What Policymakers Can Learn from Effect of Covid Lockdowns on Violence Against Women and Girls

What Policymakers Can Learn from Effect of Covid Lockdowns on Violence Against Women and Girls

IPPO was pleased to host an online event on 14 September, 2022 about the impacts of Covid lockdowns on violence against women and girls (see video below). The aim of the event was to hear evidence from experts about incidences during the Covid period, how services responded, and importantly to consider implications for policy-makers.

The director of Pivotal, a public policy forum based in Northern Ireland, reflects on the session’s key moments in the post below.

Ann Watt

The event originated from a request from officials in The Executive Office in Northern Ireland, who are developing a new strategy for ending violence against women and girls. They were keen for IPPO to connect them to evidence to help inform this strategy. But although the initial idea came from Northern Ireland, we were pleased to welcome speakers and participants from across the UK, Ireland and beyond.

The four speakers were:

  • Professor Nicky Stanley, Co-Director, Connect Centre for International Research on Interpersonal Violence and Harm, University of Central Lancashire
  • Dr Nancy Lombard, Reader in Sociology and Social Policy, Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Sarah Mason, CEO Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland
  • Dr Stephanie Holt, Associate Professor, Social Studies, Trinity College Dublin

The event was chaired by Ann Watt, Director of Pivotal and part of the Northern Ireland IPPO team alongside Professor Muiris MacCarthaigh from Queen’s University Belfast. In Ann’s introductory comments she said that we wanted the event to consider two big questions:

  1. What evidence do we have of how violence against women and girls increased or changed during the Covid period? What legacy does that leave now as we emerge from Covid?
  2. Importantly, what policy change do we want to see in response?

Professor Nicky Stanley’s presentation used evidence for England and Wales from the DAHLIA-19 study. Data show a rise in domestic abuse incidences during the Covid period, increased demand for services, restrictions on what refuges could provide, and delays in criminal justice services. Key learnings were around how rapidly and effectively services responded to the crisis, pivoting to provide remote support where needed. Collaboration across sectors notably improved, possibly due to remote working making communication between different agencies easier. New funding from central government was welcomed and helped to build awareness of the support available to women experiencing abuse. But while the DAHLIA study found that remote support during Covid worked well for many women, it was important to note that children and young people did not find remote services were effective for them. The study also found that Covid exacerbated existing gaps in provision for minority and excluded groups.

Dr Nancy Lombard then spoke about how the media report domestic violence and abuse and how this impacts on public understanding. In particular, she discussed the tendency for media narratives to ‘blame’ Covid or other factors for incidences of abuse, rather than putting responsibility firmly with the perpetrator. Media reporting also tends to look at individual incidents rather than seeing domestic violence and abuse as a form of coercive control embedded within a regular pattern of behaviour. Nancy added that evidence showed lockdowns magnified existing abusive behaviours, like isolation, constant surveillance, restrictions on access to outside world and limitations on food.

In the second part of her presentation, Nancy talked about a new mixed methods study on victims’ lived experiences of the Scottish criminal justice system. The study provides powerful testimony of how women feel a lack of lack of control within the justice system, which then perpetuates their negative experience of abuse. The research emphasised the importance of women themselves being the decision-makers about their safety and wellbeing; dignity, respect and fairness were needed throughout.

Sarah Mason began with some headline data from Northern Ireland, for example that a domestic abuse incident is reported to the police every 17 minutes of every day, and that one in five recorded crimes are domestic abuse. Unfortunately, domestic abuse services in Northern Ireland did not receive extra funding during the Covid period to mirror additions elsewhere in the UK, since the NI Executive did not allocate the funding in the same way. Despite the lack of additional resources, Sarah said there had been a hugely effective adjustment in how services were delivered and praised the staff who responded so quickly. Part of this was a big step-up in their use of social media and other comms channels. This included the Women’s Aid’s campaign “Unlock your lockdown” with its clear message that services were still open and available to women and children who needed them.

Although there isn’t yet a strategy for ending violence against women in girls in Northern Ireland, Sarah reported lots of encouraging progress recently, for example the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act and the Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking Bill. Sarah finished her presentation with a powerful short animation where children supported by Women’s Aid spoke about their experiences of Covid lockdowns.

Dr Stephanie Holt talked about learning from awareness raising and public messaging about domestic abuse during the Covid lockdowns, particularly looking at how well campaigns reached different groups. Steph used the title ‘It was powerful because it was named’, making the point that strong ‘top-down’ public awareness campaigns were a key element of prevention strategies. However, national campaigns deliver a general message to everyone, when in reality there are many diverse groups within any society. Messaging about services still being available struggled to reach some minority groups, for example traveller and BAME communities. There were also important examples during Covid of ‘bottom-up’ messaging developed by service providers which were targeted specifically at particular groups. In conclusion, Steph emphasised the importance of campaigns being tailored for different audiences, using a range of different methods. She said that evidence proved the importance of involving grassroots representatives in designing and targeting campaigns.

After the four presentations, there was a lively and engaging question and answer session. Topics included:

  • Whether governments did enough to respond to increased incidences of domestic abuse during the Covid lockdowns
  • Impacts on victims and survivors of remote court proceedings
  • Why Northern Ireland didn’t receive additional funding for domestic abuse services during Covid
  • Different methods to target domestic abuse campaigns for particular communities
  • Ideas for creating safe spaces for women and children in areas without refuge services.

It was an insightful and engaging session that has given us much to consider going forward.

If you would like to know any more information about the event please email ippo@ucl.ac.uk