The Global Shadow Pandemic

In the UK, usage of its domestic violence hotline rose 65% in one weekend in March.

Emergency calls to police for domestic violence in Argentina increased 25% during lockdown. In Kenya, hotline calls increased ten-fold. A pandemic is emerging in coronavirus’ shadows and it’s going largely unnoticed. But with fears of infection forcing continued restrictions on the use of public spaces for the foreseeable future, we must consider how to tackle the challenges created by this ‘new normal’, including rising levels of violence against women.

In the first three weeks of lockdown alone, fourteen women and two children were killed in the UK, the highest number in a three-week period for 11 years. In a Woman’s Aid survey, 67% of respondents currently experiencing abuse   said it had worsened during the pandemic. Restrictions on movement put survivors in close proximity to abusers for long periods of time and make it difficult for survivors to leave the house to find safety, increasing the frequency and severity of abuse. It can also make accessing support services more difficult and concerns have been raised about how Track and Trace systems, which are being utilised by governments across the world to control the spread of the virus, could be used by abusers as a method of monitoring and controlling survivors.

Even as restrictions ease, levels of violence against women can be expected to remain high. Economic uncertainty has been linked to higher levels of interpersonal violence and the sharp global recession caused by the pandemic will therefore likely cause a continuation of high levels of violence against women. In addition, the strain the pandemic has put on the economy and on health services will no doubt have long term effects on the provision and accessibility of support service for survivors, at a time when they are needed more than ever.

Furthermore, many of the experiences of violence that women and girls face as a result of the pandemic will have a lasting impact on their lives. In particular, the closure of schools in Africa and rising poverty caused by the pandemic has pushed girls into transactional sex and forced families to marry off their young daughters to reduce financial costs. Many will have been forced into marriages where they are vulnerable to lifelong abuse and with over half of girls in Africa and Asia at risk of not returning to school post-pandemic, lack of education will, in the long run, make it more difficult for these girls to escape situations of abuse.

Beyond the clear human rights issues caused by this shadow pandemic, it will also have a significant economic impact. In 2016, the global cost of violence against women was estimated at USD $1.5 trillion, approximately 2% of global GDP, due to the costs of support services and judicial proceedings as well as loss of productivity and income of survivors. With violence against women increasing, these economic costs will only rise. 

It is therefore clear that work desperately needs to be done, both in the UK and abroad, to protect women and girls during the coronavirus pandemic. In May, the UK government pledged £76 million to support all vulnerable people during lockdown. This includes £25 million to help victims access domestic violence and sexual abuse support services, £10 million for safe accommodation and £3.8 million for community-based domestic abuse services. This is a great start but it is only a temporary fix. More will need to be done to tackle the root of the problem and prevent violence against women happening in the first place not only for their own safety, but also in order to provide a viable long term solution during a period of economic crisis. 

Furthermore, the UK Government may wish to look beyond its borders at how this shadow pandemic is unfolding abroad. Due to the effect violence against women has on education and on the economy, it is likely to undermine the UK’s international aid and development efforts unless increased efforts are made to tackle the issue. It is therefore imperative that governments across the world work together to bring the issue of violence against women out of the darkness and into the spotlight to protect vulnerable women and the global recovery. 


Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group