How will Covid-19 affect violence against women and girls?

‘Violence against women and girls—or, at least, a certain category of it—has been attracting more media attention than it usually does. An increase in domestic violence, including murder, is widely expected to be one of the terrible consequences of the coronavirus lockdown’

Louise Perry

I used to work in a rape crisis centre, part of a nationwide network that exists to respond to “VAWG”. This rather horrible acronym, pronounced to rhyme with morgue, stands for “violence against women and girls”, although, as is so often the case with professional jargon, its functional meaning has drifted away from its
literal one.

The term doesn’t encompass all violence committed against women and girls. If a female member of the public is killed by a terrorist, for instance, we wouldn’t classify that as VAWG. In practice, VAWG is used to refer primarily to sexual and domestic violence: categories of crime that are overwhelmingly committed by men against women.

VAWG looks quite different from other forms of violence. It is much more likely to be sexually motivated, for instance, and also much more likely to be committed again and again, over a long period of time, with the same perpetrator repeatedly attacking the same victim, and often within the home, “behind closed doors” as the old cliché has it.

VAWG—or, at least, a certain category of it—has been attracting more media attention than it usually does. An increase in domestic violence, including murder, is widely expected to be one of the terrible consequences of the coronavirus lockdown. Karen Ingala Smith is chief executive of Nia, a charity that supports women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence, and also founder of The Femicide Census, a project that catalogues cases in the UK in which women have been killed by men. She has found that, since the lockdown began, the rate of femicide has risen to more than double what we would usually expect, suggesting that there has indeed been an increase in domestic violence murders. But she cautions against approaching these figures simplistically, writing: “I don’t believe coronavirus creates violent men. What we’re seeing is a window into the levels of abuse that women live with all the time.”

This is a point worth emphasising. Some media reports have drawn a spurious link between the lockdown and domestic violence, suggesting that perpetrators are being provoked by financial worries or other forms of stress caused by the crisis. In fact we know that the vast majority of these murders are not the consequence of a sudden loss of temper, but instead the culmination of a long period—maybe years, sometimes decades—of calculated acts of control, threats, and escalating abuse, often carried out by perpetrators who are skilled at hiding their crimes. Lockdown increases the risk of domestic violence, not as a result of the pressure put on abusers, but rather because it is now more difficult for victims to seek help.

And adults are not the only people at greater risk. It is not acknowledged often enough that a startlingly high proportion of child sexual abuse is committed by family members, most commonly stepfathers. These victims will also be finding it harder to seek help, since they now have fewer opportunities to speak to adults at school, or to call a helpline at a time when the perpetrator is not at home.

But it’s important to remember that abuse within the home is not the only form of VAWG. Although it is still too early to see the detailed impact on crime statistics, it is likely that rates of some forms of violence will have dropped as a result of lockdown. For instance, domestic abuse is not only committed by perpetrators who live with their victims, meaning that the “domestic” part of the term is somewhat misleading, even for criminals. A police officer once told me about a particularly dim-witted abuser who, when told he had been arrested because he was suspected of domestic violence, protested: “But I never hit her in her house!” The group most vulnerable to domestic abuse are teenage girls aged 16 to 19, closely followed by young women aged 20 to 24. These younger victims are more likely to be living apart from their abusers, and thus may well be having less contact with them during lockdown.

Girls in this age group are also at the highest risk from sexual violence, with the age of vulnerability peaking at 15. Although boyfriends and ex-boyfriends are the most common perpetrators, they account for a minority of assaults, with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers—yes, sometimes even strangers in dark alleys—also committing sexual crimes against women and children of all ages. It tends to get emphasised that sexual violence is usually committed by someone known to the victim, very often within the family, because it is this sort of “private” crime that has historically been ignored or dismissed as unimportant. But plenty of VAWG is perpetrated by someone outside of the victim’s household, and rates of this kind of crime may well be lower now than in normal times.

So the relationship between lockdown and VAWG is not a simple one. Lift it, and certain types of violence are likely to increase; keep it in place, and other types of violence are likely to increase. From the government’s perspective, every option has its costs.

The solution to this is both dull and profoundly important: funding. For shelters, police, courts, the NHS, social services, and specialist charities. There really is no other way. Right now, domestic violence is getting a lot of media attention, and the Home Office has responded with a modest increase in spending on support services. But what worries me is what might happen down the line, if the result of this crisis is a deep recession, and the government chooses to impose yet another wave of cuts to services already depleted during the austerity of the 2010s.

This crisis could well contribute to an increase in violence against women, but not in the way we expect.

This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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