Covid-19: increase in domestic abuse requires swift government action

Jennifer Venis, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 26 May 2020

Domestic abuse has increased exponentially since lockdowns were introduced to combat Covid-19, with some countries reporting a 25-50 per cent increase. These statistics look set to worsen – at the end of April, the United Nations Population Fund predicted at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence globally in 2020 as a result of pandemic restrictions.

Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, says no one in the sector doubted that abuse would increase. She says that calls to helplines and visits to online resources increased rapidly since the beginning of the United Kingdom’s lockdown, at one point seeing a 120 per cent increase in a day.

The UN Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women, published on 9 April, calls for ‘national responses to include specific communications to the public that justice and the rule of law is not suspended’. It recommends that statutes of limitations on sexual violence offences be suspended so that cases can be pursued after lockdown.

But in many countries justice was already hard to access.

Funding must go hand in hand with implicit bias training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges’ to ensure victims can access justice

Luz Nagle
Former Co-Chair of the IBA Crimes Against Women Subcommittee

Ekaterina Tyagay, a partner and Head of the Sensitive Matters Practice at Pen & Paper Attorneys at Law in Moscow, says there had already been a huge increase in domestic abuse in Russia since the country decriminalised it in 2017, but there has now been an ‘explosion of cases’. Lockdown in Russia requires people to obtain permission to go out, and with shelters locked down and police occupied by the lockdown, Tyagay says it’s very difficult for victims to access any help except for lawyers’ support and the hotlines of anti-violence centres.

The UN Policy Brief also highlights an increase in complexity of abuse, as abusers utilise the pandemic as a threat and exploit their victims’ inability to escape the home. It says that the world’s rising numbers of reports are likely to ‘reflect only the worst cases. Without private spaces, many women will struggle to make a call or seek help online’.

Charlotte Gunka and Luz Nagle, Chair and former Co-Chair of the IBA Crimes Against Women Subcommittee respectively, say governments must find a way to reach out to people whose access to help might be blocked.

UK charity Hestia has engaged with the private sector to create safe spaces for reporting in supermarkets and pharmacies. As of May, victims will be able to speak to specially trained staff who can direct them to further help. In one UK supermarket chain, posters and till receipts will now provide information about accessing assistance.

A UK government spokesperson told Global Insight ‘We are supportive of Hestia’s scheme, and we are looking at further options to support people in danger to seek help, by working with the police, charities and frontline workers.’

Dame Vera says the capacity of shelters and alternative accommodation also needs to be rapidly increased. She highlights that shelters were under-resourced before Covid-19, with 64 per cent of victims already turned away according to data from England in 2018–19. She has called on the UK government to fund existing shelters and secure spaces in empty hotels and university accommodation and ensure support services are available for victims and children on take-up.

Dame Vera says corporate groups have said they are willing to pursue such a system, but the government needs to act. She expresses concern that charity funding announced in mid-April has still not reached the frontline. She says ‘there should have been a plan from the outset, but a coherent government strategy to tackle the epidemic of domestic abuse during lockdown is only just emerging’. A government spokesperson said that ‘of the £2m previously announced to bolster helplines and web-based services’, £1.2m has been allocated so far. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has also announced £10m for safe accommodation and enabled local councils to meet additional demand through Crown Commercial Services.

Nagle, who is also Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law in Florida, says ‘extra funding for shelters and charities is not enough. On the contrary, it is giving a false sense of the government doing “something.” Funding shelters alone fails to address the root of the problem. Funding must go hand in hand with implicit bias training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges’ to ensure victims can access justice.’

In France, ‘judicial priorities ensure law enforcement agencies are instructed to have increased vigilance and intervene more frequent to quickly implement protective measures’, says Gunka, who is also a lawyer in Paris. She says training on domestic abuse cases is available to judges and prosecutors, but improvements are needed to enhance police training and awareness.

Although UK courts have given priority to domestic violence protection orders, recent media reports have raised concerns about magistrates refusing to make those orders or shortening the length of them, out of concern that the perpetrator will be made homeless or face financial difficulty.

Nagle says even in jurisdictions like Spain, where domestic abuse legislation has been in place since 2004, women still don’t go to the police because they fear they won’t be believed. She and Gunka argue that without addressing the systemic social problem at the heart of abuse, nothing will change. They echo the UN Policy Brief’s call to step up awareness campaigns for potential perpetrators, arguing that men must be part of the solution.

There may be hope. Dame Vera says more perpetrators are calling helplines to address their behaviour, and that more widely this crisis has ‘triggered a key understanding that abuse victims can rarely leave on their own without support so we should all be watching out for our neighbours in any way we can’.

On 31 March, Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs published a recommendation that calls for ministers to develop actions that can lead to a ‘lasting rejection of such illegal behaviour within the family’ by society, and to support associations involved in the prevention of domestic violence.

In the UK, Dame Vera hopes measures to combat the recent increase will become permanent: ‘why should we not have these support measures anyway? We should be paving the way for the future.’