COVID-19, Structural Inequality and Violence against Women and Girls: One Year On (Part One)

Posted in: COVID-19

The specialist Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG)[1] sector mobilised a year ago to address the impact of the shadow pandemics[2] – COVID 19 and VAWG. It was clear from the start that restrictive measures introduced to address the health pandemic would have a significant impact on women’s lives. For women subjected to violence in the home, lockdown meant that they would not be able to leave violent relationships to safe accommodation offered by women’s refuges. In these cases, the severity and frequency of violence against women increased for example, sexual violence was reported more frequently by women trapped in their homes. In cases of coercive control, perpetrators ‘controlled and managed’ information about COVID-19 reinforcing the message that services were closed to women. In these cases, COVID-19 was ‘weaponised’ against women by isolating them in the home and preventing contact with outside agencies. For women who were able to leave violent relationships during this period, 75% who enquired about refuge spaces could not be accommodated in refuges as they were already full.[3] Women with insecure immigration status and migrant women experienced additional restrictions by statutory agencies who used their limited interpretation of immigration laws to deny women essential services. Disabled women faced further barriers to support which affected their access to food, daily care and health services. Restrictive measures during lockdown endangered women’s lives and increased their exposure to violence. This situation occurred because the nature of violence changed during the pandemic while barriers to rights-based support and protection increased. Women who experienced existing barriers such as Black and minoritised women[4] were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.[5]

At the start of the lockdown, there was sector-wide mobilisation to lobby for amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill covering England and Wales which was moving through the parliamentary process at the time. Women’s rights organisations and advocates expressed concerns regarding the framing of VAWG within the Bill for example, the Bill called for a gender-neutral response and failed to recognise the full scale of male violence against women. The Bill also focused on increased criminal justice and policing as effective responses to VAWG while making no commitment to resourcing specialist women’s services or including such services in the recognised pathways to support for women. The Bill created a ‘tiered system’ of commissioned provision embedded within the statutory pathways and non-commissioned specialist support which were located outside these pathways. The Bill is mentioned here because it was an example of the microaggressions that would be introduced in law characterising the limited response by the government to VAWG. Such microaggressions highlighted the ways in which the rights and protections of women and women with protected characteristics were challenged by government and how the crisis of the pandemic created the environment necessary to fast-track such changes in laws. The statutory pathways approach in the Bill is important because it created a commissioning roadmap that would reduce specialist women’s provision in local areas. The microaggression occurs when VAWG provision and the rights and protections of women are tied to the commissioning regime which leads to the gradual ‘defunding’ of the sector. The so-called shadow pandemic results from government policy starting with exclusions in the definition of VAWG.

This blog is presented in three parts. The first part covers the COVID-19 reality from a women’s rights’ perspective focusing on the deeply rooted structural inequalities that bring together the global health pandemic with VAWG creating a perpetual crisis for diverse groups of women expressed as structural inequalities. The second part focuses on microaggressions in policy and law introduced during the crisis that disproportionately target women setting the clock back on women’s rights and protections that had been secured in the decades since CEDAW. A critical point here is how different policies intersect to challenge and reduce existing rights and protections. The third part covers women’s leadership and mobilisation in responding to the COVID-19 crisis and identifies the vision for a transformative recovery process that centres around the lived experiences and intersectional realities of women’s lives. The data and policies reflect the need for a more intersectional understanding of political economic recovery from COVID-19.

The data in this blog comes from a year-long research and monitoring project conducted by Imkaan,[6] a national umbrella organisation providing support to frontline Black and minoritised women’s organisations delivering services to address VAWG. The data presents the real time experience of these organisations and brings together a narrative on race, gender and inequality in the context of a global health pandemic.


Part One: The Lived Experience Intersecting with COVID-19 and Structural Inequalities

A year ago, the Violence against Women’s and Girls (VAWG) sector went into lockdown and transitioned vital support services to an online environment. In addition to investment in new technology, frontline organisations implemented new policies and practices to address the challenges presented to them by COVID-19. These included the purchase of PPE for frontline staff and implementation of PPE renewal programmes, new protocols in refuge accommodation including adaptations to ensure an adequate level of social distancing in common living circumstances in the refuge environment and development of additional assessment tools to address COVID-related needs and risks. While this sounded like a structured transition to a different way of working, the reality was different. The VAWG sector is about supporting women in violent and life-threatening situations. During the pandemic, crises were occurring at multiple levels with the breakdown of statutory support and safeguarding, escalation of violence against women in the home and with frontline services managing a situation of historic under-resourcing. These factors created a cumulative effect meaning that the crisis deepened over time reproducing inequality for women during the pandemic.

