enhanced risks of COVID-related job losses in the communities they serve increased the risk of DVA.

Issues specific to BME victims/survivors of DVA during the pandemic

Unique aspects of DVA are specific to BME communities, including particular forms of harm for which the pandemic has been a conducive context. Several interviewees noted the risks posed by school closures for girls at risk of forced marriage. The erosion of familiar routes to disclosure and support (such as private, in-person access to teachers and peer networks) is happening in a context where coercive pressures to marry can now be relentlessly exercised by family members.

The particular difficulties facing women who are marriage migrants – many of whom come to the UK on spousal visas after marrying a British national or resident – arise when they are given visas as dependants, which means that their residence in the UK is tied to their marital status. Consequently, if their marriage ends, they could be deported and separated from any children. This threat is one of the many ways state policies on citizenship and residency exacerbate existing power imbalances between men and women.

The director of one organisation observed that the denial of refuge spaces to women with no recourse to public funds has increased during the pandemic:

XX [a member of a BME organisation] did a […] call to one of the [generic] refuges, asked them if they had spare room for a woman with no recourse to public funds; they said no, and [the same BME organisation] rang up again, with a white British name. Lo and behold, a vacancy had come about. How bad is that?

Impact on BME/DVA-specialist ‘by and for’ independent services

All interviewees noted that the increased prevalence and heightened risk of DVA across the communities they serve were exacerbated by additional barriers to seeking help in the context of the pandemic and policy responses to it. Their organisations drew upon their experience of working and living within these communities to devise new ways of reaching out to vulnerable women and girls. Practitioners reported having to work harder to reach women and girls, such as extending helpline opening hours or establishing new protocols to check on women’s welfare.

However, new modes of remote working do not meet the needs of women who struggle to access relevant technologies. There are also sometimes issues in establishing the level of trust needed for victims/survivors to make full disclosures purely online or over the phone:

Not everyone wants to do a client conversation over Zoom. Face-to-face, I think, makes a huge difference; people are able to open up. I think we are missing out on a lot of victims here simply because it’s just impossible to meet.

One representative of a BME anti-violence organisation that supports women of African–Caribbean descent drew attention to the additional, race-based inequalities that have increased the demands on their services during lockdown:

There’s the obvious increase with the domestic abuse in generic, and then you have the pandemic kind of paired with what some would call a race war with the whole Black Lives Matter movement […]. The two kind of can’t be handled in isolation: they are interlinked. […]. So, over the lockdown period, I saw quite a few Black boys being stopped for no reason basically, or stopped when they are in groups of twos, threes, and their white counterparts haven’t been stopped at all. […] The whole kind of distrust with the police has been heightened, […] this means we are less likely to report cases. You want your perpetrator to stop abusing you, you don’t necessarily want him killed in police custody, or racially profiled, or abused, or deported. […] So I think COVID has just kind of put more Black survivors or victims […] almost in more danger because there’s so many more elements now, especially being the most at-risk category [speaking about the rates of death from COVID].

Frontline practitioners, health professionals and the police are overworked and understaffed; local counselling support groups are either paralysed or financially deprived. In some cases, women from BME communities do not trust statutory agencies, including the criminal justice system, due to negative prior experiences. In this context, ‘by and for’ BME-specialist, independent DVA services perform a crucial role in supporting victims/survivors from communities that are already disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As plans are made for life beyond the pandemic, these services must be included in the creation and design of both future social support networks and statutory services; moreover, this should be done in collaboration with victims/survivors to ensure their voices are heard and their real needs met.

 

Professor Sundari Anitha is Professor of Gender, Violence and Work at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK. Her research interests lie in two areas: the problem of violence against women and girls, and gender, race and ethnicity in employment relations. She has published widely in both areas, and is co-editor of Gender Based Violence in University Communities published by Policy Press. She has previously managed a Women’s Aid shelter and is a trustee of Asha Projects, a specialist refuge for South Asian women who have experienced domestic violence.’  https://staff.lincoln.ac.uk/bd4cf5ff-0da3-4b3b-8047-4f68a63e36c4

Professor Aisha K. Gill, Ph.D. CBE is Professor of Criminology at University of Roehampton, UK. Her main areas of interest and research are health and criminal justice responses to violence against Black, minority ethnic and refugee women in the UK, Georgia, Iraqi Kurdistan, India, Pakistan and Yemen. She has been involved in addressing the problem of violence against women and children, ‘honour’ crimes, femicide and forced marriage at the grassroots/activist level for the past 21 years. In 2019, she was appointed Co-Chair of End Violence Against Women Coalition. In June 2020, she set up an emergency COVID-19 emergency fund for migrant women with no recourse to public funds. Link to donate: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/covidnrpf http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/staff/Aisha-Gill/

 

Read related content online in the Journal of Gender-Based Violence. Find out more about the journal.

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[1] The term Black and minority ethnic (BME) is commonly used in the UK policy context, and has come to be the dominant acronym to refer to communities that have been racialised as the ‘other’. The term is problematic as it homogenises diverse communities, presumes that the default identity is White, and is not a term that people it refers to would identify themselves as; their self-identifications are more specific – e.g., African-Caribbean, Black British, British Asian etc. While aware of its limitations, we use the term BME here because of its recognition in common parlance.

 

Image Credit: Aisha K. Gill ©