Feminism

The shadow pandemic

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You’ve probably seen news splashed across your timelines about what the UN has named the ‘shadow pandemic’. Calls to Refuge’s domestic abuse helplines have increased by 49%. There were 4,000 domestic abuse arrests just in London in the first six weeks of lockdown. And if you haven’t, you’ve probably at least seen J K Rowling coming out with her experience of domestic and sexual abuse. 

Femicide – the killing of women by intimate partners and family members – is the leading cause of premature death in women globally. The UK figures average out at about one woman killed every four days.

The most recent UK Femicide Census found that 105 women a year were killed by someone they knew, compared to 21 in terrorist attacks. 40% of cases reported as femicides featured ‘overkilling’ – the use of force excessive to that needed to kill the victim. One woman was reported as being stabbed 175 times, another hit 40 times with an axe, another ‘battered virtually beyond recognition’. And, for every woman killed by a family member, thousands more are suffering non-fatal abuse. In 2015, police in England and Wales received an average of 100 calls per hour related to domestic abuse. 

This level of violence, and number of incidences are the pre-Covid figures. Lockdown has seen a huge spike – the exact extent of which is yet to be made clear. But Covid-19 hasn’t created domestic abusers. This particular problem is much more insidious, and has been present in a much less visible form for a long time. 

The Government has attempted to respond to the spike in cases. They pledged at the beginning of May that £76 million will be made available to support abuse victims. To date £8.1 million has been distributed to charities – funding 1,500 refuge spaces. But given that there were 4,000 arrests (in just the first 6 weeks of lockdown) this clearly isn’t a good enough increase of capacity. According to Solace, 66% of women can’t leave abusive homes because they have nowhere to go. 

Before lockdown, Women’s Aid predicted that £393 million per year would fund the domestic abuse services needed for women and children in England. Compare this to the amount Whitechapel Station’s Crossrail update has cost. Whitechapel’s population is just under 15,000, representing about 0.02% of the UK population. The station at the last estimate is racking up a bill of almost £700 million. This makes the £393 million to support 1 in 3 women in the UK seem like a positive bargain. 

What is really needed are initiatives that target the causes of violence rather than simply reactionary, or punitive measures. This will require a deeper questioning of trends that amount to a systematic pattern of gendered violence. Cultural notions of ‘acceptable violence’, masculine strength, and female submission, need to be further questioned. 

For one, it shouldn’t be acceptable for a newspaper with the circulation as large as the Sun to provide a platform for a self proclaimed domestic abuser. By giving Jorge Arantes a front page platform, they trivialised J.K. Rowling’s abuse. They turned it into something for the voyeuristic enjoyment of the public. His lack of remorse, and shaky denial, provides fodder for the heavy cultural scepticism women face when they come forward with their stories of abuse. The sort of scepticism that prevents women in real danger from coming forward. 

To move forward in the short term it’s necessary to scrutinise how the government is investing into support for domestic abuse victims. How have the amounts been calculated? And do they represent a real effort to protect the lives of 1 in 3 women? In the long term we have to tackle the causes of a crime that (although impacting members of all genders) targets women so systematically that there are clear indications that culturally something is wrong. 

As Rebecca Solnit eruditely wrote: ‘The change that really matters will consist of eliminating the desire to do these things, not merely the fear of getting caught.’ 

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