Gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Dr Birte Böök

Post-doctoral researcher at Utrecht University and content manager of the gender stream of the European Equality Law Network


When the COVID-19 crisis swept across the world in 2020, it quickly became clear that the global pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities in all areas of life. While comprehensive data is still lacking, initial reports have found that the crisis and government responses thereto disproportionately affect those who are already disadvantaged or marginalised, for example because of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability or residence status. Those who are at the intersection of these categories are hit the hardest.

In our recent publication in the European Equality Law Review, my colleagues and I explored some of the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the EU in relation to violence against women (VAW), work-life balance and women’s participation in leadership and decision making. In this blog post I will focus on the first.

A surge in domestic violence cases

As early as April this year, it emerged that a major consequence of the crisis was “a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”, as António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, commented. Europe was no exception. While more data is still needed, reports by the gender experts of the European Equality Law Network as well as those from news outlets and international organisations paint a grim picture: In France, a 32% increase in domestic violence cases was reported in just one week during the national lockdown, and in Lithuania, 20% more cases were reported during three weeks of lockdown when compared to the same period in 2019. In Croatia, rape cases increased by 228% during the first 5 months of 2020 in comparison to 2019, and the percentage of attempted rapes rose by 175%.

The increase in cases led to a simultaneous increase in the need for support services, which was difficult and at times impossible to address in light of health care systems in most countries being overwhelmed due to the crisis. Spain, Germany and the UK all reported an increase in the demand for shelter places. Requests for help in relation to domestic violence via telephone doubled during the first two weeks of April in Spain, and online consultations increased by 733%. In some countries, shelters were closed or overwhelmed, while in others, funding was cut from support services. Sexual health services and reproductive health services were often reduced or cancelled. In the UK, the charity ‘SafeLives’ conducted a study which showed that up to 76% of first response support services for victims of domestic abuse had to limit their services due to COVID-19. Even where support services were available, many victims found it more difficult to call for help due to their being in close proximity to their abusers, as was for example reported in Italy, where one helpline for victims of domestic abuse reported receiving over 55 % fewer calls in the first half of March, when the lockdown in Italy was put into place. In addition to the increased risk of domestic violence, online VAW has also seen a sharp increase during the pandemic. A 50 to 70% increase in internet usage has been reported during the pandemic, and as our lives have moved online, women and girls in particular are at greater risk than ever of being subjected to different types of online abuse.  In Australia, online abuse is said to have increased by 50% during the first month of social distancing, while Europol reported an increase in searches for child abuse material.

What protection exists?

Looking at past crisis situations, this surge in VAW should not come as a surprise. A similar surge occurred during the Ebola crisis and such surges are also often seen in the wake of natural disasters or economic recessions. The question is, what can be done about this?

In the European context, a solid legal framework exists through which Member States can be held accountable for any shortcomings in relation to combating VAW and protecting women and girls. All 27 Member States of the EU are party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the European Convention on Human Rights. All but 6 have signed the Istanbul Convention, which contains detailed obligations in respect to gender-based violence. Additionally, at the EU level, the EU Charter protects the fundamental rights of all EU citizens and contains relevant provisions, for instance on equality between women and men and on the inviolability of human dignity. There have also been enhanced efforts over the last decades to address the issue of gender-based violence through EU legislation, for example through various directives on the rights of victims of crimes, human trafficking, sexual harassment and gender equality more broadly. However, with the EU so far being unable to accede to the Istanbul Convention, there is no comprehensive legally binding instrument at EU level dedicated to the prevention of VAW. As a result, there is currently no common definition of VAW in the EU acquis, meaning uniform protection and prevention is not guaranteed.

Bearing in mind the statistics from the European Fundamental Rights Agency’s 2014 survey, which reported that 1 in 3 women has experienced some form of physical and/or sexual assault since the age of 15, this was already problematic before the crisis. Yet, in light of the dramatic increase in VAW since the start of the pandemic, the issue is now more urgent than ever. The European Commission published its new Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 earlier this year, with one of its key aims being to ensure the same level of protection as provided by the Istanbul Convention, and to develop its own legal means to protect women and girls from violence. Indeed, the Commission is committed to presenting legislation on various forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, already this year. The COVID-19 crisis shows that fulfilling this goal is of great importance in order to ensure that women and girls are adequately protected from violence and that sufficient support services are available.

Short and long-term measures to be taken

In the short term, it is important to take measures to address the rise in VAW and enhance protection while the crisis is still ongoing. However, it is also important to mitigate the effects of the crisis in the long-term. Practical short-term measures to be taken at the national level include ensuring that women are free to seek help without fearing repercussions for leaving the house. Healthcare, support services, shelters and hotlines for victims of VAW should be considered essential services and remain open. Emergency relief, including economic support, should be provided, and special support should be provided to those who are most vulnerable to abuse and violence, such as migrant women, homeless women, children, and people with disabilities or who receive care in institutions or at home. Additional resources should be allocated to take into account the increased need for shelter places, staff, financial help for victims and other resources.

In the long-term, the adoption of a comprehensive legal instrument on VAW, which includes provisions that consider new forms of violence, such as online VAW (as planned by the European Commission) will be crucial to ensure uniform definitions for the different types of violence at issue, equal protection across all Member States and a harmonised response to the threat of violence during future crises. Moreover, collecting comprehensive and gendered data will be important for analysing and understanding the patterns of violence witnessed during times of crisis, as well as for understanding why crises increase the risk of VAW, and measuring the overall impact this has. Other disaggregated factors such as age and disability should be included to identify specific risks to certain groups of society. One such survey is already planned by Eurostat, with results expected in 2023. Finally, VAW should be considered and addressed in all general policy adopted during the crisis (and beyond), including policies aimed at mitigating the economic effects of the crisis. Future crisis response plans should include VAW as a key concern, to prevent another devastating increase in VAW such as the one being witnessed during the current crisis.