Domestic abuse and COVID-19

Megan Gordon reports that a bad situation is getting worse – so much more funding is needed

Imagine that you have a partner who constantly belittles you and your children. Or, who controls where you go, who you speak to and what you wear. Imagine that they humiliate you, and that sometimes they are violent. Now imagine having been trapped in a house with them for the past three months. Stress about Coronavirus is not causing domestic abuse – domestic abuse is an abuser’s choice, always. However, measures taken to address the pandemic have been providing additional tools for abusers to exercise their control.

At Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA), we work with a network of 36 local Women’s Aid groups. We have heard from them, and from the team on Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline, that perpetrators are using these new tools to control women’s movements, keep them isolated, threaten to expose them to the virus or tell them that services are not operating or that the police will not respond if called. We also know that many women who do not live with their abusers are living with more fear because their abuser knows that they will be spending time at home, making stalking easier for him.

As well as increased risk, lockdown and associated measures have limited the opportunities that women, children and young people have to reach out to Women’s Aid or call services for help. Constrained mobility also means fewer opportunities to access emergency accommodation, including refuge.

Domestic abuse is the number one cause of women’s homelessness in Scotland. Access to refuge has been seriously affected by a reduction in refuge spaces due to social distancing measures. To make a bad situation worse, many social landlords have frozen allocations of vacant homes so women and their children have been unable to move on from refuge into those homes. As lockdown measures begin to be relaxed, an urgent scaling up of efforts to help women and children stay safe at home or, if that is not safe, move to welcome place of safety is needed.

Other measures during the pandemic are problematic for those living with domestic abuse. Restrictions on the conduct of court business, combined with changes to police and court procedures, mean that the waiting times between police response and trial are mounting rapidly, as is the backlog of trials. Access to affordable, domestic-abuse-competent legal services is poor at the best of times for women, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse. This access is now further constrained as many solicitors have been furloughed. All of this means that decades of progress in reforming courts and building confidence in the justice system is swiftly eroding.

Women are not the only ones at higher risk during lockdown – children and young people are victims alongside their mothers. With the closure of schools, nurseries and after-school clubs, children and young people have lost their safe spaces and had few opportunities to reach out to trusted adults outside of their home. As children return to school, we anticipate a period of increased disclosures of abuse. It is vital that resources are in place to support them, that their needs are readily identified by schools and social workers, and that there is adequate funding for Women’s Aid and other children’s services to provide the right support at the right time.

The impact of the pandemic will mirror the inequalities already embedded in the everyday lives of women: we are more likely to have part-time and precarious employment, to head single-parent households, to depend upon social security benefit, to do unpaid caring work and to be absent from the tables where power is wielded and resources are distributed. As we look towards another recession, the needs of women and children who have experienced domestic abuse must not be overlooked. Recently, our sisters at Engender and Close the Gap published a set of nine principles for inclusive economic recovery that would benefit all women. It is vital that these principles are implemented so that women and children who have experienced domestic abuse are not left behind in the aftermath of the Coronavirus.

Domestic abuse has not taken a break for this pandemic, and neither have we. Women’s Aid groups have radically redesigned their services to continue providing support, and Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline has remained fully operational. However, Women’s Aid groups were already facing intense difficulty before the increased pressure of the pandemic: 84% of our groups were already operating waiting lists and 79% had seen reduced or standstill funding from their local authorities. This picture has to change – we need significant increases in local funding and a long-term plan to ensure that adequate funding is stable and sustainable. Responses to Coronavirus make this a greater priority, especially as we see a tsunami of economic problems approaching, and we will continue to call for the needs of women, children and young people who have experienced domestic abuse to be visible and prioritised as lockdown measures ease and as plans for economic and social recovery are made.

If you or somebody you know is experiencing the coercive and controlling behaviours we’ve described here, Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is available 24/7 to listen to you and offer support. You can call on 0800 027 1234. Or, if it’s not safe to speak, you can email and web chat from www.sdafmh.org.uk. We are here for you, and it’s safe to speak.

The Engender and Close the Gap report can be found at: https://www.engender.org.uk/content/publications/Gender–Economic-Recovery—Engender-and-Close-the-Gap.pdf

Megan Gordon is the External Affairs Officer for Scottish Women’s Aid

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