The pandemic caused a global surge in domestic violence. For victims with few options, abuse has become the new normal.

Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim for The Washington Post
Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim for The Washington Post

AMMAN, Jordan — By the time Umm Zeid caught the coronavirus in September, the Jordanian mother of three had spent 18 months losing a battle with what has become known as a shadow pandemic: domestic violence.

Since the first wave of lockdowns, Umm Zeid has suffered in her small home in a city in northeast Jordan. In her 30s, she is a full-time caregiver and part-time teacher for her young children — all alongside bursts of physical and verbal abuse from her husband, who’s been unable to find stable work.

Even as the pandemic eased, and vaccines arrived, she found no relief. The family owed months of unpaid rent; debts only deepened when, despite being vaccinated, she and her husband became sick. She feels that she cannot leave or report the violence, she said, for fear of losing custody of her children and being marked a disgraced woman.

So, like covid-19, the assaults became part of her new normal.

“I know how the world looks at someone who is suffering in this way,” said Umm Zeid, speaking in August on the condition that a nickname be used to protect her identity.

“But I can’t talk to anyone,” she said. Her voice cracked. “It’s better that I carry the burden myself, rather than burden the whole family.”

Nearly two years after the pandemic began and reports of abuse spiked around the globe, the silent suffering of millions of domestic violence victims has become a part of this life. No one knows exactly how many people face domestic violence — it is notoriously underreported — but international surveys point to an increasingly urgent problem that disproportionately affects women.

Nearly 7 in 10 women said domestic violence increased in their community since the pandemic began, according to a survey by the United Nations agency for gender equality of 13 countries, including Jordan, which concluded in September. One in four women said they feel less safe at home during the pandemic. The unemployed, left dependent on the men in their lives, face an increased risk for abuse at a time when women are more likely to have lost jobs and been unable to regain them.

For women and children around the world, a double plague: Coronavirus and domestic violence

The global rise of the omicron variant — and with it the revival of movement restrictions, school closures and economic uncertainty — could once again intensify the conditions that allow abuse to persist and put more strain on drained safety nets. Without fundamental changes to prevention and support services, experts say, the same tragic scenes will persist when other variants develop.

Before the pandemic, Jordan, like many countries in the region, offered only limited services for domestic violence victims. But when the virus hit and reports of abuse began to rise, a special police unit, along with women’s organizations, raced to adapt.

Yet even well-intentioned services were inadequate. Authorities scrambled to assist women who reported abuse or wanted to leave, but resources were strained and barriers ingrained. They were ultimately unable to help countless women like Umm Zeid who stayed with their abusers. Cultural and societal pressures, reinforced by state policies and practices, are part of the equation: More than 65 percent of Jordanians surveyed in the latest U.N. Women report said victims of violence should seek help from family; just 6 percent advocated turning to the police, and 5 percent to women’s organizations.

“Some countries really did try,” said Asa Regnér, deputy executive director of U.N. Women, but initiatives “were too few, they were not financed enough, and they were too ad hoc. … Very few addressed the root cause of the problem or [how] to prevent the violence from happening.”

The virus and violence

Domestic violence is difficult to track. But what’s clear is that the tools governments use to prevent the spread of the virus — quarantines, stay-at-home orders, school closures, economic shutdowns, remote work — have created opportunities for abuse.

Men and boys are among the victims. But women and girls are more likely to face abuse from their spouse or male relatives. LGBTQ and nonbinary people also face a heightened risk.

Roughly 1 in 3 women worldwide suffer physical or sexual violence, according to the World Health Organization. Data is drawn from police reports, court cases, calls to hotlines, occupancy in shelters and opinion surveys. But because of the sensitivity of the topic, figures are considered underestimates, and the pandemic made collecting this data even more difficult.

Still, there were early warning signs. When governments first issued restrictions in the spring of 2020, women’s groups urged them to include provisions that, for example, would exempt social workers from lockdowns.

As lockdowns took effect, domestic violence hotlines in countries across the globe reported startling spikes. Advocates raced to respond while shifting to remote work. France made secret codes to use at pharmacies. In Israel, a shelter serving ultra-Orthodox Jews, among whom the topic is taboo, tried to reach women with slogans such as “You’re not alone.”

The United Nations warned of a “shadow pandemic” and in April 2020 called on member states to tackle a “horrifying surge in domestic violence cases.”

But for many women, help was already rare. In much of the world, shelters and legal services are limited or nonexistent. If they exist, they are likely to be overstretched and under-resourced. Women in marginalized groups, such as refugees, are even more likely to be left without recourse.

Globally, only around one-third of coronavirus relief packages had programs targeting women, and very few of them considered domestic violence, Regnér said.

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Countries such as Jordan should have adopted “emergency work plans for domestic violence during the pandemic,” said Eva Abu Halaweh, a leading human rights lawyer there. “They had emergency plans and laws and all to protect people from corona. But, okay, also there is another pandemic.”

Firas Al-Rasheed, the director of the Family Protection Department, a specialized national police unit focused on domestic and sexual violence, defended the state’s response.

“The pandemic was beyond our imagination and contingency planning,” he said.

A false choice to stay or go

Umm Zeid wasn’t worried when Jordan initially ordered everyone home in March 2020. She thought it wouldn’t last long.

“At first we were happy as the whole family was together,” she said, speaking in a community center run by an international organization that offered her occasional services and verified her story. Before the pandemic, her husband had hit her very rarely. “Then the problems started,” she said.

Gender-based online abuse surged during the pandemic. Laws haven’t kept up, activists say.

