As the coronavirus continues to creep across the globe and governments respond with social control measures, victims of domestic violence, most often women, face a double threat: a deadly virus outside and an abuser at home.
No way out
As with the pandemic itself, many governments have struggled to respond to the spike in cases, which experts told The Washington Post they should have expected and taken more proactive measures to mitigate.
“We are asking these people to isolate themselves with their perpetrator, which cuts them off from any support system they have,” said Rachael Natoli, founder of the Australia-based Lokahi Foundation, a charity that provides support to domestic violence victims. “If you are locked up with your perpetrator, you are at more risk. There is no break."
China’s Hubei province, the initial epicenter of the outbreak, offered a chilling test case: Wan Fei, founder of an anti-domestic violence nonprofit there, told the Shanghai-based outlet Sixth Tone that since authorities put the area under lockdown in late January, he saw domestic violence reports nearly double.
This trend has echoed around the world. Calls to a domestic hotline in Spain have jumped 18 percent, and a state-run hotline website has seen a 270-percent increase.
The quality of available statistics, along with measures taken to respond to the crisis, vary significantly by country and region, said Heather Barr, co-director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.
“Europe has many more shelters and services and better laws,” said Barr. “In poorer countries there are fewer domestic violence services, so there is less ability for those providers to come together and put pressure on the government."
On a global scale, advocates said, shortages and shortcomings in service already were a major problem that the pandemic has worsened.
“The supports aren’t working,” said Renata Field, a coordinator for Domestic Violence NSW in Australia. “So why would they work during a crisis?” Her organization has recorded a 40 percent increase in requests for court advocacy services in recent weeks.
In Europe, most countries are subject to the Istanbul Convention, signed by the European Union in 2017, which sets standards for preventing and protecting against gender-based violence, including mandating governments to provide a sufficient number of accessible shelters. A 2014 study by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found one in three women in the E.U. had been victims of physical and/or sexual assault, and over one in five had been subjected to violence by a partner.
As much of Europe has entered lockdown, shelters, hotlines and legal services for domestic abuse have largely remained open, said Jurgita Pečiūrienė, a gender expert at the European Institute for Gender Equality. Victims would not be fined for violating stay-in-doors orders — although the barriers for finding help have grown much higher.
Some governments are trying to address rising need by allotting further funds for services as economic pressures grow. France is paying for hotels and other accommodations as shelters exceed capacity. In Australia, the state of New South Wales has made it easier for victims to receive an immediate police protection order against their abuser.
But many charities have had to cut down on services or close as economies spiral and demand surges. In Australia, the process for filing criminal charges against a violent abuser, a process which could already take up to 10 months, is now significantly more delayed because of court closures and backlog, said Field.
A challenging problem to measure
Data quantifying the true scale of the increase in domestic violence has been challenging to collect, said Pečiūrienė. In Cyprus, an official domestic violence hotline reported a 30 percent increase in calls in the first weeks of stay-at-home measures, while Lithuania, where Pečiūrienė is based, hadn’t seen a change in numbers after the first week of shutdowns.
Pečiūrienė attributed the discrepancies to the downside of relying on technology to connect: Victims may not feel safe asking for help by phone or text with their abuser beside them in the home. She urged governments to create and promote solutions tailored to coronavirus contexts, such as using pharmacies and grocery stores — two places victims can visit without suspicion — as centers for accessing domestic violence services.
“For those who haven’t yet sought support or are in the process of thinking of leaving, they are the most worrying for me,” said Natoli, of the Lokahi Foundation. “And I’m worried for any children who are in those relationships.”
The conditions in shelters for women and children who’ve fled their homes, ideal venues for the virus to spread, pose challenges of their own. Governments and organizations have had to rethink such accommodations, relying more on hotel rooms or imposing strict cleaning and containment regimes.
In the fight against both the virus and violence, women worldwide have turned to the Internet to share tips and strategies.
The Asian Network of Women’s Shelters, based in Taipei, is offering webinars on preparing for and protecting against domestic violence during the covid-19 pandemic. In the first seminar, streamed online in late March, advocates from around the globe tuned in to learn about cleaning and containment strategies used by Taiwanese shelters to keep residents safe during the 2003 SARS and ongoing coronavirus outbreaks.
While the pandemic has heightened risks for victims around the world, advocates said maintaining the bonds of community — from a six-foot distance — remains vital for those in crisis.
As governments and organizations struggle to keep up, educating friends and neighbors to help fill the void is crucial, said Field. “It’s a little more complex to provide support for your neighbor than to get them a tin of beans or toilet paper. But they are conversations we need to be having.”