SNP ministers have been warned that a failure to include the impact of the pandemic on women in the terms of reference of the Covid-19 inquiry makes a mockery of “progressing human right protection and equality in Scotland”.
In December, the Scottish Government’s Deputy First Minister and Covid Recovery Secretary, John Swinney, published the terms of reference for the inquiry, which is due to begin in the spring.
The terms include the decision to lock down and impose restrictions, the testing, isolation and vaccination strategy – as well as the controversial decision to transfer residents to or from care homes and the continuation of education during the pandemic.
But organisations campaigning for women’s rights and equality have criticsed the decision not to specifically investigate the impact that Covid-19 has had on women – warning that the implications have been seen as an “after-thought”.
Speaking at Holyrood’s Social Justice Committee, Laura Tomson, co-director of Zero Tolerance, told MSPs that the pandemic has led to increased violence against women.
She said: “For us, the Covid inquiry not having this incorporated throughout and specified very specifically, it’s very similar to at the start of the pandemic when women were an after-thought.
“I think woman had to be affected by violence at high levels before different conditions were put in place for women affected by domestic violence.”
Ms Tomson added: “Our worry is also that the knock-on affects of the pandemic are going to exacerbate gender inequality long-term and that is going to require some significant thought and some significant investment to lesson that impact and ensure that we don’t see a massive backsliding in inequality from here on in.
“This is why is should be running through the Covid inquiry.”
Eilidh Dickson, policy and parliamentary manager of Engender, stressed that “the pandemic has had a huge impact” on women.
She added: “UN Women has warned that we could see a rollback of women’s equality worth 25 years globally and Scotland would be exception to that unless significant remedial measures are taken and prioritisation of mainstreaming.
“That’s why I think it is so disappointing that the Covid Inquiry makes no reference to equality or the needs of minoritised or marginalised communities in Scotland.”
Ms Dickson said that the terms of reference does acknowledge the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, but warned “that is only to be taken into account as far as the chair deems appropriate or necessary”.
She added: “I think there’s a huge risk and a huge gap and that this submission is clearly contrary to Scottish Government’s stated ambition around progressing human right protection and equality in Scotland.
“Therefore, I think it’s deeply concerning the Scottish Government went through such a widespread consultation process about the needs for that inquiry and the focus of that inquiry and we have in the terms of reference of that inquiry that make no reference to women, no reference to marginalised communities, that makes no reference to social care, that makes no reference to violence against women.”
Marsha Scott, CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid, told MSPs that “Covid made already vulnerable services more unstable”.
She said: “We also know that women who were already experiencing difficulties from abusive partners had their access to income reduced.
“We still have huge housing and homelessness problems for women and children living with domestic abuse exacerbated by Covid because of the freezing of the housing system.”
Dr Scott also pointed to the huge backlog in court cases due to the pandemic, warning over the increased likelihood that victims and witnesses will drop out of domestic abuse prosecutions.
She said: “We have increased victim attrition and witness attrition from domestic abuse cases because they are looking, realistically, at years before their cases come to court.
“The failure to do any equality impact assessment on the court response to Covid still boggles my mind.
“There was an official who said to me ‘I’m not going to apologise for not doing an equality impact assessment because we are in a crisis here’ as if equality is just for Christmas.”
The Scottish Government has been contacted for comment.