England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Covid-19 and domestic violence: another public health emergency

On 23 March, the government issued strict instructions to stay at home in order to “reduce the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS and to save lives”. Clearly, as the Tories’ complacent approach and failed (then abandoned) ‘herd immunity’ strategy has allowed the disease to spread out of control, there is an urgent need to slow this process. But for many victims pf domestic violence, being at home is the least safe place they could possibly be, because it will mean being trapped in their house – all day every day – with a violent partner. This period of isolation could pose more of a threat to their lives than the virus itself.

In contrast to Boris Johnson’s initial downplaying of the seriousness of the virus, social distancing measures have been understood as necessary by many working-class people, with workers taking action to demand non-essential workplaces are closed and for adequate protective equipment in those that must remain open. But Johnson’s emergency measures, based not on democratic control by working-class people but on top-down decrees and a beefing up of police powers, is leaving women in abusive relationships without options.

Countries where lockdown measures were introduced earlier gave a glimpse of the scale of the danger to victims of domestic violence. In February, there were three times as many reported cases of domestic abuse in the Hubei Province of China – the centre of the outbreak. 90% of the cases were linked to Covid-19, and women who desperately needed to flee their abusers were unable to access travel permits.

Other countries have seen a spike in incidents, for instance in Brazil there has been an increase of 40-50%, and helplines in Catalonia and Cyprus have experienced a rise in calls of 20% and 30% respectively. But many domestic violence victims are unable to make calls to these services, as they are home with their partner, without the privacy or opportunity to do so. In Italy, calls to helplines have actually dropped, with women texting or emailing desperate messages instead.

Leaving a violent partner is difficult for many reasons, but quarantine makes it even harder, as the usual lifelines are cut off. It’s even more difficult for women with children to walk away, and mothers having to home school means even more pressure. Abusers commonly seek to isolate their partners from their friends and family as a tactic to control them. The government’s instruction to self-isolate is certain to perpetuate this behaviour.

Lockdown means that victims of domestic violence will now have even less access to the outside world than usual, and this will have a drastic impact on their ability to seek help. Lyndsey Dearlove, of the domestic abuse support charity Hestia, explained “Self-isolation offers a new method of control over victims to ensure they do not access any community support networks or seeing family and friends meaning any opportunities for intervention are diminished.”

Violence against women is a “global health problem of epidemic proportions” according to the World Health Organisation. In the UK almost one in three women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and three women a week are killed by a current or former partner.

Gender-based violence is an issue that has sparked spectacular protest movements all over the world. On 25 November the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against women saw huge protests take place in countries including Mexico, Turkey and Sudan.

Women’s oppression has existed since the emergence of class society based on private property. Gender violence stems from traditional, patriarchal beliefs that continue to persist – that the man, as the head of the household, has the right to use coercive behaviour to control his partner.

But while the problem is systemic, certain elements can be exacerbating factors, such as stress and money worries. And coronavirus has created more panic and uncertainty about the future than most people will have ever experienced in their lives. The worry of financial difficulties combined with having to remain at home gives rise to a potentially explosive situation, where episodes of violence from abusive partners are certain to escalate.

Within the first week of lockdown in the UK, police noted an increase in domestic abuse directly linked to the coronavirus outbreak, with Avon and Somerset police reporting a rise of 20.9%. Police in Cumbria have acknowledged the increased risk and have responded by asking postal workers and delivery drivers to look out for signs of abuse whilst on their rounds. And whereas postal and delivery workers are classified by the government as key workers – or workers who provide an essential service to the public- outrageously domestic violence professionals did not make it onto the government’s list.

The situation is compounded by the colossal extra strain of the pandemic on already overstretched and underfunded emergency services. The extra pressure will have an impact on response times for reported incidents.

But it’s not just emergency services that are feeling the strain. Decades of neoliberalism and years of austerity have decimated vital public services. Despite the fact that some 1.6 million women experienced domestic violence in this country last year, local authority spending on refuges has been cut and cut, with 65% of women who need refuge places being rejected.

Inadequate refuge provision alongside a lack of affordable housing will have had tragic consequences for women with nowhere to turn. Spending on refuges between 2010 and 2017 dropped from £31.2m to £23.9m.

There is also the danger posed by perpetrators of domestic violence who have served their prison sentences and who are returned home. Social distancing restrictions for probation workers means that face-to-face visits are limited to the most high-risk offenders, such as murderers and terrorists. For those considered lower risk, visits will be replaced by telephone calls, making it more difficult to check on the safety of those at the home address.

Chas Berry, who is a member of the national executive council of the probation workers’ union NAPO said: “Face to face contact with perpetrators is now limited to those currently assessed as high risk or having complex needs. We know, however, that many domestic abusers in the criminal justice system are assessed as low or medium risk, and it takes careful monitoring by skillful probation staff to spot when women may be most in danger. The lockdown might seriously impede our ability to monitor these abusers and prevent serious further offending.”

One thing that the coronavirus crisis has exposed is that austerity has been a political choice. We’ve had years of being told that there’s no “magic money tree” to pay for the services that we’ve been losing since the financial crisis of 2008. Yet Boris Johnson seems to have miraculously found said tree, as we’re seeing funding materialise that we were told was impossible, and emergency legislation introduced to deal with the crisis.

The risk that women face while isolated with their abusers needs to be treated like the emergency that it is, with services given the funding that they need to enable women to escape life threatening situations. Years of underfunding of the NHS means that thousands of people will die unnecessarily because of this pandemic. Capitalism prioritises the profits of an elite few over the lives of the majority, and it is incapable of guaranteeing the safety of anyone but the richest.

But whereas properly funded services would make a huge difference,on their own, these are not enough to end violence against women or safeguard against future crises in the current system. For that, the socialist transformation of society is required. A socialist society – one founded on solidarity and based on meeting the needs of all, instead of private profit, could lay the basis for the elimination inequality and oppression, and to make the world a safer place for everyone.


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