When the country went into lockdown on 23rd March 2020 we at Women’s Aid knew that this would have a very real impact on the lives of women experiencing domestic abuse, their children and the dedicated specialist services supporting them. Sarah Davidge, Research and Evaluation Manager at Women’s Aid, explains why:
“Covid-19 does not cause domestic abuse, only abusers are responsible for their actions.”
Women’s Aid research team
As a national organisation, it is the role of Women’s Aid to represent the voices of survivors and our member services who work so hard to support them. As a research team it is our role to make sure we have the evidence base we need to do this well.
The Women’s Aid research team hold the largest dataset on domestic abuse in the country, this includes information on the full range of domestic abuse service types and the needs and experiences of women and children accessing them. We use this to monitor trends in the sector and answer specific research questions.
Much of our data comes directly from local services themselves, through Routes to Support and On Track as well as our annual survey of support services and our work evaluating Change that Lasts. We regularly publish the results of this through our well respected Domestic Abuse Report series and our Live Data dashboards.
Voices of survivors are never forgotten and our work includes monitoring the barriers faced by the most vulnerable women through the No Woman Turned Away (NWTA) project which supports women who have faced barriers to accessing refuge services. We have investigated particular areas of survivors’ experiences, such as the relationship between domestic abuse and economic needs, through our Survivor Voice Survey of women who use the Women’s Aid Survivors’ Forum.
Whilst the team are used to adapting our work to meet the needs of a changing policy environment and the needs of our members, none of us had ever seen social change come about so quickly and as severely as we did on 23rd March this year when the country went into lockdown.
As I left our offices to head home I was struck, like many of us working in the sector, by how lucky I am to be heading to lockdown in a place where I feel safe and happy. I know we were all filled with fear and concern for those women for whom home is not a safe haven but a place of terror, not a place to run to but one to try and escape.
Covid-19 does not cause domestic abuse, only abusers are responsible for their actions. The pandemic does, however, threaten to escalate abuse and close down routes to safety for women to escape. It has put the spotlight on an existing crisis and it can no longer be ignored.
Women’s Aid also knew from experience that, without urgent action, our lifesaving national network of domestic abuse services could be overwhelmed by the scale of need resulting from the pandemic.
It was clear that we in the research team needed to respond immediately to a situation that none of us had seen before – extraordinary times indeed.
We started by doing four things:
- Listening to local service providers. The have shared their concerns and experiences with us through our membership team and other networks and a survey we recently devised.
- Listening to survivors. Through our life-saving direct services and our fantastic Law in the Making project, we listened to survivors voicing their concerns. We created a survey which will give us vital insight into the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of women experiencing domestic abuse.
- Listening to our data sources. We are analysing and reviewing the data we hold to see what this tells us about the impact of Covid-19 on support services and the women accessing them.
- Listening to external data and news. As a team we are constantly responding to the wider picture and adapting our research and data collection to changing needs.
From all of this we were able to find out what questions we should all be asking and pull together the evidence base we needed to answer them.
Impact on survivors and services
Survivors’ contacting Women’s Aid direct services (between 19th March and 7th April 2020) reported a range of impacts relating to Covid-19. They told us about:
- Escalating abuse and having to live in lockdown with an abuser due to Covid-19. 10 women and two children were killed by men in the first two weeks of the lockdown (between 23rd March and 6th April). This is three times higher than the average of three women killed every two weeks.
- Being unable to flee as planned or unsure of their options for leaving. Although a government awareness campaign gives the message that you can still leave, there remains major questions about how services are practically going to be able to support the number of women and children seeking safety.
- Perpetrators are using Covid-19 as a tool for abuse. Survivors told us about perpetrators using Covid-19 as part of abuse or concerns perpetrators are failing to take necessary precautions to prevent spread of virus.
Service providers told us about the impact on them through a Women’s Aid survey of service providers in April 2020. They told us that:
- Their capacity to support survivors is impacted by Covid-19. 84.4% said they’d had to reduce or cancel one or more services, with over a third, 36.4% of responding refuge providers having to do so. Less than half (48.5%) of refuge service providers were able to comply with government guidance to stay open for existing service users and new referrals.
- They are concerned there will be an increase in demand once lockdown measures are lifted. Due to a combination of the challenges providers face in meeting demand and the fact that women are less able to escape safely some services have not been able to accept new referrals. Most anticipate an increase once measures are lifted, 66.7% stated they were concerned about future increases in demand.
- There is likely to be a significant financial impact as a result. 68.9% were concerned about future loss of income from fundraising. The domestic abuse support sector is already facing a funding crisis which Women’s Aid research has highlighted through our Domestic Abuse reports.
Our work to monitor the impact of Covid-19 is not finished, our next steps are to look at the responses from our survivors’ survey and continue to analyse our own data sets to provide as much evidence as we can to support survivors and services. We have never seen such a fast moving social change and our research team will continue to make sure that we are asking the right questions and building up that strong evidence base. With this, we can work with the other teams at Women’s Aid to make sure we communicate our messages on behalf of services and survivors, ensuring this feeds into policy and practice.