Updated: Friday, 5th June 2020 @ 4:07pm

'On the margins of society': Why lockdown is a terrifying prospect for Britain's most vulnerable women

'On the margins of society': Why lockdown is a terrifying prospect for Britain's most vulnerable women

| By Emma Morgan

In the eyes of many, the coronavirus lockdown will be characterised by a series of First World problems: the blurry FaceTime calls with friends and family, the frustrated hunt for that last packet of pasta, and that continual battle with sluggish WiFi.

However, for others, this enforced quarantine will have a much more serious and long-lasting impact. For those living off an unstable salary, it might mean unemployment, eviction and homelessness. For those facing violence from a loved one, it might be a matter of life and death.

MM spoke to representatives from women’s charities and campaigns across Manchester, to learn more about the potentially disastrous consequences of lockdown for the North West’s most exposed and unprotected women.

Housing

The government’s decision to shut inessential businesses has left many families unable to pay their rent, making homelessness a very real possibility.  

On Thursday, the Housing Ministry took steps to ease the pressure on those affected, as it introduced a three-month-long ban on evictions, preventing landlords from seeking possession in the case of late rent payments.

Beth Redmond, of Tenants Union UK, describes this measure as “a good first step”, but adds that, while you can defer a possession order, “you can’t defer anxiety”.

Although the threat of eviction is now more distant, it is still there, lurking somewhere in the near future, ready to strike as soon as the ban is lifted.

She also points out that many of the tenants on precarious variable hours contracts or in low-paid professions are women. On last count, 65% of retail assistants, 70% of waiting staff, 61% of bar managers and 77% of cleaners were female, while 99% of plumbers, 98% of lorry drivers and 94% of bus drivers were male.

While the latter occupations will struggle on, the more woman-heavy industries have ground to a halt, leaving their livelihoods on the line.

Beth is sceptical about the efficacy of the government’s promise to pay 80% of wages for out-of-work employees. She says that Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, might “think that he is making the right noises […], but actually, tenants won’t see that money, it will just go directly into the pockets of landlords.”

And for people whose contracted hours are less than they actually work, or who have already lost their jobs to the pandemic, this pledge offers little comfort.

Beth concludes by insisting that the only way to alleviate renters’ anxiety, albeit temporarily, is to offer a rent freeze.

“They’re telling landlords that they can apply for a mortgage holiday, but enforcing no kind of legislation to pass that holiday onto renters.”

Abortion

As the government does its utmost to restrict public movement as much as possible, the coronavirus lockdown is making it more difficult for British women to access abortion services.

For a moment, it seemed that the Department of Health was taking steps to help. Last week, it published new advice on its website stating that doctors could sign off an early medical abortion from home, and that both pills would be delivered to the patient’s house.

Under current rules, women must visit a clinic to take the first pill, and the abortion must be approved by two medical professionals.

However, this notice vanished mysteriously soon after it appeared, meaning that even in lockdown, women will have to travel to a clinic, a requirement which may force them to spend an hour or more on public transport.

Beth, who is also part of the pro-choice Sister Supporter Campaign, claims that this rule not only wastes NHS time and money, it also exposes women in the “at risk” category to infection.

This journey may also prove unfeasible for single mothers, who are unable to leave their children with elderly grandparents at present, and therefore have no way of leaving the house.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) predicts that up to 40,000 women in England and Wales may need to terminate a pregnancy in the next 13 weeks, and lockdown seems to be putting them all in danger.

Domestic abuse

1.6 million women in England and Wales were subject to domestic violence last year, and lockdown, which reduces people’s living space while augmenting their stress levels, is only going to make matters worse.

In February, with its coronavirus crisis peaking and its population shut into quarantine, China’s Hubei province recorded a three-fold increase in reports of domestic abuse. It seems that this sinister escalation has already spread to the UK, with Avon and Somerset Police noting a 20.9% increase in cases in the last two weeks alone.

Jane Gregory, founder of the Salford Survivor Project, which offers support and advice for people suffering from domestic violence, tells me that her service has experience a spike in calls since lockdown began.

As national hotlines buckle under the pressure of the pandemic, reports begin to overflow into regional organisations, whose volunteers are working flat-out to address this new demand.

But behind every case they receive, there will be dozens that go unnoticed, as victims, locked into constant contact with their abusers, are prevented from calling for help.

Jane has had calls from women who are hiding in their own homes, and adds that, if their abuser is controlling their phone, the victim won’t even be able to access Salford Survivor’s Facebook messaging service.

“There’s no way of escaping.”

The difficulty of this situation is compounded by the fact that volunteers are currently unable to meet these women. They can’t accompany them to a police station, a Rape Crisis centre or a sexual health clinic. They can’t say “I’ll be with you and I’ll stay with you.”

Jane insists that lockdown would be easier to navigate if central government were clearer about the measures being put in place to help.

“How are they going to tackle it? What are they going to do?

“If the powers that be […] don’t tell us about what they are planning, how are we, at the grass roots level going to guide people? There’s no communication.

“Have we got enough police on hand to deal with a situation? […] If they decide to move the perpetrator, where are they going to put them? If they decide to move the family, where are they going to put them?”

Jane explains that if they do decide to leave an abusive partner, many women are placed in a hotel with their children while they await housing.

However, during lockdown, will these hotels be allowed to stay open? Or will victims be trapped indefinitely under the rule of a violent partner?

“Without answers [from the authorities] I can’t even encourage somebody to leave that situation because I don’t know if I’m putting them in more danger.”

No recourse to public funds

The unthinkable anguish of this situation is further intensified for the thousands of migrant women who may have arrived in the UK as refugees or as a result of human trafficking, and whose struggle for safety and survival is pushed into the unseen spaces of our society.

These women do not necessarily speak English, do not have ready access to news or media outlets, and have no recourse to public funds (financial assistance from the state). They therefore find themselves invisibilised, unshielded against coercion, violence and abuse.

And what’s more, their histories of deprivation and maltreatment have often left them with suppressed immune systems, making them even more susceptible to COVID-19.

With the country in lockdown, their situation is more desperate than ever.

I spoke to Sandhya Sharma, group coordinator of Safety4Sisters, a Manchester-based charity which works to provide migrant women fleeing gender-based abuse with the advice, support and respect that they need to forge a life free of patriarchal and state violence.

Sandhya tells me that although Safety4Sisters have spent the past week moving all the women on their books to safer and “more substantial” housing, she is worried about what will happen now that lockdown is in full force.

Indeed, a couple of these women have already been told that they must leave their accommodation, as their hosts try to avoid unnecessary social contact.

“We envisage that from next week we will see a sharp increase in the number of referrals to our service,” Sandhya predicts. 

“We’re doing everything we can to keep […] going but our services were already under-resourced. Funding was patchy, commissioning was difficult […] and now we fear that, going through this crisis, many of the organisations [that help vulnerable migrant women] will simply stop functioning.

“Where on earth are we going to put these women? How on earth are women going to come forward and be safe?

“The fear and panic is palpable and it’s increasing.”

Critical of the inaction from both local and national government, who are yet to put any specific measures in place to support the homeless and those with no recourse to public funds, she adds: “It’s absolutely imperative at the moment that everyone is supported.”

Sandhya says that unless the government temporarily lift the no recourse to public funds condition, migrant women will be unable to claim Universal Credit and/or Housing Benefit, leaving them with a stark choice: “Remain in abusive relationships under the most horrendous conditions […] or leave and have literally nowhere to go.”

Her plea was echoed on a national scale on Friday, when a cross-party group of 98 MPs sent a letter urging the Treasury to help migrants with leave to remain but no access to the benefits being offered to the rest of the population.

Such entreaties will hopefully force awareness of these marginalised groups, who are continually made to exist outside of public consciousness, but who are likely to be amongst those who suffer most from this pandemic.

As Sandhya emphatically states: “We cannot have a group of people outside of the remit of safety and protection in a global pandemic. It is just unconscionable and it’s inhumane.”

You can donate to Safety4Sisters’ emergency appeal here. Every pound raised will go directly to the migrant women supported by this organisation.

Main image courtesy of Jane Fox via Flickr, with thanks.