While the Covid-19 pandemic affects everyone, the consequences for women and girls – particularly black and minority ethnic (Bame) women and girls, who face multiple forms of structural inequality – encompass more than the risk of contracting the disease.
The UK’s largest domestic abuse charity Refuge reported a 700 per cent rise in calls in a single day under lockdown, but this still underestimates the true scale of the problem, given that underreporting is rife under normal circumstances. Too many victims are afraid to report their abuse in the current climate. For instance, one Asian woman I have been supporting over the last few weeks said of her partner: “Nothing will be done, he will kill me and blame it on coronavirus. The government and the police do not care about immigrants like me.”
Evidence from a number of countries such as China, Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, India and Latin America shows that domestic violence has increased dramatically since February 2020. Sadly, this trend is becoming apparent in many other countries, including the UK. While Covid-19 containment measures, such as lockdown, school closures and channelling resources towards emergency service provision may be critical to saving lives, they can also unintentionally exacerbate violence against women and girls (VAWG).
For some women and girls, gender inequality is not the only structural challenge they face in accessing support: racism often means that the specific needs of black, Asian and minority ethnic victims are an afterthought. So, in the midst of a global pandemic, how do we ensure that we can keep Bame women and girls safe?
Even before the pandemic, organisations that tackle VAWG were struggling to sustain funding and continue to provide services in the context of austerity. This situation is further complicated for specialist Bame services by the recent increase in hostility towards migrants and asylum seekers, with many victims struggling to access refuge provision.
In 2012, the UK government’s “hostile environment” policy against undocumented migrants led to successive waves of legislation increasing undocumented migrants’ criminalisation and removing their access to many basic services through “no resource to public funds” measures.
More than half the UK’s police forces now have a policy of arresting migrant victims of domestic violence and/or revealing their whereabouts to the Home Office.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. In the last eight weeks, VAWG services have reported a tripling in violence and abuse – and this captures only reported cases. The pandemic is exposing and extending existing inequalities and vulnerabilities to create new forms of hardship, particularly for Bame women, who face heightened risks due to intersecting forms of inequality in terms of gender, race, religion and class. While the government has recognised the increase in domestic violence during the lockdown, little attention in recent policy briefings has been given to the specific impact this is having on Bame organisations and the communities they serve.
The current paucity of data on VAWG during the Covid-19 crisis is complicating efforts to direct government attention to the urgent actions that need to be taken; even apart from the fact that investigations are ongoing in many cases, the lockdown is delaying many aspects of how individual reports to different statutory services are consolidated into useable quantitative data. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that the challenges facing survivors of domestic violence and abuse have been heightened by the current social distancing and lockdown measures. Moreover, the closure of schools and daycare centres, and the lack of refuge accommodation, have resulted in many victims having to return to violent partners and/or family members.
At present, victims and survivors have limited pathways to safely accessing support. The lack of adequate, ring-fenced funding and coordination of emergency programmes, coupled with the difficulties presented by the pandemic, is making it particularly difficult for women living in violent homes to assess their options for escaping violence and abuse.
The Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill that was introduced to parliament in July 2019 and had its second reading on 28 April 2020 is yet to become statute and will likely be further delayed because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, work towards passing this legislation provides an opportunity to allow for the introduction of “protection before enforcement” policies. To achieve this, the government must create a strong infrastructure that encourages professionals to work in partnership across statutory services as well as with the charity sector, especially where Bame victims are concerned, given their specialised needs.
We must act now to tackle the increase in violence against women and girls caused by Covid-19, and it is essential that the specialised needs of Bame women and girls are considered in the design and implementation of relevant measures. We need both short-term interventions and long-term planning to tackle the current crisis and ensure that good practice developed during the pandemic can continue beyond it because, while the need for support is especially high right now, VAWG will not end when the lockdown does.
If all victims are to be treated equally, instead of structural inequalities being further entrenched, the specialised needs of BAME women and girls must not be ignored in the design and implementation of measures. Short-term interventions and long-term planning are not mutually exclusive: both are needed if we are to tackle the current crisis while also ensuring that good practice developed during the pandemic can be continued and expanded afterwards.
Aisha K Gill, PhD CBE is professor of criminology at University of Roehampton, UK. Her main areas of interest and research focus on health and criminal justice responses to violence against black, minority ethnic and refugee women in the UK, Iraqi Kurdistan, India, and Pakistan. She has been involved in addressing the problem of violence against women and girls, ‘honour’ crimes and forced marriage at the grassroots/activist level for the past 20 years
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