What does Women’s Aid data tell us about the impact of Covid-19 on women experiencing domestic abuse and the services which support them?
Covid-19 does not cause domestic abuse, only abusers are responsible for their actions. The pandemic has, however, escalated abuse and closed down routes to safety for women to escape.
Survivors contacting Women’s Aid’s direct services have reported escalating abuse and having to live in lockdown with an abuser due to Covid-19. Women in lockdown with their abuser will be less able to get breathing space. It will be harder to text or phone to get support from friends and family, and from specialist support services. Child survivors will no longer have the respite of school or nursery, which can often be a safe space to access support.
April 2020 (The impact of Covid-19 on survivors April 2020)
“It’s hell on earth living 24/7 now with my abuser & can’t get out to escape put distance between us when I feel tension rising”
An initial survivor survey carried out by Women’s Aid in April 2020, confirmed that Covid-19 had quickly impacted on the experiences of women experiencing domestic abuse.
- 67.4% of survivors who are currently experiencing abuse told us that it had got worse since Covid-19
- 76.1% told us they are having to spend more time with their abuser
“More time at home magnifies the issues, you can’t get away from it, I have to work harder to keep him happy.”
June 2020 (A Perfect Storm, August 2020)
“I feel on edge the whole time and want to run away”
In June lockdown measures had started to ease, however Covid-19 continued to have an impact on women experiencing domestic abuse. Women talked about experiencing worsening abuse, trapped at home with no respite, especially for those living with the abuser and many had no space or time to leave safely/access support (see Q3 Is it harder for women to flee domestic abuse?)
“… when he had been abusive no-one would come and help due to the Covid-19. Even when the police said it’s ok for someone to come to sit with me no-one would come.
- 91% of women who were experiencing abuse at the time of responding said the pandemic had impacted their experiences of abuse in one or more way/s. This included:
- feeling more afraid (52.2%)
- feeling that they had no-one to turn to for help during lockdown (58.0%)
“I’m lonely, feel isolated, like a sitting duck.”
“I am reliant upon my abuser to get food and medication as shielding for 12 weeks. This is being used against me”
Coercive and controlling behaviour, which is at heart of DA, describes the way abusers use multiple means to control, manipulate and instil fear. From the start of the pandemic we saw abusers start using virus and lockdown restrictions to do just this.
Perpetrators of domestic abuse who use coercive and controlling tactics may use Covid-19 government restrictions to further control and isolate their partners. For example, preventing them from seeking medical attention, reaching out to support networks, or leaving the house.
- In April, 71.7% of survivors responding to our survey who were experiencing current abuse told us their abuser has more control over their life since Covid-19. (The impact of Covid-19 on survivors April 2020)
- Almost a third (30.4%) respondents reported their abuser blaming them for the economic impact of Covid-19 on the household. (The impact of Covid-19 on survivors April 2020)
Covid-19 virus used as a tool for abuse
- In June, over two thirds (66.7%) of survivors currently experiencing abuse said that their abuser had used the pandemic as part of their abuse in one or more way/s. For example:
- Refusing to take precautions to stop the spread of the virus (37.7%)
- Forcing their household to live under unnecessarily strict measures (10.1%)
Survivors contacting Women’s Aid Direct services reported a range of impacts relating to Covid-19. They told us about 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 remain major questions about how services are practically going to be able to support the number of women and children seeking safety (see question below on the impact on service providers).
Covid-19 can make it more difficult for women to leave an abuser, particularly if they share a home. Survivors are seeing their support networks, and means of escape, reduced.
“I wanted to leave the relationship. However since COVID-19 and the lockdown coming into effect it has made it harder to leave…”
April 2020 (The impact of Covid-19 on survivors April 2020)
- At the height of lockdown, over three quarters of survivors (78.3%) told us that Covid-19 has made it harder for them to leave their abuser.
June 2020 (A Perfect Storm for details, August 2020)
This was still a significant issue in June in spite of easing lockdown measures and government messaging that you can leave if you are experiencing abuse.
Restricted access to support
“I have nobody to tell what I am going through I am desperate to get out but he is always home”
Almost half of respondents (40.7%) to our June survey said they had not accessed any form of support during the pandemic. For some survivors, this may have been due to lockdown restrictions or the behaviour of their abuser. Increased time with the abuser prevented some from seeking support.
“It was very very difficult to access anything while he was in the house. Only when he has gone visiting his family was I able to try and seek advice and speak out…”
- 10% (7 out of 69) said they had tried to leave and their abuser had used restrictions to stop them. (e.g. threatening that they’d be arrested for breaking lockdown)
- Some survivors talked about their abusers not being able to leave the house because of lockdown, or using it as an excuse to stay in the survivor’s house. This reduced survivor space for action.
