VAWG and COVID-19 exacerbate inequalities and expose inconsistencies in policy

Posted in: COVID-19, Health, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security

Baljit Banga is Executive Director of Imkaan - a UK-based, Black feminist organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and minoritised women and girls. Baljit is also a University of Bath Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice candidate.

Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG)

In 2013, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) a global health pandemic. In 2016, the UK government set out its vision to address the pandemic in the Ending Violence against Women and Girls Strategy – the 2020 Vision.

At the time, the estimated cost of providing public services to victims/survivors of violence was £15.8 billion. The 2020 Vision set out to reduce the prevalence of violence against women and girls by addressing deep-rooted social norms, or patriarchal world views that contributed to VAWG. It highlighted an early intervention and prevention strategy; the provision of specialist support including accommodation services; training for frontline staff in the NHS, social services, the police and across government and local authority departments; and, accountability of elected leaders in meeting local needs addressing VAWG.

In 2018 the government published Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse (the Domestic Abuse Bill), but this stood in stark contrast to the 2020 Vision. For example, the proposed new definition of domestic abuse did not address all forms of violence against women and girls as described with international convention, namely the Istanbul Convention,  and other agreements to which the UK government was signatory (such as the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women).

The overarching emphasis was instead on the criminal justice system with little reference to the need to sustain frontline support services and emergency provision for women and girls. There was no reference to robust and sustainable funding to the specialist VAWG sector, and the language of the proposed new Bill did not reflect gendered responses or interventions, essentially paving the way for generic, non-gender specific services.

Even though the Bill was introduced during the MeToo era, there were no new measures to address sexual harassment, and racialised forms and the hostile environment continued - disregarding migrant women, women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), and other insecure immigration status’ as the disclosure, detention, and deportation regime remained intact. Additionally, there were no policies regarding data sharing practices across government departments and by general health practitioners.

At the end of 2019, the government reported that 2.4 million people had been subjected to domestic violence. The police also recorded 1.3 million domestic abuse related incidents in that year, representing a 24% increase in domestic-related crime reporting from the previous year.

However, women are disproportionately impacted by all forms of male violence - including domestic and sexual violence - and the government data is not disaggregated to reflect this reality. Data from frontline specialist women’s organisations suggest that there were higher rates of VAWG presented by Black and minoritised and migrant women, but only 37% made a formal police complaint. The reasons for low reporting to the police include experiences of racial discrimination; and feelings of judgement and disbelief when Black, minoritised and migrant women approach for support, resulting in secondary victimisation.

It is widely documented that two women are killed by domestic violence per week in the UK. For Black and minoritised and migrant women, the rate of homicide within this figure is three times higher. The reason for the higher rate of homicide among Black and minoritised women includes barriers to reporting and support; inconsistent responses from statutory services when making presentations; and other structural inequalities. For migrant women, the lack of a firewall also becomes a deterrent to reporting.

The impact of COVID-19

Within this context, COVID-19 is the second pandemic to which women and girls, particularly Black and minoritised, and migrant women and girls, are being impacted disproportionately.

In the first three weeks since lockdown, there were at least 16 domestic homicides which is at least double the rate from the same period last year.

A recent report from Imkaan, ‘The Impact of the Dual Pandemics: Violence against Women and Girls and COVID-19 on Black and Minoritised Women and Girls’, states that:

[VAWG] existed before COVID-19, rates and severity of VAWG increased during COVID-19 and unfortunately, VAWG will continue after COVID-19. The intersection between the two pandemics suggests that as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, the VAWG pandemic also increases however, once the curve on the rate of coronavirus infection flattens, VAWG will continue to increase and in the post COVID-19 period when the coronavirus crisis is under control, high demand will continue to exist for specialist women’s services and rates of VAWG will continue to increase as safety nets and public services rebuild from the crisis”.

The lockdown of women’s specialist services started on 23 March 2020, beginning with ‘service reshaping’. Most services transitioned to an online environment, where frontline staff moved office equipment (PCs, laptops, mobile phones, and materials) to their homes and set up makeshift offices to support women over the telephone and online. Notices were posted in refuges to inform women of the new environment, and some refuges established points of contact (a resident representative) to enable a smooth line of communication between staff and residents.

The residents themselves were responsible for health and safety and security matters, including the regular cleaning of the refuges, and were briefed on new protocols covering the move-on of residents from refuges (if this happened), and the move-in of new residents to refuge if a bed space became available.

In the first few weeks of lockdown, there was mostly no movement of women in and out of refuges. For women not in refuges who accessed other support services (advice, advocacy, counselling, therapeutic and group support), staff made personal calls to assure them that services were running.

All support services developed under a holistic framework were similarly transitioned to the online environment and new ways of working were established. The aim during the early days of lockdown was to establish and secure safe access pathways both for staff and for women and girls who used services.

