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The Shadow Pandemic

Home, not safe for many

Add another public health crisis to the toll of the new coronavirus: Mounting data suggests that domestic abuse against women is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic. As the national strategy against COVID -19 emphasizes that home is the safest place to be, ironically, for female domestic violence victims, home is the most unsafe place to be quarantined as they are forced to live with their abusers. Today, the United Nations recognizes domestic violence against women as a “shadow pandemic”.

LELE from eastern China, was left with a hematoma after being physically abused by her husband during lock down, she said her husband abused her through out their six year relationship, but the lock down made things much worse. In many areas in China, reports of domestic violence have increased threefold compared to the same period last year. 

On the other side of the world, several cities in the US are already reporting jumps in domestic violence cases and calls to local hotlines. In an eastern Pennsylvania town, a man who lost his job due to the pandemic shot his girlfriend in the back and then killed himself on Monday. He became “extremely upset” about coronavirus, the victim, who survived, told police

In addition to physical violence, which is not present in every abusive relationship, common tools of domestic abuse experts say, include constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behavior; and restrictions on access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitary facilities.

Although data are scarce,  reports  from  the  United  Kingdom, Australia, India and  other  countries suggest  an  increase  in  domestic  violence  cases  since  the  COVID-19  outbreak  began. It is a pattern playing out around the world.

What is fueling this “shadow pandemic”?

“Domestic Violence is rooted in the inequities of power and control” said Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “The abusers feel an enormous loss of power and control over their own lives due to the pandemic, they tighten their authority at home, the one area in which they feel they have power and vent their frustration on the women in the house” 

In addition, domestic violence, already endemic everywhere, rises sharply when people are placed under the strains that come from confined living conditions and worries about their security, health and money. 

Based on early estimates, such as the Ebola epidemic where social isolation and impoverishment increased domestic violence, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women thinks that in countries under lockdown, domestic violence could be up by about a third.

Further research into previous traumatic events and other types of isolation offers some clues about the likely mental-health fallout causing abuse in homes. According to a rapid review of the psychological effects of quarantines, published on March 14th in the Lancet, a British medical journal, some studies suggest that the impact of quarantines can be so severe as to result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition, which may include symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, flashbacks and nightmares which can last for years, became a formal psychiatric diagnosis in 1980, when veterans were still experiencing stress from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. The longer a quarantine goes on, the greater the effect on people’s mental health, the more the abuse in homes.

Researchers are frustrated that findings like this have not made it through to policy makers, who continue to adopt a gender-neutral approach to pandemics. 

Domestic abuse under-reported

In addition to the fact that stigma usually causes under-reporting of domestic abuse, those responding to disasters are not aware that domestic abuse may increase in lockdowns, and are neither looking nor preparing for it; and when GBV takes the form of domestic violence, they often do not know how to respond.

As a Romanian interviewee said, ‘after the flood, people felt more like crying than fighting’. The Samoa report noted that people may be even less likely to acknowledge domestic violence in their community after a disaster, recognizing that families face increased pressures and need to ‘stand together in the face of sadness and adversity’.

What can the government and community do?

Governments and policy makers must include essential services to address violence against women in preparedness and response plans for COVID-19, fund them, and identify ways to make them accessible in the context of physical distancing measures.

Humanitarian response organizations need to include services for women subjected to violence and their children in their COVID-19 response plans and gather data on reported cases of violence against women. 

Community members should be made aware of the increased risk of violence against women during this pandemic and the need to keep in touch and support women subjected to violence, and to have information about where help for survivors is available. It is important to ensure that it is safe to connect with women when the abuser is present in the home.

With advocates worrying about the victims stuck in close proximity with abusers, unable to safely reach out for help. They are starting to promote a texting helpline, which might be easier for them to surreptitiously use even from the same room as their abuser. They’re also encouraging family members to stay in close contact with victims suffering abuse. UN Women has said that “helplines, psychosocial support and online counselling should be boosted, using technology-based solutions such as SMS, online tools and networks to expand social support, and to reach women with no access to phones or Internet.” In Spain and France, women can go to a pharmacy and request a “Mask-19”- a code word that will alert the pharmacist to contact the authorities.

The whole country must recognize the gravity of the problem, listen to women and sympathize with them. At this time, more than at any other time, women need assurance that they will be heard, and that help will be sent if they fear for their or their children’s lives. Reaching women in distress needs to be classified as an essential service. 

Take Home Message

The majority of us are in contact with domestic violence victims, survivors and perpetrators, even if we do not usually recognize it. We are their lecturers, their medical professionals, their care takers, their teachers, their social workers, their line managers and so on. If we are working in any kind of support role or direct contact role during the COVID-19 crisis it is important to remember that “working from home” brings with it very different challenges for different people. We need to be aware of how this may impact victims and perpetrators of domestic violence as well as children in the home. As the world continues to battle the coronavirus crisis, those living in dangerous situations must not be forgotten.

  • Tips for the community: Reach out to someone you’re personally worried about, if you suspect that the victim isn’t able to talk because of being overheard, give them a readily thought out line to end the call, e.g. if it is not safe to speak right now then please repeat after me “I’m sorry there is no one called Fatima here, you must have got the wrong number.”
  • Tips for coping with stress at home and actions to take if you or your family members are experiencing violence:
    • Try to maintain daily routines and make time for physical activity and sleep.
    • Use relaxation exercises (e.g. slow breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and grounding exercises) to relieve stressful thoughts and feelings.
    • Engage in activities that in the past have helped with managing adversity.  
    • Reach out to supportive family and friends who can help practically (e.g. food, child care) as well as in coping with stress.
    • Develop a safety plan for you and your children’s safety in case the violence gets worse. This includes keeping numbers of neighbors, friends, and family whom you can call for or go to for help; have accessible important documents, money, a few personal things to take with you if you need to leave immediately; and plan how you might leave the house and get help (e.g. transport, location).
    • Keep information on violence against women hotlines, social workers, child protection, the nearest police station, and accessible shelters and support services. Be discreet so that your partner or family members do not find this information.  

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