While the COVID-19 pandemic is gaining momentum and demanding perpetual shifts in public recommendations, it may be worth considering the effect that new policies in place to limit the virus’ propagation will have on women in particular. In the same way that austerity has had a disproportionately worse impact on women in the UK, the government’s advice on how to protect oneself and others from COVID-19 has an unintended, but unsurprising, greater negative impact on women, and particularly women who are experiencing abuse.
The UK has not yet implemented measures which heavily restrict movement, but recommendations for ‘social distancing’ mean that social gatherings, particularly at events, or in nightclubs, bars, or pubs, are to be at a minimum. This means that women and girls who are in abusive relationships or have an abusive relative are confined to their homes and the hands of their abuser(s). Events and social gatherings may act as a relief for many victims of abuse, who can either share their struggles with others, or simply forget about their home-life for a period of time. Leaving an abusive situation altogether is difficult, but socialising can be a provisional way of escaping abuse and a great help to victims’ mental health and wellbeing, as well as provide the support needed to seek help or leave an abusive partner or relative. If movement were to be controlled more severely, and leaving one’s home was only permitted on ‘essential’ grounds – buying food, supplies, or a medical appointment, for example – then this would further limit victims’ ability to break away from their abusers (even if only temporarily) and potentially cause them more danger, as they would be at home more and vulnerable to abuse for longer periods of time. On top of this, the initiatives for people to work remotely will further confine victims of abuse to the place they are least safe. Some women experiencing abuse are only able to leave their house to go to work, but the absence of this endangers them more. Additionally, the safeguarding training that staff in various agencies have been given to spot and support employees subject to abuse will be limited in its helpfulness in situations of remote working. Thus, a lot of the initiatives from the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill to make domestic abuse (DA) and violence against women and girls (VAWG) something that all agencies and all relevant members of staff in those agencies are aware of and can help overcome, are now at a standstill. It’s true that, inevitably, Corona virus is at the heart of the government’s current work, and there may well be a delay in any initiatives to eradicate VAWG and improve the country’s response to DA. Similarly, frontline organisations and women’s organisations will be compromised in their work because of the pandemic, and will be less able to bring aid to women and girls experiencing abuse.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that all schools in the UK will close as of Friday 20th March equally has the potential of disproportionately affecting women. Removing children from school altogether at such short notice means that families will have to make alternative arrangements for childcare. Those who can afford it can pay for childcare – but this may be difficult because of ‘social distancing’ and any advice not to use public transport or leave the house for non-essential reasons. However, the families which cannot afford childcare, or are unable to secure any, may have to consider a parent staying at home and caring for the children instead. Patriarchal convention has it that women are expected to care for the domestic sphere, fulfilling the traditional role of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’, while men continue to work and earn to provide for the domestic sphere, in the role of ‘husband’ and ‘father’. This is partly rooted in women’s typically earning less, either because of the gender pay gap or because they are less likely to aim for higher-paid positions. Research has shown the latter is due to internalised feelings of being undeserving of success and better jobs. Therefore, it is likely that women will have to compromise their careers, work, and time to care for the children who are no longer at school. Of course, single parents are more at risk if they cannot work remotely, but cannot afford or obtain alternative childcare, and single mothers are all the more vulnerable because of the pre-existing economic disadvantages over men they are likely to have too. When it comes to the children themselves, they are also more vulnerable to abuse if they are at home all the time, rather than at school, and have fewer means of reporting what they experience to another adult in a position of authority, such as a teacher.
In terms of lasting economic effects of COVID-19, already women are more likely to have to take a break from their jobs if they have to take care of their children following the closing of schools, but any blow the economy will take overall will have a greater impact on women – as during and since austerity. Little things, such as stockpiling toilet paper or non-perishable foods, will make the difference for them. Women, and particularly single mothers, who are likely to earn less, will suffer a greater loss from having to buy the most expensive toilet paper – the only type available in stores or online at the moment – or resorting to more expensive perishable and non-perishable foods leftover from the panic stockpiling the pandemic has triggered. Women are also more likely to work in service-based industries or hospitality, two fields which are particularly struggling during the spread of and efforts to limit Corona virus. Women, once again, will be more affected. The unpredictability of the measures being taken in the face of overcoming the virus will no doubt also have a greater, lasting impact on the economy because of ‘social distancing’, working from home, and a massive decrease in consumption as a whole. The time it may take for the economy to recover from COVID-19 will most likely result in more women’s professional positions’ being compromised. This is particularly significant in cases where financial dependence plays a part in a woman’s staying with an abusive partner or living with an abusive relative.
Advocacy and Communication Intern