The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) looked at various intersecting socio-economic issues regarding the gendered impact of COVID-19 and found that because BME women were more likely to be in lower income jobs and in precarious employment (zero hours contracts), they were subjected to greater insecurities and inequalities during this time.[7] For example, 31% of BME women fell behind on paying bills compared to 11% white women, 65% of BME women reported anxiety about having to work during COVID-19,[8] and racialised attacks against Black and minoritised people – blaming them for ‘bringing the disease here’ saw an increase in hate crimes over the period. Imkaan also documented an increase in on street racial harassment against women which added to mental health distress, depression and suicidal ideation leading some women to abandon their housing and return to perpetrators.[9]

The WBG research also found that 41% of BME women working from home were working longer hours. From Imkaan’s research, senior management in BME organisations worked an additional 1.5 days per week.[10]Managers were taking on casework to support frontline workers leaving little time for strategic planning or fundraising. Management time spent on supervising staff also increased because the caseloads for frontline workers increased by 75%. Risk assessments took 2.5 hours longer on average to complete online. Workers were delivering services into the night taking calls from women who were living in violent situations who could not get access to Police to attend the calls. Outreach cases increased from 30 (normal) to 45 cases per staff. Calls to social services for welfare assistance took 3 times longer. On average staff working hours increased by 4 hours per day. Workloads in BME organisations were 25% higher during the pandemic due to underfunding and under resourcing (addressed below). WBG data found that 45% of BME women were struggling to manage care work and social demands with 42% of BME women losing any form of government welfare support during this time.[11] WBG concluded that BME women experienced “deep-seated and multi-faceted socioeconomic inequalities linked to structural racism”.[12]

At the start of the pandemic there was a pre-existing funding shortfall of 39% in BME organisations operating in England, Scotland and Wales. The shortfall resulted from austerity and commissioning. Under austerity measures, grant budgets were reduced by as much as 40% and these cuts directly impacted women’s refuge provision for example, the bedspace to staffing ratio reduced from 4:1 to 8:1 to enable organisations to meet austerity cuts. Under local authority commissioning practices small organisations competed with big housing associations for the delivery of local services. Through price under-cutting measures, efficiency savings (which were better achieved by economies of scale) and professionalisation of VAWG provision, the social value of these organisations was replaced with competitive commercial value.

Through these practices, the local service landscape changed as fewer specialist women’s organisations benefitted from funding through grants and commissioning policy. Overtime, organisations lost infrastructure funding which forced them to reduce management and back-office capacity impacting their ability to engage in longer-term strategic development. Research looking at the impact of funding policies found that there were inconsistencies in the way funding structures operated which were impacting smaller grassroots and specialist organisations disproportionately. An Imkaan study comparing funding trends in the VAWG sector found that 25 BME organisations had a cumulative income of £10 million equating to an average income of £400,000 per organisation while 10 generic organisations had a combined turnover of £25 million, the equivalent of £2.5 million each.[13] The inequality in fund distribution was glaring and over time, the gaps widen. BME women’s organisations lost leadership, influence, advocacy capacity among other expertise and experience.

The impact of funding policy was gendered and racialised targeting a sector that employed women and delivered services to women. Funding policies were an example of microaggressions experienced by the women’s sector generally and by the specialist BME women’s organisations disproportionately. BME organisations were up to 6 times less likely to obtain funding compared to generic organisations because of the exclusion criteria in funding applications.[14] For example, organisations serving protected characteristics were defined as being ‘too exclusive’ while generic provision was viewed as economically efficient and viable in serving the needs of the ‘whole population’.  In March 2020 when the lockdown began, 25% of BME organisations said they would not survive another 6 months without additional funding.[15]

