PANDEMIC WITHIN A PANDEMIC: AN UPSURGE IN FAMILY VIOLENCE

As the entire world has come to a standstill owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, humans are battling with sluggish economic activities, health risks and financial insecurities more than ever before. Though the suffering is mostly universal, the question of privilege still looms large as the lives of the marginalised and the less fortunate ones are brought to the forefront. With social distancing norms being actively followed and lockdowns being imposed all the world, the victims of domestic violence face a much greater threat when even home is not a safe place for them. “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest. In their own homes... We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners” said António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, in a statement made in April 2020 calling for a global ceasefire on a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence." Despite 70% of the frontline healthcare workers being female, women continue to suffer from multidimensional disparities and gender-based violence for women, children and LGBTQ+ individuals constitute a vast majority of these victims.

Increasing cases and reports

There has been a recorded global upsurge in emergency calls ever since the declaration of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns all around the globe. Calls to domestic violence hotlines in Texas cities shot up in March as the state imposed a lockdown according to the statistics compiled by the magazine Texas Monthly, while Mexico faced a huge challenge with an average of 11 women being murdered every 24 hours in April. Since 70% of healthcare workers are females, China, Singapore and Italy reported increased cases of physical and verbal assault on healthcare workers. According to a UN Women report, there has been a 30 per cent increase in domestic violence cases in France since the lockdown on March 17 while in Argentina, emergency calls spiked by 25 per cent since the lockdown on March 20. Reports from the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Region (the second highest in terms of violence against women worldwide) accounted for an increase of 50-60% in cases based on survivors’ calls for help to emergency hotlines. India saw a record-breaking challenge with domestic violence complaints being on a 10-year high during the first four phases of the Covid-19-lockdown.

In addition to a growing number of adult victims of family violence, there are many children and pets who reside in such households and are equally at risk of undergoing significant physical and/or emotional harm. Children are spending way more time than usual at home considering the current school closures and shelter in-place mandates. Perpetrators may often target children or pets in the house as a means of furthering their control over the household. As opposed to the increasing reports of domestic violence, various child welfare organizations have noted a significant drop in reports of child abuse or neglect. In the US, 67% of child abuse or neglect reports are derived from victim-serving professionals and 19% of such reports come from educational personnel. Hence, it can be concluded that this drop may be a result of limited opportunities for detection owing to the closure of schools and community organizations instead of an actual decrease in prevalence. There is a growing apprehension that when lockdowns are lifted and school systems reopen, teachers and victim-serving professionals may face an overwhelming amount of reports of child abuse or neglect.

Causes and risk factors

The internet serves as an essential tool for the exercise of various human rights during the pandemic. It can facilitate access to counselling, survivor support groups and other online health-related information (including about sexual and reproductive health) that can be of crucial help to victims of gender-based and other forms of family violence. At a time when internet connectivity has become more indispensable than ever, trends suggest that global digital divide can be a major barrier to accessing services during the lockdown. In low and middle-income countries, over 300 million fewer women are able to use to use mobile internet as compared to men. Women from marginalized communities including women with disabilities; older women; women belonging to racial and ethnic minorities; and lesbian, bisexual and transgender women may be severely affected by online gender-based violence which can further inhibit their access and use of the internet. States must strengthen their efforts to combat online-gender based violence so that women can rely on these resources to exercise fundamental human rights during the pandemic.

Experts have attributed this exacerbated form of domestic violence crisis to heightened stress and anxiety, unemployment, reduced income, cramped and difficult living conditions, and breakdowns in social support mechanisms. Moreover, alcohol abuse, which is touted to be a very common risk factor for family violence, has been linked to an accumulation of stressful events and a lack of community support, both occurring as a result of Covid-19. With shelter in-place measures, there are very limited opportunities for women to escape abuse and access appropriate services like safety shelters. Additionally, there exist studies to suggest that domestic violence reports often substantially rise after a natural disaster or a catastrophic event. For instance, reports of partner physical abuse almost doubled in the southernmost Mississippi countries after Hurricane Katrina. While similarities do exist, the closures of key organizations that often occur in the aftermath of natural disasters may be more prolonged in the case of the Covid-19 crisis. Unlike the practice of community togetherness that is encouraged post such disasters, the current crisis entails physical distance and separation from fellow community members as the proper course of action. Consequently, family violence reports during and after the pandemic may be even greater than the increase observed in reports following natural disasters.

