Content warning: This article contains descriptions of the nature of domestic violence and intimate partner violence. It does not contain any graphic depictions of violence or abuse. The final paragraph contains information about resources.
Many people are doing their part by staying inside to avoid catching and spreading the deadly COVID-19. Unfortunately, the flip side is that the victims and survivors of intimate partner violence, many of whom are women and children, are trapped at home with their aggressors. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many social and economic problems, including unequal access to healthcare and childcare. Sadly, we are also seeing that the rates of intimate partner violence have been increasing across the globe. Intimate partner violence has always been an international and pervasive problem, but it has become even more pressing during the pandemic as hundreds of millions of women and girls face greater risk of violence. In the last year, the United Nations estimates that 243 million women and girls have been the victims of intimate partner violence. In the U.S., 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence. These estimates are likely to be underpredictions because many cases go unreported.
The United Nations has been tracking information about the nature and degree of increases in intimate partner violence and has been encouraging countries to address the problem. The UN reported that, since March 2020, calls related to domestic violence have increased by 30% in Singapore and Cyprus and by 25% in Argentina. The number of cases of domestic violence in France has increased by 30% since the beginning of lockdown. In the UK, website visits to a domestic violence charity have increased by 581%, with emails and calls to the group going up 185% and 97% respectively. In China, Equality—an NGO that supports survivors of domestic violence—has experienced a large increase in calls. In Spain, there was an 18% increase in the number of calls to the domestic violence hotline. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for governments to include plans for preventing and remedying domestic violence in their responses to the pandemic.
Even with healthy relationships, it can be challenging to be locked inside with a partner and/or children for 24 hours a day, especially if you are working from home and must also look after and teach those children. But in a household with abuse, the increase in stress can translate to abusive partners acting out more frequently or violently. Lele, a 26-year-old Chinese woman reported that her arguments with her partner escalated and became gruesomely violent since the beginning of the lockdown in China. Her partner had always been abusive, but it worsened once they were locked inside together. She called the police after a particularly horrible attack, but they merely documented the attack and all further legal action was delayed. Another young woman in China called the police after an attack but was told they could not come to her aid until after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
There are huge social costs to allowing this wave of domestic violence to go untreated. Intimate partner violence can lead to serious injury and death as well as mental health problems for the victims. The rate of child abuse and neglect is also expected to increase in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic because parents are under more stress and are isolated from support networks. Additionally, virtual interactions with students make it harder for teachers and counselors to look for warning signs. Government and non-governmental organizations have waning resources and less access to abused and neglected children. The long term negative consequences of child abuse and neglect are severe: There is a greater risk of injury, of becoming a victim or perpetrator of abuse in the future, of substance abuse, of delayed brain development, and of lower educational and occupational achievement.
Even without a pandemic, getting out of abusive relationships is very difficult, regardless of whether it may appear simple to someone outside of the relationship. Abusers tend to threaten and manipulate their partners to prevent them from leaving. Abusers may threaten to harm pets, children, or the victim themself if they try to leave. Women are at most risk of being killed by an abusive partner after they decide to leave them. Women’s fear of leaving is not delusional, and an integral part of supporting survivors is respecting their wishes and empowering them to make their own choices. Getting help can be especially difficult for people with disabilities, elderly people, people without access to internet, and people who are financially dependent on their partner.
Sadly, the pandemic has only made it more difficult for survivors to escape. Many shelters are closed or have reached capacity due to COVID-19. Since many women are stuck at home with their abusers all the time, they may not have the opportunity to call a hotline or explore their options online. Abusive partners may eavesdrop on phone conversations, look at their messages and email, or even take away their access to these things. A woman in Kyiv, Ukraine reported to the United Nations that she was afraid to search for help because she feared her husband would listen in. A woman in Spain reported that since lockdown, her abusive partner does not allow her any privacy, not even when she uses the bathroom. Being locked at home gives abusers more opportunities for control and surveillance of their victims. It also further isolates women from support networks.
Some countries have begun to make changes so survivors can more easily access help. In Ukraine, the United Nations Population Fund is supporting a program that provides online psychosocial support to victims. In Norway, some child welfare services and teachers are offering online help to vulnerable children. In pharmacies and supermarkets in France, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Germany, women can use the codeword “MASK 19” to signal that they need protection from intimate partner violence. This is an especially smart strategy because groceries and pharmacies may be the only place an abuser allows their victim to go. We need creative strategies like these to help ameliorate this widespread problem.
While this is a global problem, there are things we can do locally to make a difference. If you are able, you can donate to your local domestic violence shelters. You could also encourage your local government to open up hotels or other facilities to house domestic violence survivors. Additionally, you can encourage them to provide more online counseling. Sharing domestic violence resources widely across social media can help others find help and feel less alone.
Remember, domestic violence is ubiquitous and can affect people of any gender, age, socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. There may be people in your community, friend group, or family who are dealing with intimate partner violence. You can position yourself as an ally to survivors by refraining from making judgmental or presumptuous remarks about sexual violence or intimate partner violence. Warning signs that a person is in an abusive relationship include the following: Their partner is overly jealous or possessive, their partner puts them down in public, the victim makes excuses for their partner and is concerned about making them angry, the victim becomes isolated from friends and family, the victim has marks or injuries. If someone divulges that they are being abused, believe them, listen to them, and reassure them it is not their fault. Communicate options for getting help, but do not force any particular action. Provide non-judgmental support and remember that they should always be empowered to make their own decisions.
If you live in the United States and you are experiencing intimate partner violence, you can access the National Domestic Violence Hotline here or call 1-800-799-7233 for support. You can click here to find your local shelter. Survivors can learn more about forming a safety plan for themselves, their children, and their pets here. If you are serious about being an ally to survivors of intimate partner violence or if you or a loved one are experiencing intimate partner violence, consider visiting the National Domestic Violence Hotline website. It has simple but effective information about the nature and patterns of abusive relationships, how victims can find help and legal aid, how abusers can get help, and what to do if a loved one is in an abusive relationship.