At the start of the lockdown the funding crisis was already evident in the sector. During the first week of lockdown, BME women’s organisations invested between £3,000 to £18,000 to adjust to the digital environment.[16] The sector supported over 43,000 women and 40% of these women fell into the category of destitute: socio-economic destitution, destitution due to insecure immigration status and destitution caused by precarious employment. By April 2020, referrals increased from 60% for some organisations to 300% for others and this trend remained consistent over this period. The sector managed 293 refuge bedspaces. The bedspace shortfall was over 1,000 as 75% of BME women in need of emergency accommodation in refuges were unable to secure a bedspace. 25% of existing bedspaces could not be made available in refuges because move-on housing options were simply not available. The full-time staffing equivalency in BME organisations was 286 staff. The full-time staffing shortfall was 471. 50% of BME organisations had 10 or fewer staff compared to generic organisations. During the 2020 Spending Review, government allocated £125 million to address VAWG and in the Spring Budget 2021, a further £19 million was allocated to the sector however the overall funding shortfall was £292 million including £173 million for women’s refuges.[17]

The data above highlights the cumulative impact on demand for specialist women’s services. Due to the existence of structural inequalities, BME women’s organisations were impacted disproportionately. The risk considering the content of the Domestic Abuse Bill highlighted above, is that trauma-informed rights-based principles which are embedded in social justice responses addressing violence and inequality are replaced entirely by gender neutral efficiency models. Microaggression discussed in Part Two indicate that the shift in approach as highlighted here could become the lasting legacy of COVID-19.

In the effort to ‘build back better’ and to ensure that it is not business as usual, microaggressions reverse the clock on the right and protections that Black and minoritised, disabled and other groups of women have struggled for over decades. The recovery from COVID-19 must be grounded in strengthening the human rights framework addressing the intersecting realities of all women’s lives.


Baljit Banga, Executive Director of Imkaan 


[1] The term violence against women (VAW) is used in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1981 and the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women 2011, otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention. The term VAW in international and regional convention covers violence against women and girls. In the UK, the term violence against women and girls (VAWG) is used to indicate that girls are subjected to violence in different ways for example, as children who experience violence because they are girl children..

[2] The shadow pandemic is the term used by UN Women to refer to the joint impact of COVID-19 and VAWG however the term is contentious because it fails to recognise that VAWG existed before COVID-19 and that the two concerns ‘shadow’ each other.

[3] Sheil, F. 2020. Calculating the Cost of VAWG and COVID-19 on Specialist Services for Black and Minoritised Women in England, Scotland and Wales. London. Imkaan.

[4] The term Black and minoritised was introduced by Imkaan to identify women whose histories originate from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, including the indigenous peoples of Australasia, the Americas and the islands of the Atlantic Indian and Pacific Oceans. The term Black is also used in a political sense. The term minoritised is used to express that while such groups may comprise the global majority, they are ‘minoritised’ through the experience of migration and diaspora. The term minoritised equates with structural inequality and racialised experiences. The term BME (Black and minority ethnic) which is found in UK policy and governing documents, is used in this blog within the wider context outlined here.

[5] See IPR blog by this author published in 2020 called The Two Pandemics – VAWG and COVID-19 – Exacerbate Inequalities and Inconsistencies in Policy.

[6] The author of this blog is the Executive Director of Imkaan and managed the national research and data project referenced in this blog and played a direct role in commissioning the research, defining the scale and scope of the study, agreeing methodologies for the work, and in providing direct feedback on the wider strategic context for the work.

[7] Women’s Budget Group (WBG). 2021. Household Debt, Gender and COVID-19. London. WBG.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sheil, F. 2020. Lessons from Lockdown. A Study in Collective Resilience in Imkaan’s Membership.  London. Imkaan.

[10] The data in this section comes from the above cited report unless referenced otherwise.

[11] Women’s Budget Group (WBG). 2021. Household Debt, Gender and COVID-19. London. WBG.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Imkaan. 2018, From Survival to Sustainability. London. Imkaan.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sheil, F. 2020. Calculating the Cost of VAWG and COVID-19 on Specialist Services for Black and Minoritised Women in England, Scotland and Wales. London. Imkaan.

[16] The data in this paragraph comes from the report cited above unless otherwise referenced.

[17] Women’s Budget Group Briefing. 2021.

Posted in: COVID-19


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