- Survivors were sometimes reluctant to go to friends/family for fear of spreading the infection. Nearly a third (31.9%, 22 out of 69) said that friends/family could not help them to leave due to lockdown restrictions.
Women also found an increase in post-separation abuse and that the pandemic brought back memories of past abuse.
“Being isolated takes away your support system. We don’t normally stay at home we’re out as much as possible in case he decides to turn up. But during this time we’re stuck inside and there’s only a front door between us if he decides to try and kick it in again.”
April 2020 (The impact of Covid-19 on survivors April 2020)
- 13.7% of survivors who said they’d experienced abuse in a past relationship also told us the abuse from their abusive ex-partner had got worse since COVID 19.
This group of survivors talked about how feelings of isolation affected their wellbeing and recovery meaning that they continue to experience the impact of domestic abuse.
“It’s brought back feelings of being trapped and suffocating. Difficult to adjust to isolation as only just got used to being free”
June 2020 (A Perfect Storm for details, August 2020)
“Living with my ex felt like being imprisoned in my home, this lockdown has bought back feelings of fear, loneliness, isolation.”
The June survivor survey further explored what was happening to women who identified as having experienced of domestic abuse in the past and
184 survivors in this group told us about how lockdown had affected them.
- Over half (3%) of the respondents who had experienced abuse in the past, said that the pandemic had triggered memories of abuse and affected their mental health.(A Perfect Storm for details, August 2020)
“Not being able to go to work or see friends, has made me feel trapped again”
Covid-19 has had a very real impact on child survivors who also experienced worsening abuse during lockdown.
- Half (53.1%, 17 out of 32) of the survivors with children who were currently experiencing domestic abuse told us that their children have witnessed more abuse towards them.
- Over one third (37.5%, 12 out of 32) said their abuser had shown an increase in abusive behaviour directed towards their children.
Child contact was used as a tool to increase control
- Of the survivors responding to our survey with current child contact arrangements, 40% told us child contact arrangements have been used to further abuse and 35% told us they were concerned about the safety of child contact during this time. (A Perfect Storm for details, August 2020)
- 5% of local domestic abuse support services responding to a Women’s Aid Survey of service providers in April 2020, said women they support are experiencing more issues relating to child contact compared to pre Covid-19 (Impact of Covid-19 on domestic abuse services- April 2020).
Service providers are finding their capacity to support survivors is impacted by Covid-19:
- 84.4% (38 out of 45) of service providers responding to a Women’s Aid survey said they’d had to reduce or cancel one or more services, with over a third, 36.4% (12 of 33), refuge providers having to do so.20
- 48.9% of all service providers responding to a Women’s Aid survey had been impacted by staff off sick, and 64.4% by staff unable to come into work due to self-isolation.
Providers are concerned about the impact on funding
- 68.9% (31 out of 45) of service providers responding to a Women’s Aid survey were concerned about future loss of income from fundraising.(The impact of Covid-19 on domestic abuse support services April 2020)
- Providers continued to be concerned about future funding in June, in spite of short term crisis funding made available during the pandemic and the fact that most of our respondents had received this, less than half (19 of 40) said they had experienced an overall increase in funding/income during the pandemic. (A Perfect Storm, August 2020).
Use of Women’s Aid’s national online services has increased
- Women’s Aid’s Live Chat service saw a 41% increase between the 19th-25th March and 26th March-1st April
- Women’s Aid’s Survivors Forum saw a 27% increase between the 19th-25th March and 26th March-1st April
What we know about the impact on new referrals to local service providers.
Feedback from our members, including from our recent survey of service providers, shows that the impact on numbers of new referrals is varied. Some services reported increased referrals in the weeks after lock down whilst others saw a decrease. The reasons for this are varied and WA are seeking more local and national data to help us understand this picture.
Our data from On Track, looks at the overall trend on referrals to local services. It shows that:
- Referrals to refuge have decreased by almost 40%. 
- Referrals to community-based services have decreased by 16.5%. 
- The number of survivors calling local helplines decreased by one third. 
Services anticipate a spike in demand as lockdown lifts
Most services feel there will be an increase in demand once measures are lifted and we saw this in both surveys of providers.
- 66.7% (30 out of 45) of service providers stated they were concerned about future increases in demand. (The impact of Covid-19 on domestic abuse support services April 2020)
- 100% (30 out of 30 responding) said they expected to see an increase in demand either in the next six months or between six months and a year from completing the survey in June 2020 (A Perfect Storm, August 2020).
 This data was input by 55 organisations in England who run refuge services and use On Track. For these refuges combined, the average daily number of referrals received between 2nd January and 13th March 2020 was 31.7. After lockdown (from 23rd March 2020 to 17th April 2020) this dropped to an average of 19.7 referrals per day, a percentage decrease of 37.8%.
