Alongside the Covid 19 pandemic runs a shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls.
During the lockdown period, contact with Wales’ national helpline Live Fear Free rose by up to 49%, call time trebled with those making contact often reporting more frequent abuse with shorter escalation periods. Visits to the Live Fear Free website increased by 144% in the last month and there were 1,683 homepage visits to the site made in April compared with 690 in March. Specialist services are now planning for the anticipated post-lockdown spike in survivors seizing increased opportunities to disclose abuse and reach out for support.
In a time that has been so devastating and uncertain, a resolve to build back better is growing and solidifying across the country. The pandemic has starkly highlighted the unavoidable truth that violence against women and girls is everyone’s business, and an enthusiasm for meaningful collaboration, shared learning and stronger commitments to prevent abuse, protect and support survivors, and sustain those services supporting them has grown.
On Thursday 16th July, Welsh Women’s Aid held a virtual roundtable to discuss the first steps in this process, calling on partners from across devolved and non-devolved public and specialist sectors to join in planning for an effective post-Covid response. We were thrilled to be joined by Deputy Minister Jane Hutt and Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales Nicole Jacobs, who both thanked Welsh Women’s Aid and the VAWDASV sector at large for the “diligent” work done throughout the pandemic.
The contribution from all speakers and attendees was illuminating.
During the Predicting and Projecting session, key discussion included the following:
- VAWDASV is predictable. The spike during COVID 19 pandemic is of no surprise to anyone with expertise or experience in VAWDASV. It is well documented in international and national research that previous pandemics, depressions and national crises have led to increases in all forms of VAWDASV and have had long term impact on individuals, communities and society as a whole.
- The COVID 19 pandemic and VAWG pandemic is causing significant destruction, on a par with the all-encompassing devastation of natural disasters. Although violence against women and girls is very much of pandemic proportions currently, it has been so pre-Covid and, if there are not preventative whole-systems practices in place, it will continue as such.
- The environmental causes of adverse experiences, structural inequality, poverty and discrimination, are being exacerbated by COVID and increasing VAWDASV and long-term impact of trauma. The circumstances around the pandemic-such as the reinforcement of traditional gender roles within the home and increased mechanisms of control-has exacerbated the risk of abuse, including a notable rise in elder abuse and child to parent abuse. Many women have lost their jobs during the pandemic and many more still face losing them in this time of economic instability. This increased economic uncertainty is causing an unravelling of equalities, we can see this when we consider the impact of racial inequality and the rise in deaths of individuals from Black and minority communities from Covid 19.
- Communication and connectivity between services and survivors has been a multi-layered issue. Within BME communities, linking in with clients online might be impractical and providing over the phone support, especially when there is a language barrier, can feel ineffective. These communities have also had commonly safe spaces for disclosures to friends, e.g. at churches, mosques and shops, taken away. For specialist services based in rural areas, the infrastructure often does not effectively support Wi-Fi and phone signal, creating a postcode lottery around access to support.
- Specialist services are evidencing that despite restricted support structures, demand for frontline services has not diminished. A surge in support needs will be long term as disclosure can take time across VAWDASV cohorts and trauma has long term impact, particularly those supporting survivors of sexual violence, believe they will witness a surge in cases but that this may take 9 months-2 years to be realised, given the nature of the abuse and the time it often takes for survivors to disclose.
- Leadership from Government and others is needed to ensure collaborative prevention approaches are embedded for future pandemic waves.
Key questions asked:
- How can we build a collaborative strategy to focus on prevention and early intervention before the next pandemic wave?
- Jo Hopkins, Director of the ACE’s Hub spoke of how reports about the negative impact of having no outdoor space during the COVID 19 pandemic has been met with commitments to build more houses with balconies in future in case of another pandemic. She asked the roundtable “What will our balcony be to end VAWG in Wales?”
- Professor Aisha Gill asked: What is Welsh Government doing to create a long-term response in providing support for women with NRPF?
During the Promising Practice and Learning session, key discussion included the following:
The circumstances around lockdown and social distancing meant that there have been less opportunities to reach out in traditional ways for support. This increased the need for every opportunity for survivors to communicate to be absolutely maximised. The pandemic has highlighted the need to equip communities to break the silence and challenge harmful behaviour effectively and safely at the earliest opportunity.
