Tackling the epidemic of gender-based violence in the midst of a global pandemic

Natalia Equihua reports on continuing campaign to protect women from male violence.

This 25 November marks 29 years since the 16 Days of Action Against Gender-Based Violence was first launched, a global campaign started by Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership to demand an end to violence against women and girls. It unifies the efforts that women’s organisations and feminists around the world throughout the year. Despite almost three decades of campaigning and the activism before that, 2020 has been particularly challenging for women’s equality. The unprecedented global health crisis we are facing has laid bare the scale of the problem, making this global call to action feel ever more pressing.

When the pandemic was declared and governments around the world introduced ‘stay at home’ measures to contain the virus, the epidemic of male violence against women came into sharp view. It confirmed what at women’s organisations we have been saying for years: home isn’t a safe place for everyone and abuse is rapidly moving to online platforms and mobile technologies. Since lockdown started, in the UK there has been a 50% increase in calls to domestic abuse helplines, and 1 in 2 women and non-binary people have experienced online abuse, with 29% reporting abuse has worsened during the pandemic.

The current crisis is also having a huge impact on women’s ability to access justice. If before Covid-19 women already faced an uphill struggle to bring their perpetrators to account, let alone to do so successfully, the barriers have exacerbated with lockdown. At the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre —where we provide free legal and advocacy services to women affected by abuse— we hear women are finding it harder to get legal representation. At the same time, we have helped more women than ever before to apply for legal protections against their perpetrators. We are also acutely aware of the long delays in domestic abuse and sexual violence criminal cases brought on by the pandemic which, according to a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report, could lead some victims/survivors to withdraw from the process — not to mention the huge toll these delays are having on the mental health of women already living with trauma.

The increased risk of abuse for women and children has led to a higher demand for support from front-line services like ours. And in a time when the women’s sector (especially local services and those supporting minority women) have faced insecure funding, the pressures are enormous. Despite the difficulties, women’s services in Scotland quickly adapted to continue providing vital support. At our Centre, we launched an online contact form to ensure women living with their abusers could safely get the advice they needed; we increased our capacity to help them apply for legal protections; and aware of the changes in the justice system and the dynamics of abuse, we have published practical information so women know what to do if, for example, they have child contact arrangements with an abusive ex-partner during the pandemic. Like us, sister organisations have had to rethink their services in order to continue providing what can be lifesaving support.

In the midst of this complex landscape, the international theme for this year’s 16 Days of Action makes four concrete asks to governments ‘Fund, Prevent, Respond, and Collect’. It asks to prioritise flexible funding for violence against women (VAW) organisations; to create national and local plans to tackle gender-based violence during the pandemic; ensuring the continuation of VAW services and an adequate criminal justice response; and collecting data to help women’s services improve. In Scotland, there have been some positive steps in this direction with Equally Safe, the national strategy to eradicate violence against women. As a society, however, we must ensure this strategy addresses the current circumstances and make our government accountable as much as we need to take action in our own lives and communities. So what can you do this year? Support women’s organisations: follow the events and campaigns and make sure you spread the work. If you can:

• Donate to your local Rape Crisis centre or Women’s Aid group.
• Keep informed: check what services are available in your area for women living with abuse. You never know when you might be talking to a survivor. When you do, let them know they don’t need to deal with the abuse alone.
• Believe, listen and support survivors: this is the single most important thing you can do. Abuse can happen to any woman at any point in their lives, and coming forward takes incredible courage. When someone discloses to you, let them know you believe them and ask how you can best support them.

Gender-based violence existed before the pandemic and it will not go away once it ends. We must strive to engage in actions beyond these 16 days, to advocate for meaningful systemic change and, above all, to be there for the women and girls whose lives have been irrevocably changed by their abusers.

References https://equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/equality_and_human_rights_commission_how_coronavirus_has_affected_equality_and_human_rights_2020.pdf

https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/take-action/16-days-of-activism

• If you have been affected by the contents of this article, please contact the Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage helpline on 0800 027 1234 (open 24/7) and helpline @sdafmh.org.uk or Rape Crisis Scotland’s National Helpline 08088 01 03 02 (open daily 6pm-midnight) and https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/help-email-support/ For legal advice and information call the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre on freephone 080880 010 789 (see https://www.scottishwomensrightscentre.org.uk/helpline/ for opening times).

Natalia Equihua is the Administration and Communications Worker at the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre (https://www.scottishwomensrightscentre.org.uk/)

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