 This data was input by 66 organisations in England who run outreach, advocacy, IDVA/DAPA, floating support and advice & information services and use On Track. For these services combined, the average daily number of referrals between 1st November 2019 and 13th March 2020 was 231.6. After lockdown (from 23rd March 2020 to 17th April 2020) this dropped to an average of 193.5 referrals per day. This is percentage decrease of 16.5%.
 This data was input by 33 organisations in England who run local helpline services and use On Track. For these 33 local helplines combined, the total average daily number of calls from survivors between 2nd January and 13th March 2020 was 113.6. After lockdown (from 23rd March 2020 to 17th April 2020) this dropped to an average of 75.2 calls per day. This is percentage decrease of 33.8%.
The full lockdown period, from 23rd March to 31st May 2020, saw a 40.6% reduction in the number of refuge vacancies in England added to the UK-wide Routes to Support database compared to the same period in 2019. (A Perfect Storm, August 2020).
Some refuge services are struggling to comply with government guidance to stay open and support new referrals: (The impact of Covid-19 on domestic abuse support services April 2020)
- Less than half (48.5%, 16 out of 33) of refuge service providers were able to comply with government guidance for existing service users and new referrals.
- Less than a third (30.3%, 10 out of 33) of refuge service providers reported that they had been provided with adequate PPE for their staff.
Fewer refuge spaces became available for a range of reasons
Of the 28 responding providers who answered our June survey questions about their refuge services:
- 3% (18) said they have seen a reduction in the availability of spaces during the pandemic. The most common reasons were:
- a lack of suitable move on accommodation (66.7% of those with reduced availability)
- concerns over managing the spread of the virus in communal accommodation (61.1% of those with reduced availability).
- Over two thirds (66.7%) of those with a reduction, said they have found it more difficult to find move on accommodation for women during the pandemic than before
- A third (33.3%) who had reduced availability talked about having to reduce the number of referrals they could take due to the challenges of adhering to government guidelines on shared housing:
“We have not advertised spaces on Routes to Support during the period of lockdown due to guidelines for shared accommodation.”
“At the start of lockdown we offered for the women in refuge to extend their stay in order to reduce the risk of infection from new women entering the refuge.”
There is currently a focus on community responses to survivors during Covid-19. Since 2016 Women’s Aid Federation of England has been leading a community response to domestic abuse called ‘Ask Me.’
This is now a tested and established scheme with a network of 1,164  Community Ambassadors across 13 geographical sites in England, covering parts of the North East, North West, Midlands, South, South East and London.
Since the government lockdown, Community Ambassadors have continued to raise awareness about domestic abuse in their communities, have safe conversations with survivors and signpost them to support.
Our survey with Community Ambassadors, carried out in April 2020, shows that they feel experiences of domestic abuse are worsening due to Covid-19, for women who are experiencing it now, in varying ways, and women who have experienced it in the past. Accessing support services as well as informal support has also become more difficult.
As a result, Community Ambassadors have adapted their ways of working. For example, Ambassadors have been:
- using social media more to share information about local and national support services;
- becoming more knowledgeable by reading and learning more about Domestic Abuse. One Community Ambassador said that they are “more aware of restrictions on survivor’s lives”;
- making sure people in their workplaces are aware of domestic abuse services support services;
- wearing an Ask Me badge when they go for walks; and
- waiting for survivors to call them as this is better for a survivor’s safety.
This has led to:
- Most ambassadors (63%), who responded to the survey, having more conversations since the government lockdown across society and in communities, about domestic abuse.
- Two thirds (66%) of Community Ambassadors, responding to this survey, have shared information and/or signposted survivors to get support since the government lockdown.
Change that Lasts, developed by Women’s Aid Federation of England and Welsh Women’s Aid, is a plan for a future where all survivors get the right response to domestic abuse the very first time. This includes getting the right response in the community. Ask Me scheme shows the power of training community members to understand domestic abuse, and to listen and believe survivors. The survey highlights the vital importance of ensuring that this type of training is rolled out in any community response to ensure survivors get the right response the first time.
 This data reflects Community Ambassadors trained from the beginning of the scheme up until December 2019, in England only.
It has been reported that 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 based on official figures from ONS.
Further work looking at homicides during lockdown is needed to understand the full picture.
A Perfect Storm
Domestic abuse has worsened during Covid-19 and frontline services expect rising demand
On Tuesday 18th August Women’s Aid released a new report: A Perfect Storm – The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse survivors and the services supporting them.
The report pulls together learning from the stories of surivors and providers we work with, our key data sources and a series of surveys for survivors and services including those summarised in briefings on this page. A Perfect Storm uses all of this evidence to show how domestic abuse has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. It examines the impact on survivors and their children; how abusers use the pandemic as a tool of abuse; and how the services supporting survivors are affected.
Published August 2020 (c) Women’s Aid