Hidden loneliness: exploring the isolation caused by violence against women and girls
When you think of loneliness, what’s the image that comes to mind? Perhaps a solitary elderly person, nursing a cup of tea in the living room. A young child at school, hiding away from bullies in the playground. Or possibly a refugee who has lost their family, standing in a sea of unfamiliar faces, forced into an unknown new world alone.
But how often do you picture a woman or girl who has experienced gender-based violence (GBV)? At first glance, this group might not seem to have much in common with the elderly or those we commonly assume to feel ‘alone’. Yet there’s increasing anecdotal evidence demonstrating links between violence against women and girls (VAWG) and experiences of loneliness and social isolation.
Trigger warning: this piece contains discussion of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and the impacts this can have.
Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) is defined by the UN as 'any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women…’
Examples range from domestic abuse and rape, to sexual harrassment, intimidation and stalking. Globally, 1 in 3 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. In the UK alone, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence and 1 in 5 will experience sexual assault. Economic violence is also recognised as a form of GBV, including acts such as the restriction of financial resources, or other types of coercive control. Any act of violence against a woman or girl violates their human rights, as enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women.
Whilst specific data connecting VAWG to experiences of loneliness doesn’t exist, it’s possible to infer links between the two
For example, in the case of domestic abuse, social isolation is a specific tactic used by an abuser to gain control over their victim. An abuser may use emotional manipulation to distance the victim from their friends or family, sowing disconnection that prevents the victim from being able to seek help and others from noticing that something isn’t right.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the issues of VAWG and loneliness into sharp relief
In particular, a recent policy briefing by UN Women sheds light on the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women and girls. Since the start of the pandemic, countries with ‘stay at home’ measures have seen a marked increase in reports of violence against women. In the UK, there was a 25% rise in phone calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first week of lockdown in March. A survey by Women’s Aid also found that 67% of women currently experiencing domestic violence said it had worsened during the pandemic, with one respondent saying: “I’m lonely, feel isolated, like a sitting duck.”
At The Jo Cox Foundation, we co-founded the Connection Coalition at the start of the pandemic
This Coalition is designed to support its civil society, voluntary and corporate members to best support the emotional and social wellbeing needs of the nation, with a particular focus on loneliness and social isolation. Our members have consistently told us that their communities face barriers to overcoming loneliness and social isolation such as a lack of digital access and literacy, caring responsibilities, financial barriers, or cultural stigma. It’s likely that these factors will significantly impact women and girls in need of support at a time when social distancing measures may have isolated them from their previous support networks.
In assessing the impact of Covid-19 on mental health, Connection Coalition co-founder Mind found that women were more likely to report a decline in their mental health
Research by University College London similarly found that young women were most likely to have experienced high levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression during the first lockdown. Whilst there are many reasons why women may be suffering more, the correlative increase in violence is potentially a causal factor in many cases. In terms of services, women from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, or those with disabilities, might face even further loneliness and social isolation when seeking support. This is owing to a lack of representation and informed mental health services specifically designed to address intersecting issues of gender, race and ability.
Exposure to violence and trauma, particularly at a young age, can sadly have lasting impacts on how an individual connects with others
Relationships later in life may be significantly impeded by a survivor’s lack of trust or feelings of fear towards other people. The fact that Covid-19 now means most social engagements have to be held outside is also concerning: many survivors, who previously found support in safe indoor spaces, may feel unable to face dark winter evenings outdoors. This could lead to increased social withdrawal and even greater feelings of loneliness at a time when support is needed most.
There are also long-term health implications
As Noreena Hertz identifies in The Lonely Century, “...the chemical presence of loneliness in the body...is essentially identical to the ‘fight or flight’ reaction we have when we feel under attack.”(p.17). Hertz goes on to cite that bodies experiencing loneliness are 32% more likely to suffer a stroke, have a 64% higher risk of developing clinical dementia, and are 30% more likely to die prematurely. For women experiencing both loneliness and PTSD, leading to even greater stress responses in the body, these odds may be even higher.
But there are many things that can prevent this from happening:
- Increase research and resourcing: we need more evidence to fully understand the relationship between VAWG and loneliness and social isolation and inform policy recommendations. Greater resourcing for specialist women’s support services adopting intersectional approaches can also directly support women who are suffering.
- Practise gender-sensitive community care: for those working at the community level, learning more about VAWG can help inform your organisation’s approach to tackling loneliness and social isolation and enable more women and girls to access support.
- Tackle the root causes of VAWG: it is essential that we keep challenging the systemic causes of VAWG to alleviate devastating impacts such as loneliness and social isolation. At The Jo Cox Foundation, we will continue to work with Connection Coalition members to tackle loneliness and social isolation in informed ways. We will also continue our work to tackle systemic causes of VAWG that contribute to loneliness. This includes our work to tackle abuse and intimidation in public life, as well as work alongside Stella Creasy MP and others to Make Misogyny a Hate Crime.