How COVID-19 is exacerbating failures to tackle violence against women

How COVID-19 is exacerbating failures to tackle violence against women

Aisha K. Gill

While the COVID-19 pandemic is having—and will undoubtedly continue to have—significant public health consequences across the globe, for many women and girls, the consequences stretch far beyond the risk of contracting the disease.

Evidence from Brazil, China, Germany, Greece, France, Japan 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—quarantines, 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), bringing the structural inequalities that shape the lives of women and girls into stark relief.

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, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) victims/survivors are an afterthought or are overlooked altogether. This is further exacerbated when the women are migrants and asylum seekers.

In the midst of a global pandemic, how can we keep all women and girls safe?

COVID-19: the impact in the UK
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, BAME women’s access to specialist refuge provision in the UK was severely limited—on average, these victims had to stay in insecure temporary accommodation for longer than white victims (see here, here and here). Specialist VAWG women’s organisations have for some time been struggling to sustain funding and consolidate their services given both austerity and increased hostility towards BAME communities, migrants and asylum seekers.

In 2012, the UK Government introduced a ‘hostile environment’ policy against undocumented migrants that featured high-profile enforcement campaigns, such as vans proclaiming the message ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ being driven through ethnically diverse areas. Since then, successive waves of legislation have increased undocumented migrants’ criminalisation and removed their access to many basic services through ‘no resource to public funds’ measures.

These laws have directly affected support for migrant survivors of violence and abuse: more than half of all UK police forces now have a policy of arresting such survivors or revealing their whereabouts to the Home Office. The police focus here is not on addressing the criminal acts that have been committed against these migrant women, but on attempting to remove these victims from the country.

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 cases. 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 marginalised communities—since the start of the lockdown. 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: investigations into domestic violence/abuse are ongoing in many cases; the lockdown is delaying how individual reports to different statutory services are consolidated into useable quantitative data; and many victims do not have sufficient freedom of movement to make reports.

There is a general consensus that the challenges facing survivors of domestic violence and abuse are being heightened by the current social distancing and lockdown measures: living with a violent partner or family member during a time when no one should be out of the house for more than one hour a day (unless working in essential services or attending hospital) not only increases the risk of instances of violence, but limits victims’ access to support services, impairing their ability to flee. Moreover, the closure of schools and day-care centres, and the lack of refuge accommodation, has resulted in many victims deciding to return to violent partners and/or family members.

Those who work on reducing intersectional inequalities and vulnerabilities to violence know that the movement against VAWG has long failed to consistently recognise the diverse needs of abused women. Questions of who speaks for whom and under what circumstances have come into sharper focus during the pandemic, galvanising those who can speak the loudest and further reinforcing funding inequities.

Moving forward through practical interventions
In the midst of COVID-19, government policies to combat discrimination in the health, education, social care and housing sectors need to seriously consider the fact that inequality and discrimination are multidimensional and relational, and that measures such as lockdowns risk exacerbating these inequalities. At present, victims and survivors have no pathways to safely accessing support. The lack of adequate, ring-fenced funding and coordination of emergency programmes is making it particularly difficult for women living in violent homes to assess their options for escaping violence and abuse.

Concentrating resources exclusively in one area (e.g. policing at the expense of general advocacy and investment in shelters) means that BAME and marginalised women will be further neglected by statutory services and the criminal justice system. Independent, specialist providers offer undocumented migrants one way to report abuse and seek support without risking detention and possible deportation; the government must ensure the survival and independence of such providers.

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 may allow for ‘protection before enforcement’ policies to be introduced to ensure safe reporting mechanisms for migrant survivors.

To achieve this, the government should create a strong infrastructure that encourages professionals to work in partnership across statutory services as well as with the charity sector—especially where victims from marginalised backgrounds are concerned, given their specialised needs. Such collaboration could help produce sustainable, long-term solutions by recognising the importance of listening to a range of voices from within the VAWG sector.

Following my conversations with the Victims’ Commissioner at the beginning of April 2020, I recommended that she and her team pursue the following actions:

  1. Seek government support to implement pop-up drop-in centres in safe locations, offering women a secure 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.
  2. Give women and children whose abusers are curbing their movements access to support and resources that can trigger emergency intervention.
  3. Set up free text alerts directing people to helplines. For example, 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.
  4. Provide information at daily government press briefings about various forms of VAWG and how to access support services in diverse communities.
  5. Work with news networks across mainstream and minority news channels (e.g. Al- Jazeera, BBC Asian Network, Sikh/Islam Channel) to share information.

Different victims/survivors will need to be reached in different ways, so the key is to disseminate information widely and through many different channels.

We must act now to tackle the increase in violence against women and girls (VAWG) facilitated by COVID-19, and the specialised needs of marginalised women and girls must be considered in the design and implementation of relevant measures. We need both short-term interventions and long-term planning to tackle the current crisis and ensure that good practice developed during the pandemic can continue beyond it—because while need is especially high right now, VAWG will not end when the lockdown does.

Aisha K. Gill, PhD CBE is Professor of Criminology at University of Roehampton 

Image Credit: Suki Dhanda