Women trapped in violent homes is a condition that emerges from the two pandemics

However, the transition was not as simple as it is stated above. Specialist women’s organisations deliver trauma-informed services often supporting women with multiple complex intersectional need and deal with high risk. High risk occurs with multiple perpetrators, as in the case of Black and minoritised tracking women’s access, or from increased and continuous exposure to risk where women live in violent situations. The socio-economic circumstances (food, income poverty and homelessness) in which women live often forces them to remain in situations of violence for long periods of time.

Women’s organisations must manage risk at several levels: the risk of repeat victimisation (from perpetrators caused by return to violence or exposure to further violence), secondary victimisation (that occurs when statutory services and the criminal justice system fail to deliver support and protection to women) and now, the risk COVID-19.

COVID-19 risk management involves understanding changing patterns of perpetration and an increase in the severity and frequency of physical violence and coercive control. In short, before COVID-19, women’s specialist services supported women’s survival from violence, and the interventions from these organisations made the difference between life and death for women. Therefore, it is not simply a case of transferring services from the office location to a ‘virtual’ environment but rather, managing situations of risk and escalation that continue to harm women, without the ability to offer face to face support and other protections.

In a survey commissioned by Imkaan, the greatest concern expressed by staff from Black and minoritised women’s organisations is not the risk of COVID-19, but the delivery of trauma-informed work from their homes where their families were present, knowing that women who accessed support were trapped in their homes with violent perpetrators.[1]

The collision of the two pandemics exacerbate violence, inequality, poverty and homelessness

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Black and minoritised women’s refuges were full. Of 293 bed spaces across England, Scotland and Wales, that are managed by Black and minoritised women’s organisations, all bed spaces were occupied. At six weeks into lockdown, the demand for these bed spaces increased eight times[2].

Throughout the crisis it has not been possible to move women on to independent housing, so they remain in refuges. Local housing authorities are also slow to respond to women in refuges because they feel women are safely housed. Housing authorities are also dealing with homelessness that require redress during COVID-19. However, the lack of safe housing options for women in refuges meant that for every woman in a refuge, at least eight were waiting to access a refuge.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the shortfall of refuge bed spaces in Black and minoritised women’s refuges was 1,172.[3] Due to the shortage of refuge bed spaces, coupled with the lack of suitable and safe housing, women needing refuges were trapped in violent homes. 309 women who accessed Women’s Aid’s No Woman Turned Away project were unable to secure refuges because they were full, and 19% of these women were subjected to further violence while waiting for refuge space to become available. Black and minoritised women were also more likely to face homelessness as a result.

The cumulative effect of need for safe accommodation and emergency housing has collided as a result of VAWG and COVID-19, creating an even deeper crisis for women and the specialist refuge sector.

We are talking about the gendered economy where services are delivered by women to support women and girls

Another aspect of the re-shaped service following COVID-19 is the gendered economy in which specialist women’s services operate. These services are delivered by women, for women and girls. Women delivering support services have to manage the consequences of the lockdown in their own homes, which may involve home-schooling, or additional care and support needs.

The re-shaped service impacts the work-life balance of employees, and while these services always meet emergency need among women and girls, there is a heightened sense of urgency because existing support infrastructures and safety nets have disappeared. Women employed by this economy, and women and girls accessing support, bare this burden collectively because the two pandemics locate their realities at the heart of the crisis.

Digital inequality is exposed and reflects existing socio-economic disadvantage

Service reshaping is expensive. Limited face to face contact and increased telephone or online contact has cost implications for services, and for women accessing support. Refuges have had to make laptops, tablets and mobile phones available to women to enable them to access support. Equipment to staff and mobile plans have also had to be increased to handle call volumes.

Even though staff are working from home and services have transitioned to mobile and other technology, organisations continue to pay rent, utilities and other costs to maintain their organisational infrastructures, in addition to costs incurred for the purchase of technology needed by staff and services users.

Before COVID-19, Black and minoritised women’s organisations experienced a 39% funding shortfall, and one-third of Black and minoritised women’s organisations had reserve income of less than three months running costs. As organisations now use existing cash flows to meet the cost of reshaping their services, 25% of organisations do not feel they would survive another six months without a cash injection.[4]

When the safety nets are unable to withstand the increased COVID-19 demand, women subjected to VAWG face food poverty and socio-economic destitution

Women in insecure and precarious employment, mostly Black and minoritised and migrant women, have lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown. Due to the precarious nature of their work, employers have been less likely to apply to the government’s Job Retention scheme, and women face a bleak prospect of no protection, no access to income, and limited financial recovery.

Many women – who previously made financial contributions toward housing, either in a refuge, or having moved on from a refuge – have since returned to services in need of welfare assistance following the lockdown. The benefits system, such as Universal Credit, also continues to operate with long delays as the system is under significant pressure. This only worsens the crisis for women in refuges, and women in need more broadly. Women becoming destitute are at risk of returning to violent perpetrators, and perpetrators put women under pressure to return, using the socio-economic situation as leverage.

Some refuges have supported women at £1,000 per week with food, basic amenities, and cleaning products. Refuges have also relied on food banks to ensure weekly deliveries of food to women and children, helping support women on limited and fixed incomes to meet their needs. However, food banks are at risk of running out of supplies, increasing the risk that it will not reach the women and children in need.

