Examining the impact of COVID-19 for women victims of intimate partner violence and their children

Hands of women and a child on opposite sides of window pane,  photo by Jevanto Productions/Adobe Stock

Jevanto Productions/Adobe Stock

Researchers identified 27 practices that—to varying degrees—have ensured the continuity, accessibility and sustainability of support to women victims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the issue?

An increase in intimate partner violence has been a worrying consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic in EU Member States and globally. Lockdown measures imposed in many countries have increased the exposure of victims to perpetrators, with increased levels of stress and economic instability potentially exacerbating the issue.

There is an urgent need to understand which of the measures adopted by Member States during the pandemic have proved most useful in protecting and supporting victims of intimate partner violence, and how best to implement them.

How did we help?

RAND Europe was commissioned by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) to identify promising measures for helping women who are victims of intimate partner violence and their children, both during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project team conducted desk research and mapped the efforts to support victims across all 27 EU member states. Out of these, Belgium, Ireland, Spain and Slovenia were chosen for further in-depth analysis. In addition, a survey collected responses from support services in 17 countries.

The research explains the challenges facing service providers during the pandemic and provides information for decision-makers on promising measures and practices to strengthen EU and member states’ responses to the current pandemic and to future crisis situations.

What did we find?

  • Service providers experienced many challenges due to COVID-19, including finding new ways to provide support to victims, meeting a surge in demand for services and reaching victims and identifying their risk level despite limited in-person contact. There was limited additional funding to help overcome these challenges.
  • 228 measures were implemented across 27 EU member states to support and protect women victims of intimate partner violence and their children in response to COVID-19. Of these, 167 were new and 61 were measures that were adapted. These measures included new ways of accessing support (e.g. digital platforms); increased publicity or raising awareness of services; as well as new services all together. Many were intended to be permanent.
  • Some governments acted at the national level to support women victims and their children. This was important for providing the framework and impetus for further action among a range of stakeholders. However, these responses were only identified in a small number of member states, tended to be reactive in nature and were infrequently accompanied by funding.
  • There was a limited focus on providing specialised support for children and vulnerable populations affected by intimate partner violence, such as refugees and migrant women, homeless women, elderly women and women who identify as LGBTQ+.
  • Some legislative changes were made to prevent victims from being trapped with perpetrators due to ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions. These typically focused on ensuring that victims were able to flee perpetrators and avoid criminal liability for ‘breaking’ such restrictions. However, it is well-established that policies that avoid displacement of women victims and their children from the home offer several benefits.
  • The study identified 27 promising practices that (to varying degrees) ensured the continuity, accessibility and sustainability of support to women victims. Thirteen measures were implemented as part of a broader government response, five were ad hoc measures, and nine were awareness-raising campaigns.
  • Broader government measures were considered particularly promising because of their greater propensity for longevity and sustainability and included legislative changes such as classifying victim services as essential, thereby ensuring continuation of service delivery. Though encouraging, these measures were introduced after the COVID-19 outbreak, demonstrating a lack of preparation for crisis situations.
  • Promising ad hoc measures included accessibility to a rent supplement for victims, the private provision of shelter accommodation and the extension of helpline hours. However, these were typically standalone and implemented on a temporary basis in a reaction to the current challenges.
  • Promising awareness-raising campaigns focused on informing victims that support services were available and encouraged victims to report violence. However, these campaigns sometimes failed to offer practical advice on accessing support and conflicted with general public messages, such as to stay at home.

What can be done?

  • Adopt national action plans to improve the long-term response to gender-based violence in times of crisis. These action plans should set out the detailed strategies for supporting women and their children in times of crisis, identify which stakeholders should be involved, what the funding sources will be and how performance will be measured.
  • Implement measures to protect victims and their children from perpetrators through rapid removal of the perpetrator. Strengthening emergency accommodation to allow victims to flee violent situations should be complemented by efforts to avoid the displacement of women and their children from the home, especially in times of crisis. Responses should focus on removing the perpetrator through, for example, emergency barring orders. To support these efforts, cases involving domestic violence in all its forms should be prioritised in court proceedings.
  • Provide additional funding to expand the capacity of services to support women victims of intimate partner violence and their children in times of crisis.
  • Address the strain on service-provider staff by adopting practices that support staff well-being.
  • Adopt national legislation to ensure that support services for women victims of intimate partner violence and their children are recognised as essential services during states of emergency.
  • Use awareness-raising campaigns to inform victims where and how to access support services in times of crisis.
  • Introduce helplines and communication tools that provide victims with the means to discretely access support in times of crisis.
  • Share learnings and practices among the staff of support services to aid the effective delivery of remote counselling to women victims and their children.
  • Update service providers’ risk assessment procedures for victims to include remote service delivery rather than only in-person settings.
  • Evaluate measures to protect women victims of intimate partner violence and their children in times of crisis to improve future action.