Domestic Abuse In The Coronavirus Epidemic

Domestic abuse in the coronavirus epidemic

Published: 15/04/2020

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has significant implications for people living with domestic abuse, particularly women and children. We know from research on previous disease outbreaks, natural disasters and humanitarian crises, that domestic abuse and violence against women increase during and after these types of events (Dominelli, L. 2015; Maglajlic, R., 2019; Reese, D., 2004).

Existing gender inequalities, and discrimination against marginalised groups of people also tend to worsen (Davies, S., & Bennett, B. 2016; Wenham, C., et al, 2019). This blog discusses prior research and shares links to updated guidance that may support practice in the current crisis.

Data now emerging from China, America, Spain and Italy all substantiate these findings, while also demonstrating the extent to which the pandemic is impacting women and men differently (UNFPA, 2020; Wenham, C., et al, 2020). In the UK, statistics released by Refuge indicate a 25% increase in calls to its domestic abuse helpline, with visits to the helpline website showing 150% increase. Similarly, Women’s Aid have reported a 41% increase in the organisation’s live chat service since the lockdown began.   

Understanding the increase in rates of domestic abuse

The upsurge in rates of domestic abuse during the outbreak can in part be attributed to public health quarantine measures implemented to curb the spread of the virus. The measures increase the potential for domestic abuse, as victim-survivors find themselves isolated in the homes they share with perpetrators, with highly restricted access to help. People experiencing domestic abuse with disabilities or chronic health conditions, are particularly vulnerable in this context (Hague, G., et al, 2011) as well as migrant women and those with insecure immigration status.

The decision to leave a relationship with an abusive partner is complex, but for those wishing to leave in the current environment, it is complicated further due to concerns around the availability of services, which have already faced years of budget cuts (Davidge et al, 2020; Howard, 2019). While domestic abuse organisations have welcomed the Home Secretary’s recent announcement of £2 million to boost online provision, they continue to call for additional funds to respond to the increase in demand during these unprecedented times. Southall Black Sisters have also called upon the hospitality industry to offer hotel rooms to those leaving abusive partners during the ‘lockdown’, particularly for migrant and asylum seeking women.   

Even during times of stability and comparative ‘normality, domestic abuse remains highly prevalent in the UK, and isolation is one of the tools often used by domestic abuse perpetrators to exert power and control. Public health measures do not cause domestic abuse, but the ‘lockdown’ may embolden perpetrators and provide new opportunities for coercive or controlling behaviours and violence. Living in quarantine could also exacerbate existing tensions within households, as whole families find themselves together for long periods of time, without the usual social or leisure activities that help to minimise daily stress.

Information for practitioners working with people experiencing domestic abuse

  • The Research in Practice Coercive Control open-access website provides a range of tools and guidance for practitioners working with people experiencing domestic abuse.
  • Safe Lives have issued guidance for domestic abuse multi-agency forums (including MARACs), which includes advice around the use of virtual forums during these unprecedented times.
  • Safety planning measures typically promoted to people wishing to exit a relationship, remain largely applicable, even during the outbreak.
  • People conducting domestic abuse related work are encouraged to join the Safe Lives community forum, to obtain the latest guidance and advice as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
  • Women’s Aid, Safe Lives and Refuge have all issued updated guidance for people experiencing domestic abuse during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Key messages from updated guidance include the following

Accessing emergency help

  • People who are experiencing domestic abuse are advised to try and keep a mobile phone (charged and with credit) with them at all times. If they are in immediate danger, they should be encouraged to dial 999; the police remain available during this time.
  • Women’s Aid recommend that people familiarise themselves with ‘the silent solution’ system, set up for people calling 999 from a mobile phone. If the caller is unable to speak, they should press 55 when prompted to do so, and the call will be forwarded to the police. The system does not work when calling from a landline.
  • During the outbreak, refuges continue to take referrals for people seeking to leave a relationship with an abusive partner; these can be made via the usual local authority housing referral pathway (LA specific), or via the national domestic abuse helpline. Train companies are also offering free rail travel for people travelling to domestic abuse refuge accommodation during the ‘lockdown’.

Practical considerations

  • The ‘window of opportunity’ in which people experiencing domestic abuse can access support safely is usually very limited, and in the context of COVID-19, it is potentially limited even further. It is therefore useful to think about how the limited freedoms (leaving the house for essential food supplies, medicine, and exercise) made available to people during ‘lockdown’ could be used as opportunities for help-seeking or safe contact with support services.
  • The outbreak has implications for child contact and co-parenting arrangements and families may be required to make changes to previously agreed arrangements in line with social distancing. CAFCASS and Rights of Women have developed guidance to assist with these issues; these align with guidance issued on the 26 March by the President of the Family Division on compliance with the Family Court Child Arrangement during the Coronavirus.
  • It is beneficial to promote the use of (non-emergency) online or remote support channels, available for people experiencing domestic abuse wishing to access support while self-isolating. (including the below).

Non-emergency telephone and online support

  • There are number of free and confidential helplines which remain available, including; the National domestic abuse helpline (0808 2000 247); the men’s domestic abuse advice line (0808 801 0327) and the National LGBTQ domestic abuse helpline (0800 999 5428). The National helpline can also be accessed via an online form for people unable to call.
  • The Survivors’ Forum is an online resource for women aged over 18. It is a safe, anonymous, online space which can be accessed 24/7, in which women can support each other and share their experiences.
  • The Bright Sky app is a free app launched by Hestia and the Vodafone Foundation, and provides support and information to anyone living with domestic abuse, or for those concerned about someone they know.
  • Also available for non-emergency support is a live chat support service, and an email support service provided by Women’s Aid, as well as a range of survivor-led online resources and chat options from Chayn.


Davies, S., & Bennett, B. (2016). A gendered human rights analysis of Ebola and Zika: locating gender in global health emergencies. International Affairs, 92(5), 1041–1060. 

Davidge, S., Magnusson, L., and Samuel, M. (2020). The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Annual Audit. Women’s Aid. 

Dominelli, L. (2015). The opportunities and challenges of social work interventions in disaster situations. International Social Work, 58(5), 659–672. 

Hague, G., Thiara, R., & Mullender, A. (2011). Disabled Women, Domestic Violence and Social Care: The Risk of Isolation, Vulnerability and Neglect. The British Journal of Social Work, 41(1), 148–165.

Howard, M. (2019). Benefits or Barriers: Making Social Security work for survivors of violence and abuse across the UK’s four nations. Women’s Budget Group, Surviving Economic Abuse and End Violence against Women Coalition.

Maglajlic, R. (2019). Organisation and delivery of social services in extreme events: Lessons from social work research on natural disasters. International Social Work, 62(3), 1146–1158. 

Reese, D. (2004). Risk of Domestic Violence after Natural Disaster: Teaching Research and Statistics Through the Use of a Participatory Action Research Model. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 24(3-4), 79–94. 

Wenham, C., Arevalo, A., Coast, E., Correa, S., Cuellar, K., Leone, T., & Valongueiro, S. (2019). Zika, abortion and health emergencies: a review of contemporary debates. Globalization and Health, 15(1), 49. 

Wenham, C., Smith, J., & Morgan, R. (2020). COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak. Lancet (London, England), 395(10227), 846–848.