The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on movement have led to unprecedented lockdowns in countries across the world, leaving people with no choice but to remain at home. While for some this means days of ensuing boredom and lethargy, for vulnerable stakeholders, lockdown measures pose a serious threat. For victims of domestic violence, it means being held captive with their abusers.
Several countries have seen an uptick in domestic violence since the introduction of quarantine measures. Equality, a China-based NGO, recorded an increase in domestic violence complaints through its helpline following a lockdown in Hubei, the province at the epicenter of the outbreak in China. Similar increases in the number of complaints and cases have been reported in Spain, France, South Africa, Australia and Turkey, with calls to helplines doubling in Lebanon and Malaysia.
This widespread recognition of the correlation between the lockdown and an increase in domestic violence urges an understanding of why this correlation exists, and why governments have been unable to prevent the domestic violence crisis.
Crisis situations often precipitate greater domestic violence. A spike in domestic violence complaints was recorded during the Ebola crisis in Africa and when Hurricane Katrina struck the US. During such crisis situations, increased stress and uncertainty result in frustration which is then taken out on the weaker parties, generally women and children. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in job losses and economic uncertainty as well as reduced access to basic resources, all factors that increase a sense of frustration among perpetrators.
A common tactic that perpetrators of domestic violence employ is to isolate the victim in order to increase control over (most often) her. Lockdown measures that physically isolate the victim with the perpetrator accelerate the power dynamic that is exploited by perpetrators, leaving little recourse for those on the receiving end of domestic violence. Victims are unable to leave the house and are left without any chance to report the offense because the perpetrators are around all the time. Even when the victim is able to report the abuse, police and health-care networks are overburdened and often unable to respond in a timely manner.
In India, help centers for victims of sexual and domestic violence, like Sukoon in the state of Haryana, have not been included in the list of essential services that remain open, thus further depriving victims of resources. With only a few courts open in most countries under lockdown measures, the justice process has also slowed down, and restraining orders are not being issued promptly.
The situation during the current coronavirus pandemic is worse for women in developing countries that characteristically have higher gender inequality and greater participation in informal sectors. Workers in the informal sector as well as in small and medium enterprises have far worse financial prospects during a crisis such as the one we are experiencing right now. They are unable to work from home, nor do they work for large companies that can afford to grant paid leave. Daily wage workers and others who have insufficient savings are unable to buy necessities, and without access to infrastructure like online banking and e-commerce, they are ill-equipped to deal with lockdown measures.
This lack of job security adds to the stress that results in bouts of domestic violence. Far worse are the direct consequences for vulnerable parties. According to UN Women, “in South Asia, over 80 percent of women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment,” while in sub-Saharan Africa, the share is over 74%. Not only are women in these developing regions far more likely to suffer the financial crunch, but the loss of job security and wages also leaves them without any form of financial independence.
Excluded from banking networks, women in developing countries often do not have personal savings or access to credit cards, meaning they are left without financial security to fall back on in case they are subject to domestic violence. Under these circumstances, women and other minorities remain disempowered and unable to report abuse to the police or to escape from dangerous households during a crisis.
NGOs like Swayam in Kolkata are pushing for money to be transferred directly to bank accounts of vulnerable women, but such measures are rendered ineffective as banks are closed. In France, the government has declared setting up pop-up counseling centers and providing hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence in need of refuge. In several countries, innovative measures have been implemented to help victims to report abuse. For example, women in France and Spain can go to pharmacies and use code words to discreetly seek help. Emails, chatbots and helplines are all supplementing these efforts to provide means for victims to escape.
However, there are still two problems with these solutions. First, as shown by research and previous experiences, during any crisis the number of domestic violence cases decreases first before increasing again. This is due to the fact that at the start of a crisis, victims are less likely to report attacks as they are cut off from support networks. This trend points to the need for governments to maintain robust emergency networks for domestic abuse victims and raise awareness about available options at all times. Only with a reliable system in place can victims immediately know what course of action to take when a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic strikes.
Second, these innovative solutions and helplines are often rendered redundant due to various constraints. Rural areas in developing countries don’t have access to pharmacies or sexual and physical violence shelters, and women have less access to technology such as phones and computers, meaning that helplines are no longer effective. In this situation too, the primary solution should be reinforcing safety networks for domestic abuse victims in non-crisis times in order to be prepared for when a crisis does strike.
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, pointed out on April 6 that governments need to ensure women’s safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond maintaining robust safety networks in peacetime, governments in both developing and developed countries need to acknowledge the correlation between crisis situations and the increase in domestic violence, and take appropriate preemptive measures to ensure that vulnerable communities are not left scrambling for help.
Special task forces and police departments should be maintained specifically for helping abuse victims during a crisis, and fast-tracking restraining orders should be made a priority. Counseling centers and relevant NGOs must be included in essential services, and helpline numbers must be kept functional. Just as there are economic policies in place to mitigate the fallout from disasters and crises, so must the victims of domestic violence be provided for as well.
In the face of one daunting emergency, another cannot be forgotten. The COVID-19 crisis provides us with a unique opportunity to acknowledge the gendered impacts of global crises and enforce policies to prevent them from turning into a parallel pandemic.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.