As COVID-19 spread throughout the world, another pandemic was growing – hidden in the homes where we have been ordered to stay.
International Women’s Day, on Monday 8 March, is a day to celebrate the achievements of women and call for more action on gender equality.
But this year it feels there is little to celebrate. Whether you look at women in the workplace or maternity rights, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in almost all walks of life.
The pandemic’s impact on domestic abuse is particularly bleak.
Across the world, there has been a marked rise in reports of domestic violence. In France, reports increased by 32% during the first week of lockdown. Ireland saw a five-fold increase in domestic violence and reports were up 8.1% in the United States after lockdown orders. In the UK, police have seen a 10% increase in reported cases of domestic abuse and calls to helplines have also risen sharply.
Domestic abuse is a vastly under-reported crime and the true picture is likely to be far worse than the official statistics show.
But the emergence of what the UN is calling a “shadow pandemic” is clear.
While for most of us, the stay at home directive has meant grappling with the stress of home schooling or hurling well-meaning articles about baking banana bread into the rubbish bin, for a significant number of people it has been altogether more sinister.
When your abuser is your partner or family member, spending time at home is to be trapped. The usual escape routes are harder to access, and the critical support from friends and loved ones shut off.
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Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in this week’s budget that domestic abuse schemes in England and Wales will receive an extra £19m from the government over the next two years.
Most of the money will be going towards work with abusers to reduce reoffending, and £4m will provide 132 new bed places – or “respite rooms” – for homeless and extremely vulnerable women who have suffered domestic abuse.
The extra money has been welcomed, but charities have warned it’s not enough.
Women’s Aid estimates that £393m is required to support refuges and community based services in England, so there is a shortfall of more than £200m.
The charity warns that “will mean that women and children will be turned away from the lifesaving support they need”.
“While funding for working with perpetrators is important, it must never come at the expense of funding lifesavings support for survivors. Women-only services deliver tried and tested support that survivors and their children continue to desperately need. They are likely to face even further pressure and demand once lockdown finally lifts,” it said.
Domestic abuse survivors need extraordinary bravery. It means hiding your passport and squirreling away money in amounts small enough not to be noticed, but big enough to fund your escape. It means scrambling together clothes and quickly bundling up the children before the abuser gets back home (and who is out of the house for long these days?).
Some refuges have closed altogether, while others are struggling with a chronic shortage of beds. Local authority spending on refuges has been cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017.
What happens if, after that stomach churning rush of fear and determination, there is nowhere to go?
We’ll be exploring the issue with Claire Barnett, the executive director of UN Women UK, on Sophy Ridge on Sunday on 7 March. Other guests will include Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the SNP’s Mhairi Black and the head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman.
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