Women and children experienced an “intensification” of domestic abuse during the pandemic, an inquiry has heard.
The Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry was told measures such as lockdown created a situation that was “favourable” to abusers, and left fewer opportunities for victims to seek support or flee.
There was also a “perfect storm” over housing for domestic abuse victims seeking refuge, which meant there was no emergency accommodation for them for “enormous swathes of time” during the pandemic.
Scottish Women’s Rights Organisations, a group comprising five charitable bodies, gave evidence to the inquiry on Thursday.
Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, and Catherine Murphy, executive director of Engender, gave evidence on behalf of their organisations and Close the Gap, Just Right Scotland and Rape Crisis Scotland.
Dr Scott told the inquiry: “Women and children experienced an intensification of domestic abuse and gender-based violence during the pandemic.
“Domestic abuse is a pattern of behaviour that instils fear and is used by abusers to maintain control.
“The pandemic did not cause domestic abuse, despite many media reports, but measures taken to address the pandemic such as lockdown, closure of schools, working from home, early release of prisoners, and reduction in the work of the courts provided additional tools for abusers to exercise control, and removed opportunities for women to access services, access justice or seek help in other ways.
“During lockdown, women and children were subject to heightened monitoring and control by their abusers with limited ability to move around freely or, for example, to take their children and flee.
“There was less access to safe places or support from family, friends or community services.
“Not only were children not safe at home living with an abuser, but all the places where they were usually safest – school, nursery or after-school clubs – had suddenly been taken away from them.”
Stuart Gale KC, co-lead counsel to the inquiry, asked how Scottish Women’s Aid operated refuges during the pandemic.
Dr Scott said health measures meant the majority of refuges in Scotland had to be reduced to one family, meaning most were full almost immediately.
In addition, local authority housing processes were for the most part frozen or “operating at a snail’s pace”, which she said created a “perfect storm”.
She also highlighted the “extremely insensitive” nature of the “stay safe at home” message issued by authorities early in the pandemic, though said officials were quick to recognise and deal with the issue when it was pointed out to them.
The inquiry also heard about the “disproportionate impact” the pandemic and lockdown measures had on women, children and young people generally.
Ms Murphy said: “Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities and made the most vulnerable and under-reached communities more vulnerable and isolated.
“In looking across all policy areas including justice, health, employment, education, children and families, and housing and homelessness, a key concern of our organisations has been the cumulative impact of the increased risk of harm to women and children.”
Commenting on Scottish Government decision making, Ms Murphy said it is vital that lessons are learned from the pandemic as some measures may have entrenched and exacerbated inequality.
She said: “The Scottish Women’s Rights Organisations recognise the need for rapid decision making in response to an exceptional event like the pandemic, but the evidence indicates that in working at pace public bodies often neglected critical safeguards and equitable decision making, overlooked the primary differences between men’s and women’s lives, entrenching and exacerbating women’s inequality in the longer term.”
The Scottish inquiry is investigating the devolved strategic response to the pandemic in Scotland between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2022.
The inquiry, taking place before Lord Brailsford in Edinburgh, continues.