Commentary  COVID-19 Confinement Policies Raise Concerns About Domestic Violence Worldwide

Home is Far From the Safest Place for Many During Social Isolation

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in December 2019, the virus has spread to the rest of the world faster than any of us – including politicians – could have expected. As a response, governments have quickly set up confinement measures, aiming to flatten the curve. As a result, it is estimated that, worldwide, one billion people are confined in their homes. While many are lucky enough to be safe in a warm, secure and welcoming environment, that is not the case for everyone. 

Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) encompasses physical, psychological and sexual violence. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 women will experience some sort of gender-based violence in her lifetime. But the most dangerous fact regarding social isolation measures is that the most common perpetrator of sexual violence against women is the male partner. For women in already abusive relationships, confinement measures increase the risk of physical, psychological, and sexual violence. Indeed, with stresses such as financial burden, unemployment, and general uncertainty about the future – along with the presence of many people in the house – confinement can be more dangerous than stepping outside. “One of the most striking effects of the coronavirus will be to send many couples back to the 1950s. Across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic,” summarizes an article from The Atlantic. Violent partners who are now always present in the house and lack control over their circumstances can represent a real threat not only to their partners, but also to their children. In fact, in confined situations such as these, children are more subject to witness or experience violence themselves, which can deeply influence their personal development and growth. Domestic violence poses a threat to women mostly commonly, but also to children and men. 

For women in already abusive relationships, confinement measures increase the risk of physical, psychological, and sexual violence. Indeed, with stresses such as financial burden, unemployment, and general uncertainty about the future – along with the presence of many people in the house – confinement can be more dangerous than stepping outside.

In today’s situation, domestic violence is expected to rise, not only because of the domestic conditions that confinement implicates, but also because the capacity to reach out for professional or personal help is strongly reduced. Social isolation means no more contact with friends, colleagues and neighbours, who typically represent persons who can play a critical role in observing and reacting to violent situations. Walk-in counseling services are closing down, reducing the resources available on school campuses and crisis centers. “We’re hearing concerns from people who are being isolated with their abusive partner because a lot of strategies that they use on a daily basis to survive the abusive relationship – their social network and support systems – they’re going away,” explained Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. While social distancing is a necessary step to reduce the pandemic, perpetrators do not hesitate to turn the message around to keep victims away from any help. Some abusers are telling them they can’t see their friends or family because of potential exposure. In that way, perpetrators are adapting gaslighting techniques by using the fear the pandemic spreads to further isolate partners and control their lives.

It also becomes challenging for those facing abuse to pick up the phone and call a relative or professional hotline, as the perpetrator is almost always in the house. Family support and anti-violence associations all around the world expect rising instances of domestic violence, and remain ready to support victims and families through chat, phone, or email. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an allocation of $50 million to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres, including facilities in Indigenous communities. “If you can’t go home because it isn’t safe [or] because you don’t have a home, we’re not going to forget you. We’ll work with the organizations you rely on.” Trudeau said. Organizations, including the National Domestic Hotline, encourage victims to reach out by email as calling can be more difficult. “They can access it online just in case they don’t want to risk calling,” explained Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodley, expert with the National Association of Social Workers in the United States. 

In that way, perpetrators are adapting gaslighting techniques by using the fear the pandemic spreads to further isolate partners and control their lives. 

A pandemic of this magnitude is something new to our modern history. It is yet too early for reports analysing specific numbers on domestic violence as we are in the middle of the crisis. However, we can look at impacts of natural disasters and epidemics on domestic violence to better prepare and predict the outcome of this crisis on victims of SGBV. Studies on the Ebola Outbreak 2014-2016 and on the series of hurricanes in Florida in 2004 have shown that reported cases of sexual violence rose in both these scenarios, where staying at home was also a necessity. However, the actual shutting down that we are experiencing, cutting us of any social activity and with no time-frame in mind adds further pressure and anxiety. 

The only numbers we have so far on the impact of COVID-19 on domestic SGBV violence come from China, where the pandemic – and thus isolation – began. In Hubei province, China, the number of reports related to domestic violence tripled, when comparing February 2019 and February 2020. From these numbers, 90 per cent of the reported violence is related to the COVID-19 pandemic. By transferring these numbers on the global scale, we can expect domestic violence to rise exponentially in the coming weeks. Associations providing support for domestic violence, such as the Montreal Sexual Assault Center, stand ready to help, but fear the difficulty to reach out that many victims will face. Thus, it is essential for neighbours to remain attentive to loud noises or cries, and to reach for help in the community if needed, as this can make a big difference in the life of the victim, who oftens struggles to seek help alone. 

Associations providing support for domestic violence, such as the Montreal Sexual Assault Center, stand ready to help, but fear the difficulty to reach out that many victims will face. Thus, it is essential for neighbours to remain attentive to loud noises or cries, and to reach for help in the community if needed, as this can make a big difference in the life of the victim, who oftens struggles to seek help alone. 

As Sarah Hendriks, Program Director of the Intergovernmental Division at UN Women, announced, “It’s really important that the world’s focus on gender inequalities does not become yet another victim of COVID-19”. Indeed, by focusing on curbing the public health crisis, domestic violence is at risk of being overlooked or deprioritized by authorities. It is essential for governments to keep private violence at the heart of their policy-making, ensuring that victims of abusive relationships have resources to turn to in this time of quarantine. 

Resources are available in this difficult time. Please do not hesitate to reach out whether it is for yourself or someone else. 

The Montreal Sexual Assault Center continues to operate, and offers a range of bilingual services free of charge, online or by phone (514-933-9007). They also offer help for people who happen to know victims of sexual violence. Please note that SACOMMS is not operating during the confinement period, but can provide information on where to seek support by email at main@sacomss.org. This toolkit also provides relevant information on how and where to reach out when dealing with interpersonal violence.