The Covid pandemic has been a national crisis in itself, but the dramatic increase of domestic violence – not just in the UK, but around the world – has become, as the UN described, a “shadow pandemic”.
The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women globally are victims of physical or sexual violence by partners and non-partners over their lifetimes – and warn that the pandemic has further increased women’s exposure to violence. An investigation last year by Panorama and Women’s Aid revealed that two-thirds of women in abusive relationships had suffered more violence from their partners during the coronavirus outbreak and consequent lockdowns.
This was a crisis experts should have seen coming, but did not prepare for. They failed to ensure resources were in place to cope with the increase in domestic abuse cases. Both men and women experience domestic abuse, but women are more likely to be victims.
These figures may be even higher than the estimates because some women are too afraid to report the abuse, or fear they may not be believed. This applies particularly to ethnic minority women who are more likely to be omitted from statistics, sometimes as a result of “under policing of domestic abuse in minority communities due to ‘cultural sensitivity’”.
The plight of women from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities living in abusive households during lockdown has not been talked about enough. It frustrates me that so often the many discussions on domestic violence tend to neglect such a marginalised and vulnerable group, leaving them trapped in horrendous situations.
In a research report, Domestic Abuse in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Groups, it states that: “The institutional racism extends beyond the criminal justice system to services such as domestic abuse agencies, health care professionals and social services. Research with refuges in England found stereotyping and some racist attitudes to be operating at three levels: among (other) service users, among the workers, and at state level (for example through immigration policies that prevent women from accessing services or public funds).”
Fempower is a magazine published by Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE). In one of the magazine’s articles, Dr Ravi K Thiara, a research fellow at the University of Warwick, writes that “many groups of BME women are still under-using DV services and experiencing racism in mainstream services, which are not sensitive to their cultural, religious and other needs. It is important to highlight that an emphasis on diversity alone (though an important step) does not ensure equality for women and children from BME groups.”
During lockdown, I was involved with a support group that helped women trapped in abusive relationships. A code was developed to enable these women to communicate by using lipstick colours. Red lipstick signified they were in danger, pink meant “the perpetrator is at home” and clear gloss meant “the perpetrator is not at home”. The victim would use these colours in messages or over the phone.
I’m now supporting a young mother, who was so violently abused by her partner that she was in hospital for a week. Her immune system, which had been compromised because of the abuse and stress, has left her vulnerable to infections and other medical problems.
She is living in fear as she has not been granted indefinite permission to remain, is unable to speak English and has no family contact. Under lockdown, she became a prisoner. She was too afraid to leave the house as she had nowhere else to go and could not contact support services because she did not speak English, and did not know how to seek this support. Her partner’s controlling behaviour increased, but as lockdown began to ease his sense of control was threatened. In turn, this led to an escalation in his coercive control and violence, which culminated in his partner’s hospitalisation. It was only when she was in hospital that the authorities became aware of the abuse.
The Step Up Migrant Women UK (SUMW) is a coalition formed from over 50 organisations that work and advocate to support migrant women suffering from abuse and help them seek protection. Since insecure immigration status can be a control tool used by perpetrators to abuse their partners and threaten them with deportation, SUMW has campaigned for amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill to protect some of the most marginalised women in society.
However, what happens when members of the police force are the abusers? Channel 4 News recently reported that every week one woman comes forward to report their partner in the police force of seriously abusing them or their children. The super-complaint by Centre for Women’s Justice covered the failure to address police perpetrated domestic abuse. Although the report did not specify abuse against Black and ethnic minority women, this does not mean that it does not happen; it just means that these women have not had the courage to come forward.
In the Channel 4 report, one former police commander described officers perpetrating domestic abuse as an “epidemic” within the force. Migrant women face the additional concerns of threat of detainment, deportation or destitution, if they call the police, and the fear of exclusion from refuge, housing and welfare.
Many people will be aware of the recent tragic story of Abida Karim, 39, originally from Pakistan, who was murdered by her husband during the pandemic after suffering years of abuse. Her daughter, Riya, told the BBC about how she grew up witnessing her father punching her mother. She said her mother did not know anyone else in the UK and her father would say to her: “If you leave me, you’re not going to get anywhere without me.”
The pandemic has intensified and reinforced pre-existing socio-economic and structural inequalities. Black, Asian and ethnic minority individuals are statistically more likely to experience poverty and economic disadvantage, so domestic abuse is also a sociological issue. Some migrant women who lost their jobs during the pandemic, with no recourse to public funds, left them in a situation where they were financially reliant on their perpetrators.
Women’s Aid states that Black, Asian and minority women trying to escape domestic abuse may also be experiencing abuse from extended family members. There is also the fear that service providers may avoid intervening for fear of being perceived as racist by the abuser, they say.
As restrictions loosen, if a previously volatile situation appears to have gone quiet, we should not assume that the risk has diminished. We should instead maintain a dialogue, ask open questions and offer reassurance to those who are affected and at risk.
It is crucial that as lockdown eases, our public health organisations and those who work with women in abusive circumstances don’t forget women like Abida.
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website, nationaldahelpline.org.uk
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