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© 2020 Alberto Pezzali via AP

(London) – The government of the United Kingdom is stalling on establishing a robust legal framework to address violence against women and girls even as reported domestic abuse spikes during the pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.  

Insufficient measures to ensure critical support and services for survivors of violence – especially those least likely to get help – before and during the Covid-19 pandemic have left organizations that help some of the most vulnerable women scrambling to meet needs.

The pandemic has exposed longstanding flaws in the UK government’s approach to domestic violence,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Erosion of support for specialist domestic abuse services was already a national crisis, and this is a critical moment for the government to demonstrate commitment to long-term investment in these services for every woman and girl.”  

The government has repeatedly said it prioritizes protection and support for women and girls experiencing violence, but it has yet to ratify a landmark European treaty on violence against women signed by the government eight years ago today. The Domestic Abuse Bill before Parliament fails to ensure protection for all women and girls.

Service providers say the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated a lack of access to services for migrant and Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) women. Representatives of organizations serving these communities say that persistent inequality leads to additional difficulties in providing services remotely. “Twenty-five percent of the women we support don’t even have a phone, let alone a smart phone,” said Rosie Lewis of the Angelou Centre, a black feminist service provider in Newcastle. “[Digital services] assume a baseline of access.”

Language barriers can exclude women in these communities from getting information about services. The #YouAreNotAlone campaign introduced by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel during the Covid-19 response aimed to raise public awareness about domestic violence and encourage those experiencing abuse to seek help, but messaging is only in English.   

Services are struggling to remain fully operational during the pandemic. A Women’s Aid survey showed that 38 of 45 service providers had reduced or suspended at least 1 service due to Covid-19 as of April 6. These include services that provide shelter, which already fell short of Council of Europe standards. Shelter spaces designated for women in marginalized groups are especially limited – as of May 2019, Women’s Aid found that there were only 418 dedicated shelter spaces across England for BAME women, 4 dedicated spaces for women over 45, 12 for women with learning disabilities, and none for deaf women.

During the pandemic, representatives of organizations that provide services for women experiencing violence said some shelters have had to leave spaces vacant due to social distancing or quarantine measures.

Migrant women face particular barriers to getting critical services. Their abusers use their immigration status to control them or prevent them from seeking help, and they may fear approaching authorities due to risk of detention, deportation, or separation from their children. People on visas such as spousal or fiancé visas have “No Recourse to Public Funds” under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, making them ineligible for most government benefits.

Because refuges often depend on government housing benefit payments for financial support, many cannot accept survivors with “No Recourse to Public Funds.” Policy intended to address this gap still excludes women with this status who are not on spousal visas. While Wales and Scotland instructed local authorities to ensure safe shelter for all of those who have this status and are fleeing domestic abuse during the pandemic, England and Northern Ireland have not issued such explicit instructions.

Service providers also told Human Rights Watch that they are incurring up-front costs – which can be prohibitive for smaller organizations – to urgently establish remote services due to Covid-19. Weeks into the crisis, on May 2, the government announced £76 million to support “the most vulnerable” during the pandemic, including £28 million for domestic abuse services.

However, service providers raised concerns that this is insufficient to meet needs, that no funds are designated for organizations “led by and for” marginalized groups such as migrant, Black, Asian, or minority ethnic women or women with disabilities, and that the process for accessing funds remains cumbersome and time-intensive.

“We are a small organization dealing with an increased number of cases, with complex cases and with [women facing] digital inequality, and on top of that we have to do complex funding applications,” said Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service. “The fact that organizations like ours won’t access funds means that the most marginalized women won’t be able to access services.”

Ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, or “Istanbul Convention,” would bind the government to standards for preventing violence against women and girls, supporting survivors, and holding abusers to account, regardless of survivors’ age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or immigration status.

The government has attributed delays in ratification to the need to bring domestic legislation in line with the convention, including through passage of the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill. The bill, reintroduced to parliament in March, would establish a statutory definition of domestic violence. But it does not include critical measures to protect migrant women and girls – a necessity for compliance with the convention, which mandates that services and support for survivors must be nondiscriminatory and without regard to residency or immigration status.

The bill is currently at the committee stage in the House of Commons, with a report by the Public Bill Committee scheduled for June 25. The government should use this opportunity to address remaining gaps in the legislation, including by introducing amendments that would guarantee protections for migrant and other marginalized women and girls, and move toward ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

As in many countries, reports of domestic violence have increased markedly in the UK since lockdown measures were instituted in March. The charity Refuge reported on May 27 that average weekly calls and contacts to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline for England and Wales had risen by 66 percent and visits to the website – where people can request a safe time to be contacted – had jumped by 950 percent compared with levels before the pandemic.

As Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs and Victims’ Commissioner Vera Baird noted in a March 3 statement, “For the [Domestic Abuse] Bill to be transformative, it needs to send a clear message that domestic abuse is unacceptable, whoever the victim is.”

The bill should be urgently amended to ensure access to essential services, including shelter, for migrant women, Human Rights Watch said. It should also establish safe reporting systems and reflect migrant women’s groups’ call for a “firewall” between immigration authorities and domestic violence reporting and services. The government should take these and all other necessary steps to ensure that the bill fully complies with the Istanbul Convention to facilitate urgent ratification.

Over 30 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, signed a June 2 letter urging the government to ratify the Istanbul Convention. On April 20, the Committee of the Parties to the Istanbul Convention provided guidance on steps governments can take to uphold their obligation to combat violence against women and domestic violence in line with the convention during the pandemic. These include “reinforcing” financial and human resources for service providers, implementing targeted information and communications campaigns in multiple languages, and ensuring that services continue to be available while upholding public health guidelines.

“The attention paid to reports of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic should be matched by concerted action to protect and support victims of violence now and in the wake of the global crisis,” Margolis said. “Lockdowns may be easing, but government responsibility isn’t – and some of the UK’s most at-risk women and girls are counting on this government to protect their lives.”

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