One of the worst consequences of lockdown is an increase in domestic abuse

7 Apr 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Apr 2020

Frontline charity workers who work to tackle violence and other abusive behaviour in the home have been designated key workers during the coronavirus outbreak.


Coronavirus and the consequent lockdown have knock-on effects on all aspects of society. One of the most grim is an increased risk of domestic abuse.

For many people - the vast, vast majority of them women - home is not a safe place. COVID-19 only makes this worse.

People are housebound. In many cases family finances are either under strain or at risk of becoming so. For anyone forced to stay at home with an abuser, the risks they face in such circumstances only get worse.

Meanwhile, the ability to do anything about those risks goes down. It is much harder to get away from abuse and much harder to speak with someone for advice or support.

On March 20, Women’s Aid NI released a statement warning about the increased risks of abuse: “We know that the government’s advice on self or household-isolation will have a direct impact on women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse in Northern Ireland.

“Home is often not a safe place for survivors of domestic violence and abuse. We are concerned that social distancing and self-isolation will be used as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour by perpetrators and will shut down routes to safety and support.”

It should be noted that Northern Ireland is in the process of widening criminal definitions of domestic abuse to include patterns of controlling and coercive behaviour, but the bill was only introduced to the Assembly last week and will take some time to become law (presuming, barring any surprises, that the legislation passes).

Around the world

Coronavirus has been around long enough and affected enough places that the greater risks of domestic violence can, unfortunately, be well illustrated.

One in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence during their life, most at the hands of a partner, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO states: “This makes it the most widespread, but among the least reported human rights abuses. It is prevalent during times of peace and stability, but risks escalate when a crisis strikes.

“While data is scarce, studies indicate that gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies is likely to be devastatingly common.”

And so it is proving.

In China, a retired police officer who now runs an anti-domestic violence charity said the number of cases has almost doubled since lockdown there began. Speaking to Sixth Tone, a publication focused on news and opinion centred on China and Chinese issues, Wan Fei said: “The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence. According to our statistics, 90% of the causes of violence are related to the COVID-19 epidemic.”

Just over a week ago The Guardian reported on patterns of increased abuse being seen around the world, including in Germany, Brazil, Greece and China.

The same spikes are anticipated closer to home. Greater Manchester’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Baroness Beverley Hughes, said: “I think we are beginning to see a rise in domestic abuse incidents. We anticipated this might happen in the very stressful circumstances for many families…

“The potential for tension to arise in the home as a result of what we are asking people to cope with, in order to suppress the virus, is going to increase and therefore we would be right to think this might display itself in an increase in the number of domestic incidents we are called to.

“We are preparing for that. Some of those most serious incidents will be challenging to deal with, particularly if the victim needs to be moved to a refuge, but the police specialise in these kind of cases and the local partners, local authorities, they're working together really closely to prepare for that.”

According to some reports, the effects are already being felt here in Northern Ireland. Nazir Afzal, domestic abuse advisor to Welsh Government, said: “It's as certain as night follows day that if there's a period where people are confined to the same space, then it creates an opportunity for the abuser to abuse. There has been a 20% rise of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland, 32% in Paris and 40% in New South Wales.”

Women’s Aid

The Women’s Aid statement from March 20 makes clear just how important charity workers can be during a time of national (and international) crisis, how they have adapted their practices as best as possible to carry on during lockdown – and also illustrates how the third sector requires support to carry out its vital work in these strange and difficult times.

“The impact of self-isolation will also have a direct impact on specialist services, who are already operating in an extremely challenging funding climate, and will be rightly concerned about how to continue delivering life-saving support during the pandemic.

“They could see challenges in funding, staff shortages and further demand for their help.  We welcome today an announcement from the Department of Communities who fund our refuges and outreach services that there would be no impact to the voluntary and community sector.

“As an organisation, we have made provisions in order to continue our key frontline work. Women’s Aid have major contingency plans have been put in place by all our local groups in a bid to continue to support women and children using multi communication formats where face to face contact may be a current health and safety risk. Please contact your closest local Women’s Aid groups to get more info on these diversified services.”

Women’s Aid also made a strong case that frontline workers helping those at risk from domestic abuse should be designated as key workers during the COVID-19 shutdown. This case was made by several organisations who deal with domestic abuse, and the government response was positive.

Indeed, the government’s own advice for those at risk during this outbreak is clear that the third sector is absolutely vital in protecting against domestic violence, saying: “The government acknowledges that the order to stay at home can cause anxiety for those who are experiencing or feel at risk of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is unacceptable in any situation, no matter what stresses you are under…

“The government supports and funds a number of charities who are able to provide advice and guidance and we are in regular contact with the charity sector and the police to ensure that these support services remain open during this challenging time.”

It is great news that Women’s Aid and other organisations can continue to provide their crucial services with as few obstacles as possible at this time.

This situation also provides a clear example of the importance of community and voluntary organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work of charities is more important now than ever.

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