Food availability at this crucial time is critical to women’s safety in refuges. The supply chain is not nuanced and therefore cannot adjust to meet specific needs. This is also evidenced in limited grocery delivery slots and supply shortages in shops. For women with limited incomes subjected to VAWG, the situation has forced them into further destitution.

Operational policies have not sufficiently met the intersectional needs of women under the two pandemics

Safeguarding policies have been impacted by the collapse of the welfare system as well as reduction in local authority staffing. Many Black and minoritised and migrant women who presented at local authorities for support after fleeing violence were either referred to specialist agencies without their safeguarding needs being met under statutory duties, or were re-considered as low risk, despite being high risk, so that safeguarding needs did not have to be met.

Disabled women for example are twice as likely to experience VAWG than non-disabled women, and 26% of households with a disabled person live in poverty, are unemployed and occupy low paid jobs. Yet, there have been no specific measures to address the needs of disabled women during the crisis, and safeguarding policies have failed to meet requirements of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. This means the public sector equality duty to those with protected characteristics is not being met.

Other policies such as GDPR do not cover the delivery of trauma informed services during the lockdown, as these services are delivered from home, and health and safety policies in refuges, for example, have not been followed because of the lack of PPE for refuge keyworkers - even though these workers have been declared essential by government.

The operational policies that cover service standards, safety and security, and equality measures have not been met by statutory authorities who are working under ‘the new normal’ which is creating a diminished sense of public authority responsibility for public welfare.

Additionally, the COVID-19 response does not contain a violence prevention strategy. For women trapped at home there has been no adequate response except public awareness campaigning. Police protocols in the early days of lockdown were missing as some women were told that it was ‘best to stay home’ during the crisis even when they reached out for support. A protocol to contact women’s organisations during police callouts to undertake risk assessment could be easily implemented, but has yet to be considered in the response to VAWG during COVID-19.

Action is needed

On 2 May, the government announced emergency funding to address VAWG, and declared that domestic abuse survivors would automatically qualify for priority need under the council duty to relieve homelessness. This is welcome news however, it does not address concerns raised in relation to the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, about the failure by local housing authorities to define non-physical forms of violence as abuse. It also does not include migrant women. The role of specialist women’s services should be considered when drafting emergency responses, to ensure it is appropriate and meets women’s needs so that systemic failures are not repeated.

It is clear that the two pandemics have also highlighted significant concerns about the Domestic Abuse Bill 2018 in its current form, as it does not adequately address the needs of the sector. The bill went through a second reading at the beginning of May 2020, and findings of the Home Affairs Select Committee found that there was a need for direct funding to support services to reduce the risk of harm. Funding to specialist Black and minoritised women’s services was also recognised as essential, to deliver a tailored approach to address inequalities. Further, the Select Committee found that there must be a timely, fair and equitable distribution of funds to address inequalities experienced by Black and minoritised women’s organisations.

In this blog, I have highlighted some of the key concerns in the early days of lockdown during the two pandemics – VAWG and COVID-19.

No one is immune to COVID-19, but structural inequality reproduces disproportionately across diverse communities and exacerbates existing racialised inequalities. For any woman and girl with protected characteristics, the two pandemics increase her risks at multiple interlocking levels”.[5]

The VAWG sector, and Black and minoritised women and girls’ services within this sector, work on the frontline to keep women and girls safe from harm. In doing so, we address the structural nature of inequality, patriarchy, misogyny and sexism. We promote an intersectional social justice vision of society. When the COVID-19 crisis ends, VAWG will remain and the demand for services will be cumulative, but it must not be a return to business as usual.

COVID-19 exposes the weaknesses of society that cannot alleviate violence against women and girls and continues to perpetuate inequality. These are the lessons that have come from the lockdown so far. As a society, we must not be afraid to reimagine a different possibility and future.


[1] Sheil, F. 2020. Women Cannot Speak Right Now. Calculating the Cost of Domestic Abuse and COVID-19 on Specialist Services for Black and Minoritised Women and Girls in England, Scotland and Wales. London. Imkaan.

[2] This is an estimated figure based on feedback from Black and minoritised women and girls’ organisations reported on 14.05.20.

[3] Sheil, F. 2020. Women Cannot Speak Right Now. Calculating the Cost of Domestic Abuse and COVID-19 on Specialist Services for Black and Minoritised Women and Girls in England, Scotland and Wales. London. Imkaan.

[4] Sheil, F. 2020. Women Cannot Speak Right Now. Calculating the Cost of Domestic Abuse and COVID-19 on Specialist Services for Black and Minoritised Women and Girls in England, Scotland and Wales. London. Imkaan.

[5] Banga, B and Roy, S. 2020. Impact of the Dual Pandemics: Violence against Women and Girls and COVID-19 on Black and Minoritised Women and Girls. London. Imkaan.


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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: COVID-19, Health, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security


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