Domestic abuse and Coronavirus: Why does it take a global pandemic for governments to start acting?
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
For most of us, domestic abuse isn't something that crossed our minds when the Coronavirus pandemic began, followed by the consequent lockdown. For many men, abusing their wives or partners isn't something they would dream of doing, and they consequently find it hard to imagine a reality where a man beats his partner, even attempts to kill her, and where wives, mothers, girlfriends and women fear for their lives on a daily basis.
During the first few weeks of this lockdown, there has been a lot of rhetoric about taking this quarantine period as a chance to rest and reflect, to up-skill, to self-improve and to enjoy the smaller things in life. Though there is nothing wrong with this mindset, and it is certainly one that continues to help people move through this difficult time, it is rhetoric rooted in isolation privilege. A privilege that assumes the home is a safe space, and not somewhere were you can be emotionally, physically, sexually, financially, socially and verbally abused; a prisoner in your own home.
Unfortunately, despite it not being a reality for a large number of us, for another large number - it is. Before this pandemic, one out of three women in the world experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization, making it “the most widespread but among the least reported human rights abuses”. Though these figures are still problematically not part of popular knowledge consumption, policy makers and those in charge of running the country know the stats. It is disappointing, therefore, to realise that when implementing the lockdown policies, one of the most widespread human rights abuses wasn't considered. For these numbers reflect a scenario where victims/ survivors of domestic abuse have been able to go to work, leave the house, have their abusers go to work, the pub, elsewhere. Where victims/survivors of domestic abuse (most often intimate partner abuse) have been able to leave the place where they are most vulnerable - their homes - and go to charities, the homes of friends and loved ones, and generally seek the support that is at the best of times so difficult to reach.
Add nation-wide lockdowns to the equation, where people cannot leave their homes without fear of persecution or fines, and the results for those living with abusers are frightening to think about. Yet we need not think about it when the consequences are already coming into sharp relief. In Europe, one country after another have followed the same detrimental pattern; first government's implement lockdowns without thought or provision to domestic abuse victims, and within ten days, there is a spike in distress calls, setting off public outcry. Only then do governments clamber to improvise solutions.
Yet this is something, with many other factors of this pandemic, that governments had the opportunity to be prepared for as far back as December. In Hubei province, the heart of the initial outbreak, activists informed the media that police reports of domestic violence more than tripled in one county alone during the February lockdown, from 47 last year to 162 this year. In fact, informal evidence suggests reported cases of domestic abuse doubled or even trebled during China's four-month lockdown. A hashtag translating to #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic even went viral. Overlooking the frustrating fact that it is the work of activists generating this important information and raising this awareness, not the government or policy makers, we are still left with the fundamental question of why these factors weren't seriously considered by countries that followed suit.
France, for example, already holds one of the highest rates of domestic violence cases in Europe. Annually, an estimated 219,000 women, aged 18 to 75, face physical or sexual violence by current or former partners, with only 20% reporting the fact. Official figures indicate that one woman is killed by a partner or former partner every 3 days. In just one week after the country's lockdown, domestic abuse cases have increased by 30%. This could increase the femicide rate in France to 3 or 4 women being murdered every week. In 2020, this is unacceptable. Looking beyond France, Australia reported a 75% spike in internet searches relating to support for domestic violence victims, and Rio de Janeiro domestic violence specialist and judge Adrianna Mello stated that “We think there has been a rise of 40% or 50%" in calls to domestic abuse charities, putting even more strain on underfunded and understaffed charities and NGOs fighting to support domestic abuse victims and survivors. Globally, the stats are sweeping. Ten days before the UK began their March 23rd lockdown, the The New York Times contacted the Home Office about its plans to tackle the imminent crisis of domestic violence. Their response:
Only “existing sources of advice and support” would be available, with only one domestic abuse hotline specifically tailored for the Covid-19 crisis.
By a week into lockdown, in places like Avon and Somerset domestic abuse reports were already up by 20%, with local forces elsewhere bracing for the same, and the first murder of 67 year-old Ruth Williams in her South Wales home by her husband taking place on the morning of Saturday 28th of March. Four days ago, Italian medical student Lorena Quaranta was strangled to death by her boyfriend who wrongly accused her of giving him Coronavirus, and another woman in Pennsylvania was shot in an attempted murder-suicide after her boyfriend was upset over losing his job due to the pandemic.
These cases are merely some of those which have made the news, and which have devastatingly had to end in death to get there. Alarmingly, these figures only log the cases of women who are able to reach out and seek help. There are thousands of women currently in isolation with partners who do not let them make phone calls, or who cannot make phone calls due to the fear of being overheard by their abusers and facing the fallout. Other women are actively stopped from leaving their homes during this time, and wouldn't be able to seek help even if they tried. In Italy, for example, activists have informed that calls to helplines had dropped sharply, but instead they were receiving text messages and emails, sent from locked bathrooms and stolen moments of solitude.
Gender experts know that rates of domestic and sexual violence increase exponentially when societies are under stress, during food shortages, natural disasters and epidemics. “It’s a perfect storm,” Suzanne Jacob, chief executive of British charity SafeLives, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. If domestic abuse goes up by 38% when England lose a football match (Pathway Project), what is going to happen when there is no football to watch? When abusers lose their jobs? When they start drinking at home and the only person there is their partner, or their children? On March 19th a woman in Valencia was murdered by her husband in front of her child, and most often, mothers will shield their children from the abuse of the father by taking it in its entirety; even if this results in their own death.
It is true that governments are now beginning their attempts to repair the situation, but arguably a little late and at the expense of a mountain of trauma. In the UK, leader of the Women's Equality party Mandu Reid has called for special police powers to evict perpetrators from their homes for the duration of the lockdown, and for authorities to waive court fees for the victim/survivor's protection orders. A prosecutor in Italy has ruled that in these situations the abuser must leave the family home and not the victim, a decision commended as “fundamental” by the trade union CGIL. In Germany, parliamentary leader of the Green party Katrin Göring-Eckardt, said that she feared for the lives of thousands of women trapped with violent partners, calling on government funds to be freed up for safe houses. This follows global calls to move abuse victims to hotels, AirBnbs and other safer locations whilst domestic abuse charities struggle to offer the usual support services. One can only question why it takes a global pandemic to start making these important policy changes, which actually are far less radical than they are necessary - lockdown or not.
In the UK alone, from March 2018 to March 2019 an estimated 2.4 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year (1.6 million women and 786,000 men).
In the United States, of the 22 law enforcement agencies that responded a request from NBC News for data on domestic violence calls, 18 departments said they had seen numbers rise in March. Houston police received around 300 more domestic violence calls than in February, and police in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, answered 517 additional calls about domestic violence.
According to the country's National Commission for Women, India also reported double the usual number of domestic abuse cases in the first week of nationwide movement restrictions.
November 2019 - Domestic abuse in England and Wales Overview: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesoverview/november2019
Tim Lane / Getty / BuzzFeed