Experts say coronavirus could increase domestic violence—and the government's response isn't good enough

With reports from China showing what could be to come, Johnson's council funding isn't enough to protect vulnerable people in the case of a quarantine

March 16, 2020
Johnson cited council funding to support services. But that won't be enough. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images
Johnson cited council funding to support services. But that won't be enough. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

How do you self-isolate when being alone with your partner isn’t simply a question of noticing how he picks his toenails, or how she gives a running commentary on the plot of every TV show? When instead, being stuck at home all day for two weeks means you are more at risk of controlling behaviour… of bullying and verbal abuse? Of being hit?

It’s true that for many of us home is a place of safety and sanctuary in a time of chaos and uncertainty. But for thousands of women across the UK, home is a place of violence and fear.

It’s estimated that 1.6 million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse last year, and it’s overwhelmingly women who endure repeated attacks (83 per cent of victims of more than 10 incidents are women). The risk is that under self-isolation, controlling perpetrators will further restrict their partner’s freedoms and threaten their safety—at a time when support services have been decimated from ten years of austerity. Suddenly, all those jokes about self-isolating leading to divorce don’t look quite so funny.

Reports from China revealed that incidents of domestic abuse increased following the outbreak of the virus. A combination of economic uncertainty, anxiety caused by quarantine, the lack of escape routes for women and a weakening of support services created a perfect storm.

This was particularly true for women living in locked-down areas. Those who urgently needed to leave the home were unable to access permits to leave the city and escape their abusers. Meanwhile, some activists worried the authorities used the pandemic as an excuse for not taking domestic violence seriously.

China offers a warning for what vulnerable women will soon be facing here. But at the same time, there are lessons from how women and activists in China have responded to the crisis.

Firstly, we can use social media to raise awareness that this is an issue. In China the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic ## has taken off. Talking about the problem and recognising that it is a risk of the virus can at least help women realise they are not alone.

Activists also offered an online workshop to help people know what to do if they witness or are concerned about domestic abuse. Social media can be a powerful tool to share online resources, including the domestic abuse helpline and online resources.

[su_box title="Where to get help"]

Women's Aid | womensaid.org.uk | 0808 200 0247 (24 hours)

Refuge (includes information for men) | refuge.org.uk | 0808 200 0247 (24 hours)

Or call the National Domestic Violence helpline on 0808 200 0247 (24 hours)

[/su_box] But while awareness is good, action and money are needed to protect women.

Unfortunately, domestic abuse is another area where coronavirus has exposed the devastating holes in the social safety net caused by ten years of austerity. Cuts have led to fewer refuge places and fewer options for victims and weakened women’s economic empowerment. It’s created a housing crisis where victims of domestic abuse aren’t always entitled to priority housing, and led to changes to the welfare state which facilitate abusers to control their partner’s finances.

At the same time, cuts to the police services mean we are already in a crisis, with police accused of failing to protect domestic abuse victims.

This was a concern in China, with charity worker Feng Yuan telling the magazine Sixth Tone, “if the police use the epidemic as an excuse to not deal with domestic violence cases, that’s not acceptable.”

We need to see government action to ensure victims and survivors of abuse get the protections they need to escape, even during periods of self-isolation. This means making sure the police, housing services and charities all have the resources and legal protections they need to take action for women, and to recognise that women’s physical safety is as much a priority as containing the virus.

It also means that support workers on the frontline are helped to—as one domestic abuse charity worker told me by email—“prioritise the logistics of continuing to provide the best possible services and keeping the women and children we work with as safe as possible—from coronavirus and abusive men.”

During Prime Minister’s Question Time last week, Boris Johnson was asked how the government could protect victims of abuse during the coronavirus crisis. He said funding had been put back into councils to help them fulfil their obligations (following funding cuts of 40 per cent since 2010).

However, support for victims of domestic abuse does not count as a statutory service and so extra funding for councils does not guarantee extra help for vulnerable women. Such a vague response on a specific funding need simply isn't good enough.

As we all start to prepare for the impact the virus will have on our families and communities, we must make sure women experiencing domestic abuse are not abandoned and ignored. We already have a crisis when it comes to women’s safety in this country—we need to see a strong response that leaves no woman isolated in a dangerous home.