The Impact of Covid-19 on Domestic Abuse: A Perfect Storm

In August 2020, Women's Aid published a research report that outlined how domestic abuse has worsened during the Covid-19 crisis, and considered the rising demand experienced, and further anticipated by, frontline services.

Here Women's Aid explore the key headlines of the report, A Perfect Storm, specifically around the impact on survivors; how abusers use the pandemic as a tool of abuse; and how the services supporting survivors are affected.

Nicki Norman, Women's Aid Acting CEO, will share further insights at the IG Crime Annual Tackling Domestic Abuse and Violence Forum on February 24th 2021.

1) Impact on survivors 

Over 90% (91%) of respondents currently experiencing domestic abuse said the Covid-19 pandemic had negatively impacted them in at least one wayOf those women living with their abuser during lockdown, 61said the abuse had worsened. More than two-thirds (68%) said they felt they had no one to turn to during lockdown. 

“I’m lonely, feel isolated, like a sitting duck.” 

Things are escalating and I’m sure it’s going to continue getting worse.” 

Survivors with children, who were currently experiencing abuse, told us things were also worse for their children. Over half (53%) told us their children had seen more abuse to the survivor. Over a third (38%) said that their abuser had shown an increase in abusive behaviour towards the children. 

In April, during the height of the lockdown, over three quarters (78%) of women experiencing abuse at that time told us they thought Covid-19 made it harder for them to escape abuse. This was still a significant problem in June, in spite of easing lockdown measures 

  • One in ten (10%) survivors told us that their abuser had actively used lockdown restrictions to stop them from leaving. 
  • One-fifth (20.3%) said that they had tried to leave during the pandemic but had been unable to access housing or refuge space 

“I have nobody to tell what I am going through. I am desperate to get out but he is always home” 

2) Tool of abuse 

The report reveals how abusers have used the pandemic as a tool for abuse to increase fear and anxiety. 67% of women responding who were currently experiencing abuse said that Covid-19 had been used as part of the abuse they suffered in one or more ways. 

Survivors talked about perpetrators disregarding concerns about the virus and ignoring restrictions. In one case, the perpetrator threatened that 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. 

“I feel that my ex-partner has used his knowledge of my reduced support network to escalate his emotionally abusive and controlling behaviour – thinking that I have no one to turn to.” 

The pandemic also increased post-relationship abuse including perpetrators pressuring women into facilitating child contact even when this would breach lockdown and increase risk of contracting the virus.  38.3% said child contact arrangements have been used to further abuse, for example not returning children or restricting women’s access to their children. 

“My abuser is withholding our young child. In violation of our custody orders, I have had no contact with my child for weeks.” 

3) Impact on domestic abuse services 

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 2019The most common reasons were a lack of suitable moveon accommodation (67% of those with reduced availability) and concerns over managing the spread of the virus in communal accommodation (61% of those with reduced availability).  

Service providers expect to see a spike in demand across their services in the coming months with most (63%) expecting this spike to continue for at least a year. 

Some key leaders within the organisation shared thoughts on these findings. 

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 impactAs 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. 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 demandIn 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.” 

This article was originally published by Women's Aid