The United Nations (UN) has defined domestic violence as a ‘shadow pandemic’ which looms unseen as COVID-19 has forced most countries to go into lockdown. For victims in abusive households, lockdown means being confined with their perpetrators, without means for escape.

Globally, the number of women and girls who have experienced abuse from an intimate partner has reached 241 million over the past 12 months. The UN also estimates that this number is set to rise drastically due to lockdown. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, warns that ‘security, health and money worries’ are likely to increase tensions and aggravate abusers. Paired with the lockdown it leaves a dangerous opportunity for stress and tensions to rise to violent levels.

In reality, only 40% of domestic violence victims seek help. The UK domestic abuse charity Refuge, the largest single provide of specialist domestic abuse services and provider of the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, nonetheless reported that demand for their services has risen by 66% for calls, and 950% for website visits. They also remark that many women confined with their abusers have difficulty finding time to seek help or call a helpline because of the increased risk, which suggests that the true scale of this issue can be much larger than estimated.

For those who do decide to get help, they may find that services are either shut down or overcrowded. As reported by the New York Times, Britain has not implemented any of the measures seen in other European countries to ensure that victims can seek refuge. The UK is experiencing a severe lag in their response to the rising number of domestic abuse victims, and no mention of domestic abuse strategies were implemented within the government’s coronavirus response. There is no time to waste on such a delay: 26 women and 8 men had already fallen victim to domestic abuse-related homicides between the beginning of lockdown in Britain on March 23rd and the report by New York Times, and many more have since contacted emergency services to report abuse and seek shelter.

Nicole Jacobs, Britain’s first domestic abuse commissioner, tells Reuters that access to adequate services is largely dependent on a “postcode lottery”, where high-quality services are more likely to be in high-income areas. As domestic abuse is 3.5 times more likely to happen to women in low-income households, and victims may also be subjected to economic abuse, as reported by CPAG, it is extremely difficult for women in low-income households to seek refuge from domestic abuse.

Jacobs also warns Reuters that victims may be more at risk in the months after lockdown, when they are finally able to escape. A perpetrator may be aggravated by the victim leaving, or by a suspicion of such plans. She also notes that the true number of victims may be much higher than estimated, as some isolated individuals may not be checked on by peers during the lockdown period.

The first lockdown highlighted the prevalence of domestic abuse as a national issue. However, this only emphasises the fact that efforts to address it have been inadequate in the past. Headlines such as ‘coronavirus murders’, as The Conversation highlights, only serve to sensationalise the issue and wrongfully place blame on lockdown. In reality, the blame of domestic abuse is always on the perpetrator and the surrounding society which normalises abusive and controlling behaviour.

Britain has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention which it signed in 2012. Until it has been ratified, it is not legally binding. The UK has taken steps, however, to implement policies which address the issue of VAWG and domestic violence, such as the domestic abuse bill. This bill has received criticism, notably from Shadow Minister Janet Daby during a House of Commons debate, for not addressing the protection of migrant women and girls. This omission makes the Bill non-compliant to the Istanbul Convention. Another key element that has not been addressed in the bill is the protection of LGBT and BAME individuals specifically.

We live in a worrying time where Poland has decided to leave the Istanbul Convention, and Turkey is considering it, both referring to religious and societal reasons which in reality mask the political goals of the parties running the governments. It is vital that the United Kingdom strengthens their stance to truly stand against domestic violence and protect women’s rights. Both Poland and Turkey have long been criticised for their poor implementation of the Convention and their disregard for women’s rights, and basic human rights. JAN Trust urges the UK government to do so as well, to ensure that people from all backgrounds are protected in Britain.

The government’s actions should clearly signal to victims that they will be supported, and to perpetrators that they will face consequences for their actions. Britain’s current position is not strong enough, and it is clear that ratifying the convention and the protection of women’s rights are not enough of a priority for the government. Considering that lockdown measures have exposed the true depth of the domestic abuse problem in Britain, it is vital that the government swiftly acts to protect those who need it the most. Domestic violence has an estimated yearly cost of £6 billion for England and Wales, and this issue should be of a much higher priority.

What action should be taken? First and foremost, making the Istanbul Convention legally binding by ratifying it will ensure that Britain has the strongest possible measures against domestic violence and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). The government has stated they “will only take steps toward ratification when we are absolutely satisfied that the UK complies with all articles of the Convention”, and as such they must ensure that their action plan and the Domestic Abuse Bill truly reflect the Convention’s goals. At the moment, the bill remains too vague and omits key elements mentioned in the Convention. By reviewing the issues that have been exposed during lockdown, such as lack of adequate services, the government can implement these key elements.

In a globalised world that shows worrying trends of progress towards equality being reversed in other European countries, Britain must ensure that it instead progresses towards a more equal society. The pandemic in 2020 has highlighted multiple inequalities in British society, including economic, racial and gender inequalities. We must ask, what will it take to address these issues in a strong and effective manner? As we are deep into the second wave of cases, we urge the UK government to revise its priorities to emerge from the crisis as a more equal and just society.

JAN Trust has more than 30 years of experience working with disadvantaged women and communities, including victims of domestic abuse. We understand how the lockdown has affected women in abusive households, and have continued to extend our support in these trying times. However, lockdown has also impacted our ability to provide offline support. If you would like to help us continue our vital work in encouraging, educating and empowering women, please consider donating to us on our website.