Jordan, a Middle Eastern country home to 10 million people and large refugee populations, is tourist dependent. Before the pandemic, the economy was struggling; when the virus hit, it ground to a halt. The country went into a strict, weeks-long lockdown. Schools were closed and remained so for much of the next 18 months.

Suddenly, Umm Zeid’s husband was always home. As the weeks wore on, he became quicker to snap. He hit her in the face, the eyes, the head. He would try to reconcile, and then start again. Her two eldest children — her sources of strength — struggled with school by Zoom. She struggled to help, and they eventually gave up.

She felt increasingly isolated and on edge. But the conditions trapping her were all too common.

Patriarchal norms and sexist mentalities, alongside a general lack of political freedoms, have normalized gender-based violence in many communities, said Salma al-Shami, a senior research specialist at the Arab Barometer project, a nonpartisan research network. In Jordan, domestic abuse is seen as a primarily private matter: Most victims turn to family rather than police or public services, according to Arab Barometer studies.

Jordan passed its first anti-domestic violence law in 2008 and expanded its scope in 2017. (Less than half of the countries in the region have similar legislation.) The law criminalizes violence between family members and requires the Family Protection Department to investigate and refer alleged felonies to prosecutors. For domestic violence cases that constitute misdemeanors, the law lays out a voluntarily out-of-court settlement process.

Between March and May 2020, the height of Jordan’s lockdowns, police recorded a 33 percent increase in reports of domestic violence compared with that period in 2019, Al-Rasheed said. Referrals increased to Jordan’s public and privately run shelters, he said, even as covid-19 measures made them more complicated to access.

During this period, emergency measures barred civilians from leaving their homes. Only police, like Al-Rasheed’s unit, could respond to reports because social workers and women’s advocates were denied exemptions, said Abu Halaweh. Women seeking help would not be fined for leaving; lacking transportation, many turned to police to transfer them to a safe house or a lawyer’s home.

Countless other women stayed silent. In a U.N. Women survey conducted in nine Arab states in May 2020, nearly 1 in 3 women, and an even higher rate of men, agreed that “a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together, especially in these difficult times.” Arab Barometer’s studies from this period found that those who reported being unable to cover expenses were also more likely to report increases in gender-based violence in their community, al-Shami said.

The initial global surge in abuse reported to authorities has dropped. But on a country level, there continue to be causal links between rises in violence and renewed lockdowns or outbreaks of coronavirus cases, al-Shami said. Nearly a quarter of women in every country Arab Barometer surveyed from July to October 2020 reported an increase in gender-based violence in their communities. That rate dropped in a follow-up survey this spring — except for Lebanon and Jordan, which were facing a spike in cases around that time, she said.

“Violence levels have stayed high,” said Ammar Abu Zayyad, the Jordan country director of the international aid group CARE International. “This is part of a trend that’s unfortunately global.”

All the while, stories like Umm Zeid’s were never officially counted.

Broken bones, broken homes

Occasionally, Umm Zeid sees glimpses of the man she married more than a decade ago.

“I married for love,” she said. “But love turned out not to be everything.”

Despite the past 21 months — the fractured arm, the dishes he’s smashed, the countless slaps — she stayed for her children. “God willing, they will live a better life than I have,” she said.

When they yell at their father to stop beating her, she tells them it doesn’t hurt.

Umm Zeid doesn’t see leaving as an option. She fears she could lose custody of her sons under Jordanian law if she goes to a shelter or family home. That’s not a battle she has the means to fight.

“When a woman leaves her house or her husband, our society looks at her very, very badly,” she said. “My kids will suffer. … The whole family [will] be disgraced.”

The pandemic was an impetus for the police to try harder to reach women like her, Al-Rasheed said. His department ramped up responses to hotline calls and WhatsApp and Facebook messages, platforms it previously didn’t prioritize.

The force scaled up. It hired 300 female staffers to accompany officers in the field and handle reports and inquiries at the station. A comprehensive training program was in the works. These efforts gained Al-Rasheed the praise of women’s organizations in Jordan.

But the virus keeps resurging, and so do the problems. Training new hires via Zoom wasn’t as effective, and turnover has been high, Al-Rasheed said. Women complain officers sent to help are biased against them. “We are working on changing the attitudes” of police to have a “survivor-centered approach,” he said.

It’s one of the system’s many shortcomings that make women distrustful, experts say. Pandemic or not, that’s unlikely to change soon, said Salma Nims, the secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women. One example is the emphasis on a settlement process that allows an abuser to avoid court by pledging not to harm the victim again. Many break that pledge.

The police and women’s organizations can refer women to public or private shelters. Each shelter hosts just a few dozen women, and some have rules, such as barring sons older than 8, that limit their appeal. The virus made life inside even more restrictive. When women leave, there’s typically no “systematic support for housing or [for] being able to finish their studies, and then moving on and starting a new life,” Nims said. In some cases, at-risk women are housed in jails, ostensibly for their protection.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the pandemic has raised public awareness.

“We see more and more good intentions [from governments], but we still see a huge gap to change reality,” said Regnér, of U.N. Women. “There is not enough funding to actually make them change real life.”

Umm Zeid, though, is too worn down to be outraged. She’s strapped for cash, and her options for help — family in another city, her children selling tissues on the street, local charities — keep dwindling.

“I am sad because I don’t think my situation will change,” she said. “But I have to believe in a future where it will.”

Read more:

How the pandemic set back women’s progress in the global workforce

She escaped child marriage twice. Now she’s trying to save other girls from pandemic suitors.

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