In August, I was walking through the streets of Granada (Spain), savouring – like everyone else – a newfound freedom and normality after the Coronavirus upset our lives and daily activities, when I came across the “road sign” that you see in the photo here above.

I immediately thought of the months of lockdown spent in Italy closed at home, safe from the virus and from all kinds of danger. But was it like that for everyone? Unfortunately not. The social distancing measures adopted by most European countries, to deal with the pandemic and ensure everyone’s right to health, have had a significant impact on domestic violence, to the detriment of the different, but no less important, right to physical integrity. An already serious situation was further worsened by lockdown: female victims of violence found themselves confined, necessarily and suddenly, at home with their tormentors, with the possibilities of escape and asking for help significantly decreased.

The topic couldn’t be more relevant in today’s climate, given the revival of the Coronavirus which is inducing several European governments into adopting forced isolation measures again. But this time, we must not be caught unprepared. While it may be correct to adopt suitable measures to block the second wave of Coronavirus, it is necessary that the European Union – and the whole world in general – does not forget about women. Let’s dig a little deeper and see why this is vital.

Domestic violence in the European Union during the lockdown.

A recent study of the ‘Organization of the United Nations for gender equality and the empowerment of women says that over the last 12 months, at least 18% of women aged between 15 and 49 that are living in a romantic relationship have been victims of violence.

Looking specifically at Member States of the European Union, the increase in domestic violence has unfortunately been uniform.

For example, in France, during the first week of closure alone, there was a 32% increase in domestic violence. In Ireland there was an overall decrease in crime during the period of severe restrictions, excluding domestic violence, which increased by 30%.

There was also a marked increase in the number of requests for help received on telephone assistance lines set up for gender-based violence. This increase equated to 70% in Belgium, 47% in Spain – where 35 femicides were also committed in the first half of 2020 alone – and 73% in Italy.

These data are truly alarming if we consider that, very often, incidents of gender-based violence, especially those that take place at home, are not reported for fear of repercussion and lack of confidence in the system of prevention. So there is a real danger that the number of private incidents of violence suffered by women during the lockdown is even greater.

Marceline Naudi, President of the Group of Experts on Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), was well aware of this situation. In a  statement on the 24th of March, she stressed the need to comply with the standards enshrined in the Istanbul Convention to protect women and prevent domestic violence during the pandemic.

Many signatory states have indeed adopted measures to deal with this emergency and protect women. In Spain, for example, an initiative, known as “Mascarilla 19”, was established. This is a code for reporting domestic violence that women could communicate in pharmacies in order to activate the protection system. In most Member States, listening and support services, both online and by phone, have increased.

However, this was not enough. The numbers speak for themselves. In fact, the problems remained numerous.

In some areas, for example, domestic violence shelters had to stop their services because they did not know how to manage the risk of contagion among their guests. So the victims, who had bravely found the courage and the means to report the violence inflicted upon them, were still forced to stay in the same house with the perpetrator of said violence. This is truly abhorrent.

But even more serious was the suspension of essential services to deal with domestic violence. The hospitals, almost entirely dedicated to the care of Covid patients, represented an additional danger for women victims of violence. Many did not turn to hospitals to receive the care they needed because they feared contagion from the Coronavirus. The Courts throughout Europe – and beyond – have suspended their activities due to the health emergency, which did not allow legal operators to carry out judicial activities in safety. In practice, justice and security have been denied to all victims of violence. To protect the health of some, the health and personal safety of others were sacrificed. And that, frankly, is unacceptable..

What more we can – and must – do.

In recent weeks, due to the worsening of the epidemiological picture in Europe, some areas of Spain, as well as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the Czech Republic have returned to lockdown.

An immediate and concrete response to domestic violence must be found to avoid the worst. Otherwise we will all be responsible for what happens.

In particular, I believe it is essential to continue to guarantee, despite the measures of social distancing, operability, efficiency and continuity to the entire network that works for the protection of female victims of violence. As Marceline Naudi correctly stated, all the actors in this sector must be involved, from the police, to social and psychological support services, to the health and judicial sectors.

How could this be possible, given today’s climate of uncertainty? Here are my proposals:

First, we must improve the methods of reporting domestic violence. Let’s not overlook the fact that a woman – who is the victim of violence perpetrated  by someone with whom she is forced to remain at home – can hardly speak freely on the phone. Personally, I think the Spanish “Mascarilla 19” campaign is very effective and I hope that as many countries as possible will be inspired by it. In general, offering support and solidarity to victims and guiding them in the reporting process, is the winning formula.

However, finding new ways to ask for help without removing victims from the place where this violence takes place is insufficient. Therefore it is also necessary to ensure shelters, for female victims of violence, return to being fully operational. The fear of contagion from Covid within these structures must be addressed, so that they can still be used by the women who need to access them.

Above all, we absolutely must guarantee justice and protection for victims of domestic violence. As a lawyer, I found the blocking of justice, during the seemingly never-ending lockdown, horrifying. Denying justice to those who are entitled to it is never an option. We push female victims of violence to report their abuse and then, when they do, we leave their requests for help unheard. The blockade of justice has displayed our inability to reinvent ourselves in the face of difficulties. We must not allow this to happen again. We have to make sure that justice takes its course, for everybody’s sake. To this end, we must take advantage of the technologies we have at our disposal. We must continue to conduct hearings, even if that means doing so via video, from the safety of our own homes. 

Difficult months lay ahead and we must be ready to face this challenge too, as Covid is not the only pandemic we are dealing with.