For most of us, the announcement of the lockdown last month was a sober, even daunting moment. It is hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been for those who knew they would now be confined with their abusers. As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned on Monday, the threat for many women and girls looms largest where they should be safe: in their own homes.
The warning was first sounded in Wuhan, where activists reported that domestic violence rates were soaring due to the lockdown. Since then, around the world, orders to stay at home have made many victims more vulnerable. The cause of domestic abuse is the perpetrator, not coronavirus. But rates of violence increase in many emergencies and this crisis is doubly perilous, because it is simultaneously closing routes to safety. One of the most chilling reports is that calls to helplines in Italy have actually dropped, while text messages and emails have increased, from women who do not dare to ring while their abuser is close by.
In the UK, the national domestic abuse helpline has recorded a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since the lockdown began. Visits to its website are 150% higher than in the last week of February. Children, too, are vulnerable. While those with a social worker are still attending school, the Easter holidays have now begun, and other children will no longer have the opportunity to access support at school.
Mr Guterres has rightly urged all governments to make preventing violence against women a key part of their Covid-19 response. In the UK, organisations that deliver services to those affected have warned the government that action is needed now. Austerity has already had a punitive effect on the sector. Now police, health services and local authorities, as well as refuges and support groups, are under new pressure from the combined effect of additional demands and reduced resources due to illness and self-isolation. Smaller organisations, in particular, face huge financial pressure. Cash is urgently needed to support and bolster current work and address new needs – for example, moving services online where possible – for groups helping victims (and those such as Respect, which works with perpetrators looking for help to stop). Women’s Aid has also asked for protective clothing for workers and testing in refuges. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has already announced that she is increasing funding to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland.
Ministers should also stress that victims need not wait to seek help. While reinforcing the importance of the lockdown in general, they must say loud and clear that people should leave home if they need to do so for their safety, and remind them that services are still open. They should also publicise helpline numbers and websites, and remind those in danger that they can call 999 and simply press 55 when prompted, so that they do not risk being overheard. Like the lockdown itself, these could be lifesaving measures.