The Explosion of Domestic Violence during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Prof Joanna Bourke, SHaME’s Principal Investigator, discusses the increasing global incidence of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of human vulnerability. To be vulnerable (from the Latin “vulnus”, meaning “wound”) is to be open to injury. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, levels of domestic violence have soared throughout the world. Domestic violence helplines in Singapore, Cyprus, Argentina, and France are receiving 30 per cent more calls compared to the period prior to the pandemic.  In Brazil, reports of domestic violence have jumped by between 40 and 50 per cent. According to the World Health Organization, there has been a 60 per cent rise in emergency calls about domestic violence in the EU since the pandemic. Similar increases in domestic violence are reported in US cities. In the UK, the national domestic violence charity Respect has been overwhelmed by desperate women: the number of calls to their helplines increased by 97 per cent; they received 185 per cent more emails; and 581 per cent more people visited their website. Femicide rates have also risen.

Vulnerability to domestic violence is unevenly distributed. Girls and women, residents in care homes, refugees, undocumented migrants, people with physical or learning difficulties, and members of ethnic, racial, social, religious, or sexual minorities are more vulnerable to domestic abuse than others.

During this pandemic, seeking help is especially difficult. For many, leaving the family home is not an option because of financial dependency on the male breadwinner, lack of access to alternative accommodation, and feelings of shame. The curtailment of social activities means that vulnerable women may have lost the support of friends and family members; instead, they are required to share often-limited domestic space with aggressors. Scarce health resources mean that medical attention has been diverted from familial violence into tackling the deadly infection. Many places where abused women could seek refuge were over-stretched and under-resourced before the pandemic: the virus has catapulted them to breaking point. Formal support services such as hotlines, shelters, and counselling services have been cut and personnel is severely reduced. Many victims refrained from reporting their abuse to the police or visiting health facilities due to fears of exposing themselves to a deadly disease or due to an attempt not to strain already overstretched health systems. In the UK, there has been a 25 per cent decline in the number of people attending emergency departments.

Hands holding 'stay home' sign. Image by Kamaal Ansari from Pixabay
Hands holding ‘stay home’ sign. Image by Kamaal Ansari from Pixabay

Legal and forensic support have declined. Courts are severely restricting their proceedings because of fears of infection. The forensic and other health professionals who would be called to give testimony stay away as well. In the UK, the sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) saw a 50 per cent reduction in the number of referrals for forensic examinations in the first six weeks of the 2020 lockdown. In those cases where a face-to-face forensic interview is held, health professionals complain that wearing a mask or visor has made it more difficult to build trust and express sympathy with traumatised victims.

Aggressive men are using fear of the virus as a weapon in their arsenal of abuse. They ramp-up controlling mechanisms. Perpetrators threaten to infect family members with the virus unless they submit to certain conditions. Victims in essential jobs (such as health care or delivery services) complain that their abusers accuse them of deliberately trying to infect them simply by continuing to work. Abusers may ban or limit handwashing, or control access to updated information by imposing restrictions on internet usage.

In households with abusive men, children are particularly vulnerable, especially when schools, summer camps, youth and sports clubs, and faith-based societies are closed. In the U.S., around one-fifth of all reports of abuse and neglect of children are made by educational personnel: this makes teachers the primary reporters of abuse. Combined with restricted access to members of the extended family (particularly grandparents), the closures of schools greatly reduce opportunities for children to make their mistreatment known. This increased risk has been exacerbated by the understandable reluctance of health professionals to visit homes which potentially harbor the virus (especially in the context of limited protective equipment).

Medical and domestic violence professionals have turned to conducting consultations via telephone or video link. However, such compromises turned out to be technically difficult for those without sophisticated mobile phones. They also create problems of privacy. Internet connectivity problems are major barriers to reporting abuse, especially in rural areas or where there is low coverage. Many low-income people cannot afford the computing technologies and elderly people may not be conversant with them. In poorer families, there are profound gender digital divides, disadvantaging abused women.

Image of post-it notes. Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash
Image of post-it notes. Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

The 2020 pandemic has seen dramatic upswings in the use of the internet and social media more generally – it has become crucial for work, schooling, and sociability. As a result, cyber-violence has thrived: online sexual harassment, zoombombing, and sexualised trolling are major concerns. An Australian-based study revealed that such forms of abuse have increased by 50 per cent. This has affected young people in particular due to their increased reliance on texts, social media, and mobile apps to communicate with friends. As bored children turn to online platforms, the opportunities for offenders to abuse them increases. The technologies are also harnessed by abusers who use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), digital trackers, and spyware to monitor their victims’ online presence.

Domestic violence is being experienced at unprecedented levels during this pandemic. In “normal” times, one in three women experience sexual or other violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime and, worldwide, 37 per cent of murders of women are committed by intimate partners.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns, social distancing, and other measures have provided abusers with new ways to inflict violence.



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