12th May 2020

Domestic abuse and sexual violence: the responses and realities provoked by COVID-19

By Dr Oona Brooks-Hay, Prof Michele Burman & Dr Lisa Bradley, University of Glasgow

The new social reality imposed by COVID-19 brings particular concerns for women and children living with domestic abuse and sexual violence, and for the support services that they rely upon. Social distancing and self-isolation are likely to compound the risks, anxieties and fear experienced by victim-survivors, while limiting access to vital support agencies and safe community spaces. Indeed, isolation is a tactic used by perpetrators to facilitate and sustain abuse, and is recognised as such by the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018.

Internationally, there is serious concern about a reported worldwide rise in domestic abuse under measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. These concerns are shared by our IMPRODOVA research project[1] partners studying frontline responses to domestic abuse in eight European countries. In Hungary, for example, domestic violence incidents reported to the police increased by 50% in March 2020 compared to March 2019.  Since the start of the epidemic, Slovenian police have recorded a 20% increase in domestic violence compared to the same period in 2019. Meanwhile, for the police in Finland, family violence emergency tasks have increased 13% over March and April compared to the same period last year.

swa women 1000 words

Photo by Laura Dodsworth, Scottish Women’s Aid

Yet in some countries, including Scotland, there has been an initial drop in domestic abuse reported to the police. Similarly, calls to Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline fell in the early weeks of the lockdown though they have risen substantially since then. By the last week in April, calls had increased by 68% compared to the week prior to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions.

These fluctuating and divergent trends raise important questions about the reality of what is happening behind these figures. Research evidence about the impact of COVID-19 is in its infancy and there is little disaggregated data to inform our understanding of how different groups within society are impacted (e.g. children and young people or those with disabilities). Much of the information currently available is therefore drawn from police and agency reports. Factors such as varying legal definitions of domestic abuse and sexual violence, other underlying trends in data, heightened publicity during the crisis, and well documented challenges in reporting even out with pandemic conditions, mean that drawing comparisons and conclusions is problematic.

In more confined living conditions, women and children subject to heightened monitoring and control may be further inhibited in making contact with the police or may fear the consequences of doing so.

While reports talk of an increase or decrease in domestic abuse, this masks the reality of what is likely to be happening. That is, an intensification of abuse rather than the creation of new abusers. The latter risks conflating domestic abuse with heightened tensions in relationships between couples at a time characterised by intense social pressure. Meanwhile, any drop in reports raises concern about cases that may not be reaching the attention of the police or support agencies. In more confined living conditions, women and children subject to heightened monitoring and control may be further inhibited in making contact with the police or may fear the consequences of doing so. Retaliation from the abuser, uncertainly about whether support services are operating, financial stress and worry about contracting the virus in other social spaces may be amongst these fears. Meanwhile, third parties such as friends, neighbours, nurseries or schools are less able to observe abuse or offer informal support and much needed safe spaces.


Key agencies including Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland, the police, courts, health and housing services are under considerable pressure. While services supporting victim-survivors are no strangers to challenge and innovation, they must rapidly find ways of providing their services while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their own staff and those they seek to protect.

Police and courts offer assurances that a robust response to domestic abuse will continue to be made during the pandemic. Police Scotland maintain that domestic abuse remains a priority during the pandemic and the Lord Advocate has confirmed that domestic abuse cases will continue to be prosecuted rigorously and fairly, with bail conditions and non-harassment orders continuing to be enforced. While these are welcome assurances, there are inevitable disruptions to court business in the current climate. By August, the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) estimate a potential backlog of 1,600 serious cases awaiting trial. The resulting delays in processing cases are a real concern; our earlier Scottish Government funded Justice Journeys research with victim-survivors of rape and sexual assault highlighted the distressing impact of delays and uncertainly on their wellbeing and ability to recover from the abuse that they had endured.


Photo by mikoto.raw from Pexels

Encouragingly, the Scottish Government has allocated an additional £1.5m funding to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland to ensure that access to their services is maintained and victim-survivors can continue to report crimes during the crisis, including using online video platforms, text messaging and phone calls. Support for victim-survivors of domestic and sexual abuse will be crucial as we move through and beyond the current restrictions. The director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has called for states, not only to protect women during the pandemic, but to ‘bolster their measures in the future to end violence against women’. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has also backed calls on the EU and its Member States to use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to step up their efforts to protect women’s rights.

The World Health Agency (WHO) and UN Women have underscored the importance of data collection during COVID-19 as a critical tool to mitigate adverse effects on women and girls experiencing violence and inform prevention strategies during any future crisis. Going forward, it is vital that research informs immediate and longer-term policy and practice responses. At the University of Glasgow, we will form part of a team of researchers investigating the current and longer-term impact of social distancing and other behavioural measures on four population groups of concern in Scotland, one of which will be domestic abuse and sexual violence survivors. The Chief Scientists Office (CSO) funded research seeks to identify and support the needs of individuals, services and policymakers as both challenges and opportunities emerge from the transformation in social conditions provoked by the global pandemic.

IMPRODOVA has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement No. 787054.

Photo by Kaspars Eglitis on Unsplash

Support resources

The lockdown does not prevent you from leaving your home to flee abuse if you need to and services are still available to support you digitally or over the phone.

If you, or anyone you know, are being abused or are at risk of abuse, please contact Police Scotland on 101 or 999 in an emergency.

Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage helpline
Open 24/7
Call: 0800 027 1234
Email: helpline@sdafmh.org.uk
Web chat: sdafmh.org.uk

Rape Crisis Scotland
Open daily, 6 pm – midnight
Call: 08088 01 03 02
Text: 07537 410027
Email: support@rapecrisisscotland.org.uk

Childline: https://www.childline.org.uk/

Crime, Violence and Inequality

Gender, Crime and Criminal Justice