The Silent Pandemic: Domestic Violence under Lockdown in the UK | Samantha Pointon

by Samantha Pointon

“… when he had been abusive no one would come and help due to the Covid-19. Even when the police said it’s ok for someone to come to sit with me no-one would come.” (Survivor statement (2020). ‘A Perfect Storm’, Women’s Aid report (authored by Sarah Davidge), p. 10).

I open this piece with a bit of a hypocritical statement in relation to the title. I loathe the word ‘domestic’ in relation to any form of violence. ‘Domestic abuse’, ‘domestic violence’ etc. I grew up in a violent household, with alcoholic parents; bottle throwing; watching my father hit my mother, before moving on to me when I tried to defend her. The online Cambridge dictionary defines the word ‘domestic’ as ‘belonging or relating to the home, house, or family’. It does not automatically evoke feelings of fear or violence; words like home and family generally have highly positive connotations after all. My experiences were not homely, nor were they the conditions that constitute an ideal family setting. 

Violence against women by men they are or have been partnered with undoubtedly minimised; the issue is widespread but, as Kelly and Westmarland (2016) highlight, we do not associate the everyday with the horrific; we as a society know there are victims, but we do not concern ourselves with fully acknowledging the subsequent existence of the perpetrators. By putting the traditionally positive ‘domestic’ prefix ahead of such horrific actions, sanitising the insidious issue that permeates society, making it a ‘private’ issue that should not be discussed as a social matter. As has been made clear by thousands of women’s rights charities, scholars and organisations, femicide that occurs within a domestic setting is a vastly social issue, it is ‘the epitome of the state failing to respect, protect and fulfil women’s human rights’ (Femicide Census 2020). Thus, while I use the term ‘domestic’ to discuss intimate partner violence, I do so with reservations as to the implications of the phrase. 

When lockdown began in England on the 23rd March 2020, the country shut down as a whole, but the individual experiences of those under lockdown have been unique to every single one of us. I, for example, have experienced a positive lockdown; my husband working from home has given us substantially more time together and, when attempting to handle an energetic three-year-old, any support is gladly welcomed. 

Unfortunately, many other women have not been so lucky. Women’s Aid produced the ‘Perfect Storm’ report earlier this year, highlighting the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse survivors and support services, noting that:

The Covid-19 virus, and lockdown measures designed to fight it, gave perpetrators a tool that they quickly learnt to use for coercion, manipulation and to induce fear (p. 37).

The extent of the problem surfaced within weeks of the onset of lockdown. Between 23rd March and 12th April, the Counting Dead Women project highlighted the cases of at least 16 women and children murdered by men in the UK, much higher than the average rate for the time of year. 

After the first lockdown lifted in August 2020, SafeLives, a charity fighting to end domestic abuse announced that the demand for services increased greatly between March and August 2020, with the national domestic abuse helpline seeing a 66% increase in the number of calls during the lockdown period. However, SafeLives also found over 60% of survivors were unable to reach out for support during lockdown.

The issues here are twofold. Firstly, many women were unable to get the privacy to access the help they needed. The Perfect Storm report notes how access to escape and support networks were greatly reduced, with 78.3% of survivors saying they felt unable to leave because of the pandemic. Experts recognised this concern almost immediately, with the charity Refuge reassuring women that their services remained open and acknowledging how the lockdown and fear of one’s partner can make seeking help very difficult and suggesting ways to combat this issue:

However, as many women are highly aware, accessing a safe device and setting a code word is substantially easier in theory than in practice. As the Perfect Storm report quotes one domestic abuse survivor: 

Hard to get any privacy or time to make calls to anyone who can help. Can’t physically leave the house … he doesn’t have any routine (p. 16).

For women living with their abuser, finding a safe space and time was undoubtedly almost impossible. However, how about women who were and are able to access help during the pandemic? 

Unfortunately, many women were met by the second part of the issue of escaping domestic abuse during lockdown: the closing down of easy access to support and refuge. Research and evaluation manager at Women’s Aid, Sarah Davidge, highlighted how the shutting of walk-in centres and the moving of local services from in-person to online or by telephone created ‘additional barriers’ for women attempting to access help. Women without access to the internet or phones, women who cannot speak English fluently, women facing any form of communicative barrier are thus greatly affected by such valuable lifelines changing and moving and destroying the accessibility of domestic abuse help for many women in the UK. The Perfect Storm report also outlines the additional and serious impact of a lack of accessibility to domestic abuse help for minority and marginalised women in the UK (pp. 14-15).

This problem is not just a result of the lockdown, of course. Funding for domestic abuse services to help women facing violence has been brutally cut down over the past decade and, as SafeLives notes, sustainable funding is often rejected in favour of ‘short-term one-off pots of financial support’, which do not encourage security or longevity for services helping women escape domestic violence. Cuts to services and a substantial lack of commitment from the UK government in tackling violence against women have helped create the ideal environment for abusers to terrorise their victims in relative freedom; with a lockdown on top, life-saving help for women and children became even less accessible than before.

While implementing a lockdown was clearly completely necessary, a system that persecutes perpetrators of violence against women and provides adequate funding to support long-term, systemic change in assisting victims of violence and a greater understanding of the reality of the endemic abuse of women by men in a home setting could have protected thousands of women from the trauma they have suffered due to experiencing lockdown with an abuser. The silent pandemic of violence against women has increased exponentially under lockdown and, as we sit in an uncertain future regarding both future lockdowns and the funding of women’s refuge services, the prevalence of domestic abuse and continued trauma for women and children living in households similar to the one I grew up in myself shows no sign of improving. 

As a final note, I fully recognise that this is a global issue, as highlighted below:

According to UN Women and UNICEF, for every three months of confinement, an estimated 15 million additional women around the world have suffered domestic violence (BBC News YouTube Channel, Nov 2020).

However, there is not the space or scope to fully explore this issue within the UK in this piece, let alone on a global scale. The recent announcement of a £19m UN fund to help tackle increasing gender-based violence against women, with at least 30% to be provided to women-led local organisations, is a welcome step in the right direction. 

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This blog is part of our Feminist Everyday Lockdown Blog Series. Lockdown is a feminist issue, and sharing stories is a feminist practice. We are calling for further contributions to the CHASE Feminist Network blog on everyday feminism and lockdown. This includes creative, political, and personal reflections! In light of the current political situation and protests against the physical and structural violence of racism we particularly welcome blogs from BAME individuals.  Full details here

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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