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Scottish government issues guidance on tackling domestic abuse during COVID-19 pandemic

Women, children and young people experiencing Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) in communities across Scotland are at significant increased risk of harm during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Supplementary National Violence Against Women Guidance, produced by the Scottish government, COSLA, Public Health Scotland and the Improvement Service, states that measures introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 may create an environment whereby the risks to women, children and young people suffering or recovering from domestic abuse and other forms of VAWG are heightened in local communities across Scotland.

“Across Scotland, we know that professionals within local authorities and other key community planning organisations are working incredibly hard to reduce risks to, and help safeguard, people within their local communities. Despite the challenging environment they are operating under, local authorities and other key public sector and third sector partners are continuing to play a vital role in ensuring that women, children and young people’s needs are met now and throughout this period of heightened risk,” said the report.

“Specifically, this guidance aims to ensure that a sustainable, joined-up approach to safeguarding the needs of women, children and young people experiencing VAWG during COVID-19 is embedded at a local strategic level. It is intended to support the strong leadership already being demonstrated by Local Government and other key community planning partners across Scotland in ensuring effective protection and provision of support for people experiencing VAWG,” it added.

Perceptions that statutory services are not operating

International evidence reviews highlight that increased levels of domestic abuse during lockdown phases of the pandemic have been reported in China, Italy, Spain, France and Australia, with evidence from other epidemics and disasters suggesting that the risk of harm from all forms of VAWG will continue to increase post-disaster. This includes domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), trafficking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

The current social restrictions on movement in communities across Scotland create new risks to those suffering or recovering from domestic abuse and other forms of VAWG.

These include:

- Perception that statutory services, such as police and homelessness services are not operating;

- The lack of physical access to normal social networks such as friends and extended family;

- Reduced reach of interventions such as specialist VAWG and universal support services;

- Sickness of frontline specialist service providers; barriers caused through increased use of digital or telephone enabled services;

- Financial dependencies and increased access by perpetrators to women, children and young people because of social distancing and lockdown measures.

While all women and children may be at increased risk of harm during the pandemic, it is important to note that women and children with protected characteristics may face additional barriers to support and be at increased risk of exploitation and coercion during the duration of the pandemic response over the coming weeks and months.

Those particularly at risk include:

- Minority ethnic women and girls

- Refugees and asylum seekers

- Women and girls with physical and learning disabilities

- LGBTI people; and women at different ages and stages of life.

- Women and children experiencing poverty and deprivation

- Women migrants with no recourse to public funds.

- Women, children and young people with complex needs including substance misuse, a history of offending behaviour and/ or mental health issues and trauma.

“It is vital that local authorities and other community planning partners ensure they are considering this during all stages of their COVID-19 responses,” said the guidance.

Increased challenges

It contains three key messages local authorities can promote to support women, children and young people (WCYP) during all stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

1 WCYP experiencing VAWG are not alone and a range of specialist support services are available locally and nationally during and after lockdown;

2 The lockdown is not an excuse for perpetrating abuse, and that perpetrators will be identified and held to account for their behaviours; and

3 Tackling VAWG is everyone’s business and professionals across a wide range of local workforces have a key role play in safely identifying and responding to risks that WCYP may be experiencing.

The report highlights that local authorities, specialist third sector and public sector partners, have a key role to play in identifying women and young people at risk. However, there will likely be increased challenges in both identifying women and girls at risk due to restrictions introduced in response to COVID-19.

In terms of how things have changed for those at risk, the guidance states that during the COVID-19 lockdown, when mobility is constrained and vulnerabilities increase, challenges facing women in escaping abusive partners have increased. Perpetrators may feel more confident in increasing levels of control, violence and harassment during periods of lockdown with the belief that they are less likely to be detected and held to account.

The ability of women, children and young people living with domestic abuse to disclose and access support from specialist and universal services may be dramatically reduced during this period. Furthermore, with schools and early years settings no longer operating as normal, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse are less visible to statutory and third sector services during periods of lockdown and are therefore at a significantly increased risk of neglect and harm.

There are also heightened risks for women, children and young people who do not live with the perpetrator. Lockdown means that perpetrators know where survivors are and there is a risk that online and in-person harassment/surveillance from ex-partners will intensify during this period.

Social isolation means there is an increased risk of sexual violence and abuse for some women, children and young people, including online grooming. Women who are at high risk of poverty and homelessness face an increased risk of sexual exploitation, coercion and violence during the lockdown. As a result of COVID-19, women in local communities across Scotland may be forced to sell sex at vastly reduced prices because of financial desperation.

Recovery

Perpetrators often wait until school summer holidays to commit Female Genital Mutilation. While some perpetrators prefer to travel abroad to engage in FGM, some families may choose to travel despite the lockdown and risks of COVID-19.
The closure of schools also provides increased opportunity for perpetrators to commit FGM undetected in the home.

It is likely that the effects of social isolation may exacerbate existing mental health issues for women, children and young people who are experiencing / have experienced VAWG.

Survivors of past trauma could find that the lockdown triggers stress and anxiety at a time when it is more difficult to access support. Perpetrators’ behaviours may cause or exacerbate women’s problem alcohol/ drug use or mental health issues and/ or perpetrators may prevent them from accessing support for these issues. In terms of physical health, pregnant women and new mothers are at high risk of domestic abuse, but access to universal services may be reduced during lockdown, meaning a potentially higher risk of abuse going undetected and women and babies unsupported.

Despite the challenging period it is vital that local authorities and partners continue to ensure a joined-up, strategic approach is taken to safeguarding women, children and young people affected by VAWG within local communities across Scotland. All staff that come into contact with women, children and young people during lockdown are aware of the vital role they can play in identifying those affected by VAWG and ensuring that referrals are made to specialist services safely and effectively. A robust and sustainable approach to tackling VAWG should be embedded in local authorities’ responses to COVID-19 at a strategic and operational level across all relevant departments.

The guidance states that:

- A joined-up approach should be promoted for improving outcomes for women, children and young people across different community planning areas

- Robust processes should be in place to identify and protect women, children and young people affected by VAWG who are at greatest risk harm of during lockdown

- Local domestic abuse housing policies should meet the needs of women, children and young people affected by VAWG

- The work of local specialist VAWG services should be supported

- Women, children and young people migrants with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) should be supported

- The capabilities of social media and digital tools should be maximised to ensure women can access information and support

“Recovering from the social and economic effects of COVID-19, and mitigating the long-term effects of trauma and abuse experienced by women, children and young people during the crisis, will require the engagement of the full range of community planning partners. Adopting a whole-systems, gendered approach to tackling VAWG at a local authority level will help to ensure that individuals and organisations/ agencies all understand the role they have to play in tackling VAWG as we transition to the ‘new normal’,” the report concluded.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Supplementary National Violence Against Women Guidance

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