- Change that Lasts: Community wide needs led and strengths based approach during pandemic provided focus on communities/ generic services recognising, responding and feel confident in saying that VAWDASV is not acceptable and here are the ways to break the silence and challenge at the earliest opportunity. Survivors accessing needs led and strengths based specialist support where and when they need it, that focused outcome is long term freedom from abuse rather than just risk management.
- Bystander Toolkit: in response to the impact of VAWDASV not just on individual survivor, but within the whole community. Visible solidarity #StandwtihSurvivors. Provided targeted and generic information raising rapid awareness of Live Fear Free Helpline and safely signposting to support. Following launch of information a rise of 49% in contacts to LFF helpline following week
- IRISi: creating direct referrals from health care services into specialist support services through VAWDASV experts embedded and training healthcare staff, such as GPs. Providing specialist service expertise to healthcare staff and bringing VAWDASV to the front of clinical consciousness.
- BAWSO: Provision of housing funding during COVID for women with no recourse to public funds but concerned about what will happen beyond the pandemic. BAWSO, alongside the whole of the women’ sector, are greatly concerned about the hidden rise of so-called Honour Based Violence and FGM at a time when women and girls are unable to access normal support systems such as schools and places of worship. Concerns regarding FGM with difficulty in meeting up with clients, providing support as much as possible and talking over the phone. There is a stigma that many women who were born outside of the UK face around leaving a home (regardless of if that home is abusive) during a time where global sickness is rife and may affect the survivors families, alongside the looming threat of deportation and the loss of children that many migrant women who disclose abuse face.
- Respect UK: Perpetrator work relies on a solid evidence base to be effective-perpetrator programmes must exist with survivor service alongside it and with the survivor’s wellbeing at the centre of all decision making. Respect standards and accreditation system has helped to develop and evidence perpetrator work. Need for a range of interventions from early intervention before it becomes imbedded behaviour, behaviour change programme for those who are open and willing to change and programmes focused on perpetrators who are high risk and are resistant to change.
Our 6 break out sessions identified the following actions:
Sexual Violence and Sexual Exploitation:
Ensure crisis funding reflects the nuances across VAWDASV provision
There will be a spike in sexual violence disclosers six months+ after lockdown eases. There must be an acknowledgment that sexual violence services often support the long-term effects of trauma.
Perpetrators of all forms of VAWDASV:
Frame ‘perpetrator work’ as ‘prevention work’.
A multi-agency approach is needed for work with perpetrators to be effective. Training is needed across all sectors and settings for identifying and referring perpetrators to a full range of interventions, need for communication between criminal justice & voluntary sector providers.
So-called Honour Based Violence:
Commit to a long-term solution for supporting survivors with NRPF.
Emergency COVID-19 funds enabled services to support survivors with No Recourse to Public Funds. Work with local authorities and wider agencies is integral to identifying and sustaining intersectional accessibility to support.
Children and Young People:
Ensure referral services are prepared.
As schools will inevitably receive an influx of disclosures, we have to ensure specialist services are resourced to support these referrals. This resource must also reflect that children and young people need support as survivors of abuse in their own right, not having ‘witnessed’ abuse. It is key to get this right at the earliest stage possible to prevent future harm and trauma.
Communities and Housing:
Increase the availability of varied flexible accommodation and support for survivors.
The pandemic has magnified the importance of a safe home. Each survivor’s needs will be unique to their experience, services must be well resourced to offer this flexibility. There is also a clear need to strengthen protections and options for survivors of sexual exploitation
Do not default back to the inadequacies of pre-COVID court proceedings.
There is a widespread recognition within the courts and outside of it that the way procedures occurred before Covid was not good enough. There is much work to be done with the courts linking in with support services more effectively, so survivors can be properly supported.
Closing the Roundtable, Welsh Women’s Aid CEO Sara Kirkpatrick presented a final call to action; “We know what needs to be done, why aren’t we doing it?” Welsh Women’s Aid welcomes the start of these invaluable discussion and ask for commitment across the board to continue them in order to effectively build back better.
 Violence against women and girls; the shadow pandemic, UN Women https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic