poster for MESARCH research

Social Distancing and Impacts on Sexual Violence and Recovery

By Associate Professor Lorna O Doherty and the MESARCH team

A new path for the MESARCH study

Governments across the globe beckon citizens to seek refuge from COVID-19: stay at home and save lives! Citizens followed suit: after all, the restrictions are evidence-based, government-mandated and plainly sensible in the face of this pandemic. But one of the terrible ironies of ‘staying safe at home’ is the diametrical risk confinement creates for a person living under siege, under their own roof. The paradox is so clear-cut, so awful, that media and public attention has been swift and sustained. Domestic violence and abuse is being talked about like never before, the kind of talk, one hopes, that leads to action. In early May, the British Government announced a package of over £76 million in new funding to support the most vulnerable in society during the pandemic, including helping charities support survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, vulnerable children, their families, and victims of modern slavery.

In thinking about interpersonal harms linked to COVID-19, people affected by sexual violence and abuse must not be overlooked. The period of COVID-19 is highly likely to be associated with changes in the nature, prevalence and consequences of sexual offences. We at Coventry University’s Centre for Intelligent Healthcare, together with our academic, NHS, SARC and third sector partners have a finger on the pulse of this problem. Keeping our national NIHR-funded longitudinal study (MESARCH) afloat was our priority when the crisis hit. And we continue to invite survivors of sexual assault, rape and abuse to share about the economic, social and health impacts of sexual assault on them. However, we recognised there’s something else we need to do: capture the influence of the crisis on people’s capacities to stay safe and reach out for support in the context of sexual violence.

The frequent intersection of sexual and domestic abuse emphasises the reduced options facing many sexual violence victims. Yet access to early health, pregnancy, emotional and forensic care is integral to tackling the long-term impacts of sexual violence on individuals, families and societies. And incidents of sexual violence extend beyond the family home at this time, taking place in care settings, the workplaces of key workers, through digital technology, in modern day slavery contexts and in situations where social distancing rules have been broken. Where abuse resides in a person’s past, ‘lockdown’ narratives and environments may aggravate feelings of powerlessness and anxiety, even prompting recall of previous traumatic experiences.

When it comes to getting help, people are less mobile, have fewer interactions with others and less access to safe spaces (calling on a neighbour during these times may not be viewed as an option). Simple coping measures such as going to the gym, shopping or meeting a friend for coffee, normally a lifeline for people, are diminished. Community-based providers grapple with reconfiguring helplines, advocacy, psychological and other services whilst clients may be unwilling to use remote communication for services such as counselling, due to a lack of privacy at home; there’s more to feeling safe than escaping the abuse. Health, social care and community services continue to do what they can to meet the wide-ranging and complex needs of clients. And people are welcome now and at any time to talk to staff at SARCs about their options after rape or sexual assault. Where there are concerns that a person is displaying symptoms of COVID19, the FFLM indicates options such as self-swabbing at home.

MESARCH Research conducting confidential interview

Our research is building these insights each day of the crisis as we create safe research spaces and speak to participants over the phone. We’ll investigate patterns before, during and after the lockdown; evaluate health outcomes over time; and talk to professionals about how they’ve adapted their services to meet clients’ needs. We recognise the stalwart efforts of the sexual assault and abuse services (SAAS) sector, and strive to contribute useful insights to inform their practice and policy on delivery of care under these circumstances. What ‘remote’ models of care are in use; what’s lost by these adaptations; what innovations have emerged? What are the longer-term consequences of COVID19 for recovery from sexual trauma?

We are pleased to see government announce £10 million specifically to help support victims of sexual violence access advice and support, through the funding of technology to enable charities to offer services remotely. A further £3 million per year until 2022 will be invested to recruit more Independent Sexual Violence Advisors. As a landmark study running for the next three years, MESARCH will be generating time-critical evidence to enhance policy decisions at the highest level nationally and inform practice in the SAAS sector. So many questions face researchers now; answering them effectively relies on working together and the collective will to see society freed of sexual, domestic and gender-based violence.

By Lorna O’Doherty and Dr Grace Carter (Centre for Intelligent Healthcare) and MESARCH partners Gillian Finch (CIS’ters), Millicent Gant (Juniper Lodge Sexual Assault Referral Centre) and Dianne Whitfield (Rape Crisis England and Wales).

Resources

Rape Crisis England and Wales: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-help/want-to-talk/
24 hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline number: 0808 2000 247
NSPCC Helpline/Childline: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-you-can-do/get-advice-and-support/
Download the free Bright Sky mobile app to help those in abusive relationships or those supporting them: https://www.hestia.org/brightsky

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