91% of people currently experiencing domestic abuse say the pandemic has worsened their situation in at least one way, according to a new report by Women’s Aid.
The report, A Perfect Storm – The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on domestic abuse survivors and the services supporting them, also shows that the abuse has worsened for 61% of women living with their abuser during lockdown.
More than two-thirds (68%) said they had no one to turn to during lockdown, while survivors with children who were currently experiencing abuse said the situation had become worse for their children.
Over half (53%) told Women’s Aid their children had seen more abuse toward the victim, while over a third (38%) said their abuser had shown an increase in abusive behaviour toward their children.
In April, during the height of the lockdown, over three quarters (78%) of women experiencing abuse at that time said they thought COVID-19 made it harder for them to escape abuse.
Despite the easing lockdown measures in June, the problem had hardly improved, with 10% of victims saying their abuser had actively used lockdown restrictions to stop them from leaving.
Further, one fifth (20.3%) said they had tried to leave during the pandemic but had been unable to access any kind of housing or refuge space.
Weaponising the pandemic
The Women’s Aid report also reveals how abusers have actively used the pandemic to increase fear and anxiety. 67% of respondents said COVID-19 had been used as part of the abuse they suffered.
Survivors talked about perpetrators disregarding concerns about the virus and ignoring restrictions.
In one case, the perpetrator threatened the survivor would die from the virus, and in another case, spat in the woman’s face.
Some survivors talked about their abuser exploiting the lack of available support to increase control.
The pandemic also increased post-relationship abuse, including perpetrators pressuring women into facilitating child contact, knowing that doing so would breach lockdown and increase the risk of contracting the COVID-19 viirus.
38.3% said child contact arrangements have been used to further abuse – for example, by refusing to return children or restricting women’s access to their children.
The period from 23 March to 31 May 2020 saw a 40.6% reduction in the number of refuge vacancies in England, compared to the same period in 2019.
The most common reasons were a lack of suitable move-on accommodation and concerns over managing the spread of the virus in communal accommodation.
Service providers expect to see a spike in demand across their services in the coming months, with 63% expecting the increase to continue for at least a year.
“Critical need” for support services
Nicki Norman, Women’s Aid acting chief executive, said: “Women’s domestic abuse support services were already facing a funding crisis when this pandemic hit.
“They had little or no financial resilience to meet the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19, and now vital services are experiencing a significant financial impact.”
Norman added: “As survivors and their children face escalating abuse and increasingly complex barriers to support, and at a time when public services are diverted by COVID-19, the need for specialist domestic abuse services has never been more critical.
“This is particularly true of the specialist services provided by and for marginalised women, who have documented the severe impacts of COVID-19 on black and minoritised, migrant and disabled women, which require urgent action.
“Government must create a long-term sustainable funding solution for the violence against women and girls’ sector if it is to survive.
“Women’s Aid estimate that investment of £393m a year is needed to secure a sustainable refuge sector and vital community-based support that is available and accessible to all women experiencing domestic abuse.”
Sarah Davidge, Women’s Aid Research and Evaluation manager, said: “Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause domestic abuse, it has created a perfect storm of challenges for survivors and the services supporting them.
“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.
“This in turn exposed survivors to worsening domestic abuse, whilst restricting their access to support.”
Davidge continued: “At the same time, the pandemic created challenges for the specialist domestic abuse support sector in providing life-saving support, including lost income, staff shortages and additional costs of remote working.
“This comes after a sustained crisis in funding and demand. In January 2020, before the pandemic, we reported that 64% of refuge referrals were declined and that almost half (49%) of services were running an area of their service without dedicated funding.
“And now, on top of all this, frontline services are preparing for a spike in demand.”
To get help:
- Click here to go to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline website
- The freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247