BY AISHA K. GILL
While the COVID-19 pandemic is having – and will undoubtedly continue to have – significant public health consequences across the globe, for many women and girls, the consequences of this pandemic stretch far beyond the risk of contracting the disease, because the measures taken to halt the deaths from COVID-19 may be placing some women at even greater risk of harm. Sadly, evidence from Brazil, China, Germany, Greece, France, Japan and India shows that domestic violence has increased dramatically since February 2020 and this trend is becoming apparent in many more countries, including the UK. In the current climate, many victims/survivors are afraid to report their abuse, as illustrated by the case of one British Asian woman I have been supporting over the last few weeks, who 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.”
While COVID-19 containment measures—quarantines, 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), thus bringing the structural inequalities that shape the lives of women and girls into stark relief. For some women and girls, gender inequality is not the only structural challenge they face in accessing support: structural racism also often means that meeting the specific needs of black and minority ethnic (BME) victims/survivors is often a mere afterthought or, worse still, overlooked altogether.
In the midst of a global pandemic, how can we keep BME women and girls safe?
COVID-19 and its impact on VAWG in the UK
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, BME women’s access to specialist refuge provision in the UK was severely limited – on average, these victims had to stay in insecure temporary accommodation for longer than white victims. Specialist VAWG women’s organisations have for some time been struggling to sustain funding and consolidate their services, given both austerity and increased hostility towards BME communities, migrants and asylum seekers.
In 2012, the UK Government introduced a ‘hostile environment’ policy against undocumented migrants that featured high-profile enforcement campaigns, such as vans proclaiming the message ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ being driven through ethnically diverse areas. Since then, successive waves of legislation have increased undocumented migrants’ criminalisation and removed their access to many basic services through ‘no resource to public funds’ measures. These laws have directly affected support for migrant survivors of violence and abuse: more than half of all UK police forces now have a policy of arresting such survivors or revealing their whereabouts to the Home Office. The police focus here is not on addressing the criminal acts that have been committed against these migrants, but on attempting to remove these victims from the country.
In the midst of the pandemic, this situation is only growing worse. In the last few weeks, VAWG services have reported a tripling in violence and abuse cases – and these are only the reported cases. The UK’s Counting Dead Women project has recorded an increase in femicides – with many of the victims coming from minority communities – since the start of the lockdown; at least seven women have allegedly been killed by partners or former partners, while three have allegedly been killed by their father.
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: investigations into domestic violence/abuse are ongoing in many cases, the lockdown is delaying how individual reports to different statutory services are consolidated into useable quantitative data, and many victims do not have sufficient freedom of movement to make reports. There is a general consensus that the challenges facing survivors of domestic violence and abuse are being heightened by the current social distancing and lockdown measures: living with a violent partner or family member during a time when no one should be out of the house for more than one hour a day (unless working in essential services or attending hospital) not only increases the risk of instances of violence, but limits victims’ access to support services and impairs their ability to flee. Moreover, the closure of schools and day-care centres, and the lack of refuge accommodation, has resulted in many victims feeling forced to return to violent partners and/or family members.
Questions of who speaks for whom and under what circumstances have come into sharper focus during the pandemic, galvanising those who can speak the loudest and further reinforcing funding inequities.
Sadly, those who work on reducing intersectional inequalities and vulnerabilities to violence know that the movement against VAWG has long failed to consistently recognise the diverse needs of abused women. Questions of who speaks for whom and under what circumstances have come into sharper focus during the pandemic, galvanising those who can speak the loudest and further reinforcing funding inequities. One of the most pressing funding questions that must be addressed is why we still do not know how much money has been ring-fenced to support BME specialist services during this pandemic.
Moving forward through practical interventions
In the midst of COVID-19, government policies to combat discrimination in the health, education, social care and housing sectors need to seriously consider the fact that inequality and discrimination are multidimensional and relational, and that measures such as lockdowns risk exacerbating these inequalities. At present, victims and survivors have no pathways to safely accessing support. The lack of adequate, ring-fenced funding and coordination of emergency programmes is making it particularly difficult for women living in violent homes to assess their options for escaping violence and abuse. Concentrating resources exclusively in one area (e.g. policing at the expense of general advocacy and investment in shelters) means that BME women, especially undocumented migrant women, will be further neglected by statutory services and the criminal justice system. Independent, specialist providers offer undocumented migrants one way to report abuse and seek support without risking detention and possible deportation; the government must, therefore, ensure the survival and independence of such providers throughout the current crisis.
The Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill that was introduced to Parliament in July 2019 is yet to become statute and will likely be further delayed because of the pandemic (its second reading in the House of Commons is taking place today). Nonetheless, work towards passing this legislation may allow for ‘protection before enforcement’ policies to be introduced to ensure safe reporting mechanisms for migrant survivors. Safety planning to help BME women report violence, and to ensure they are protected from violent reprisals by partners and/or family members, must be prioritised in both urban and rural areas. To achieve this outcome, the government should create a strong infrastructure that encourages professionals to work in partnership across statutory services as well as with the charity sector – especially where BME victims are concerned, given their specialised needs. Such collaboration could help produce sustainable long-term solutions by recognising the importance of listening to a range of BME voices from within the VAWG sector.
We must act now to tackle the increase in VAWG caused by COVID-19, and it is essential that the specialised needs of BME 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 BME 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.
Professor Aisha K. Gill, Ph.D. 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 twenty years. Her recent publications include articles on crimes related to the murder of women/femicide, ‘honour’ killings, coercion and forced marriage, child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in South Asian/Kurdish and Somali communities, female genital mutilation, sex selective abortions, intersectionality and women who kill. She is editorial member of the Feminist Review Collective and the British Journal of Criminology. In 2019, she was appointed Co-Chair of End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW).
Image description: In June 2018 Ikon in Birmingham hosted an exhibition, “Being Somewhere Else” as part of The Migrant Festival, curated by fashion designer Osman Yousefzada. The picture is of an installation of the “Immigrants Room” and represents the cultural displacement of Osman’s mother. The room has a number of artefacts which capture scents of memory across borderlands. The cling-film wrapped stacked silver cooking pots and the plastic bags for example are ready for an imminent journey – hence being “somewhere else.” Living in between two contrasting worlds – not knowing when you have to pack your bags and leave. Photo credit: Aisha K. Gill.
 The terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ have different connotations. ‘Victim’ broadly refers to anyone who has been harmed or injured as a result of another’s actions while ‘survivor’ is a more restricted term that implies taking back control that was lost due to victimisation, healing from victimisation, speaking out against violence, activism, etc.