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Coronavirus and the shadow pandemic of violence against women

Written by Rosamund Shreeves

Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November is a time to take stock of what has been done to root out this violation of women’s and girl’s human rights. It is also a moment to identify where to improve legislation, policy and practice on the ground to ensure that all women can live free from violence and insecurity. This year, the focus is very much on the Covid‑19 pandemic, its appalling impact on levels of violence against women – particularly domestic violence – and what it revealed about the state of support structures for victims in the European Union (EU).

In March 2020, as governments across the world began to impose mandatory lockdowns on their populations to curb the spread of coronavirus, the United Nations warned that the pandemic could lead to an increase in levels of domestic violence and a decrease in the ability of service providers to respond to cases and support victims. In Europe, many actors raised the alarm, including the European Women’s Lobby, the Council of Europe’s Secretary General and Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, the EU’s Commissioner for Equality, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) and the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM).

Even in ‘normal times’, domestic violence is a considerable but under-reported problem, as data from the EU’s Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) and Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) show. Past epidemics were clearly associated with increased levels of violence against women and children and there are many reasons why quarantines in particular can increase the risks of domestic violence and abuse. They oblige victims to spend more time with perpetrators in circumstances where the confinement itself, fear of illness and anxiety over jobs and income tend to exacerbate tensions and problematic behaviours. Victims are more likely to be isolated from support networks, particularly where perpetrators capitalise on restrictions to exert power and control. Perpetrators may also monitor use of telephones and computers more closely, giving victims fewer opportunities to contact helplines and other support services. It is often difficult for victims to leave a violent or abusive partner, but quarantines can reduce avenues of escape still further by making it more difficult to access shelters and shrinking financial independence. Victims may also be afraid of becoming infected if they move out of the home. Shelters and support services are themselves likely to be under pressure and unable to operate normally due to the distancing measures and redeployment of resources to deal with the health emergency. Legal proceedings needed to issue barring and protection orders and evict perpetrators from the home may be interrupted. Any support for men who have already been violent or controlling towards their partners before a quarantine, or who may become so due to the situation, may also be reduced.

By April 2020, UN Secretary General, António Guterres, was signalling that lockdowns were indeed linked to a ‘horrifying global surge in domestic violence’ directed towards women and girls. In the EU, victim support organisations, police forces and governments began to release figures. Some countries saw sharp increases in the numbers of women reporting incidents. In France, reports of domestic violence rose by 30 % in the first 11 days of the country’s lockdown. In Spain, calls to the 016 helpline increased by 31 % from 14 March (when the lockdown began) to 15 April 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, while online consultations increased still more substantially (by 443.5 %) in the same period. In other countries, reports to helplines decreased. For example, in Italy, the largest domestic violence helpline reported that calls fell by 55 % to 496 in the first two weeks of March, compared with 1 104 in the same period in 2019. However, a parliamentary committee cautioned that this reflected added difficulties in reporting and seeking help. Findings from the United Kingdom and Germany illustrate why this can be the case. In the UK, the nationwide domestic violence helpline reported that during the first lockdown, perpetrators made increasing use of technology such as smart locks, webcams, social media or sharing revenge porn to intimidate and control partners. In Germany, 2 % of the 3 800 women who responded to a survey said that, during the strict lockdown period between 22 April and 8 May 2020, they had been unable to leave their home without their partner’s permission and 4.6 % reported that their partners had controlled their contacts with others, including their digital communication. The survey also illustrates the reality beneath the figures: around 3 % of the women were subjected to beatings or other forms of physical violence by a partner and 3.6 % were raped. The risk of all forms of domestic violence and abuse was significantly higher when women were self-isolating or when they or their partner had lost work or were in financial difficulty. At the most extreme, the UK Parliament heard evidence that the number of suspected domestic abuse killings doubled in the first three weeks of the lockdown compared with the same period over the past 10 years.

Simultaneously, the pandemic has created challenges for organisations supporting survivors of domestic violence. Reports to the Council of Europe show that domestic violence shelters in some areas stopped all admissions because they were unsure how to manage the risk of infection, while others privileged online or telephone support, leaving women at risk from their abusers. European and national women’s organisations have flagged gaps in essential services before the pandemic and limitations caused by the pandemic, including drastic cuts in funding for specialist support services in some countries. This is particularly worrying in view of the likelihood of increased demand for emergency intervention, counselling and therapy in the months after the crisis passes.

Against the backdrop of a resurgence in Covid‑19 cases in many EU countries and the prospect of further lockdowns, what lessons can be learned from what happened earlier in the year? This month, the EIGE and Parliament’s FEMM committee have both issued analyses of the emerging data on violence against women during the pandemic, how support services have adapted, and responses from governments, with policy recommendations for future action. The two studies for Parliament, on the gendered impact of the Covid‑19 crisis and the added value of the Istanbul Convention, found that all EU Member States adopted some promising measures. Nearly all conducted awareness-raising campaigns on where to get help. Some developed temporary help points in supermarkets and pharmacies or innovative apps or online means of alerting the police. Some classified hotlines and shelters as essential services, enabling them to continue to provide assistance. Some provided additional funding for these services or expanded capacity by converting empty tourist accommodation into shelters. A few countries introduced comprehensive action plans. However, initial findings from EIGE’s ongoing research into what the EU and the Member States can do to protect women more effectively from gender-based violence during crises show that support systems for victims of gender-based violence are shaky in the majority of EU countries. No EU country had a disaster plan in place to deal with domestic violence. The research for Parliament demonstrates that ratification of the Istanbul Convention – one of the EU’s priorities for preventing and combating violence against women – remains an important way forward. The Convention has contributed directly to the creation of services for victims in a number of countries, while countries that have ratified the Convention implemented more measures during the pandemic than those that have not, suggesting greater political awareness and readiness to respond to violence against women. Parliament will hear an update on progress towards EU accession to the Convention and hold a debate on violence against women at its plenary session on 25 November 2020.

Related EPRS publications:

The Istanbul Convention: A tool to tackle violence against women and girls (FR, DE) (update, November 2020)

Violence against women in the EU: State of play (FR) (update November 2020)

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