A poor economic standing is another factor that puts women at a greater risk for abuse and violence. Economic security acts as an important defence against domestic violence, helping to ensure that victims have the required financial resources to escape an abusive partner or to seek aid. Research demonstrates that lower-income women are much more prone to intimate partner violence. Besides, abusers may sustain their partner’s economic insecurity as a mechanism of exercising control. Also known as economic or financial abuse, it involves circumstances in which an abuser dominates or limits a survivor’s financial independence, ability to work, or access to economic resources, including by stealing or withholding government-issued money or forcing non-consensual, credit-related transactions. People with disabilities, who may depend on their partner for financial support and management, might suffer economic abuse by a partner more rampantly.

Marginalized groups and intersectional discrimination

With the “shadow pandemic” (as called by the UN Women) worsening every day, it becomes utterly important to recognize the full range of domestic violence: the identification of intersectional discrimination that may intensify the threat of violence for some women or make it less visible to human rights experts or authorities. Older women may be exposed to a greater threat of domestic violence, both by partners, adult children, or from other caregivers. Data collected from Brazil’s Ministry of Women, Families and Human Rights hotline from March to June 2020, indicates that there has been a significant daily spike in rights violations against older people during the pandemic, including abuse and exposure to health risks. Furthermore, millions of adults and children with disabilities can face severe neglect, abuse and inadequate health care during these times. These individuals depend heavily or entirely on family members for daily tasks and basic needs such as food, housing, and hygiene. Several such documentations are available that report abusive treatment and poor conditions for these people in private and state institutions in countries like Croatia, Ghana, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan. However, government policies may not be very inclusive of, and accessible for, people with disabilities.

Women domestic workers, who constitute 80% of the total domestic labour force as per the estimates given by the International Labour Organization (ILO), are still mostly excluded from protections such as paid sick leave or unemployment benefits. Migrant domestic workers in the Middle East region may experience an amplified risk of being trapped in abusive employers’ homes and unable to escape or return home. Owing to the public health measures, many people have shifted to remote work from home, which has left them confined within abusive households. Women may also face the plight of homelessness if they seek to leave an abusive home. Similarly, migrant domestic workers who live in employers’ homes may have to tolerate any and all kinds of abuse due to an increased risk of housing precarity. Safety shelters might not be available for all survivors of violence.

Those belonging to the marginalized communities have been the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis. Women from these groups are fulfilling their duties as frontline workers while also facing institutionalized racism, health disparities and other forms of oppression. This has made accessibility of services even more unfavourable for women in marginalized communities. Service providers in the UK reported that the pandemic has worsened the lack of access to services for migrant and BAME women. Latinas and Black women have both suffered from some of the highest levels of unemployment as opposed to any other racial group during the pandemic. Economic impediments including wage gaps and poverty rates, have also been encountered by other survivor groups like the LGBTQ community as a result of the intersectional discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, and other factors.


Ways to mitigate

Countries all over the world have seen a dramatic upsurge in the demand for social services and assistance, especially from people stuck in vulnerable conditions or survivors of domestic violence. Meanwhile, health care and legal service providers are overwhelmed and understaffed. There have been reports coming from all over the globe about the efforts being undertaken to tackle the “shadow pandemic” in their own ways. In Germany, France, Italy, Norway and Spain, supermarkets and pharmacies have become safe “go-to” spaces where they can request urgent protection from domestic abusers just by uttering a code word (MASK 19). Canada has allocated $50 million to provide shelters for gender-based violence while China has adopted the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic. A national database of reported cases of family violence under lockdown is a pressing need for countries worldwide.


Governments must incorporate a gender perspective in their responses to the Covid-19 crisis as emphasized by the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. States must diligently work towards developing alternate reporting mechanisms; expanding safety shelter options; maintaining vital sexual and reproductive health services; strengthening and diversifying the legal resources and justice sectors; supporting budding women’s organizations; and actively financing economic security measures and policies for women workers, especially those serving on the front lines of the crisis or in the informal sector. These should include improved access to paid medical leave and unemployment insurance if a survivor loses a job. Innovative counselling support services should be provided through the use of technology to ensure better mental health among people and survivors. Suffering of the marginalized groups such as refugee, homeless and trans women must be identified and should be mitigated through support and assistance.

The growing domestic violence crisis amidst the Covid-19 crisis has come to light as a “pandemic within a pandemic”. The need to redevelop our existing support infrastructures has become more compelling than ever in the light of poor native women, immigrants, women of colour, LGBTQ people and disabled women enduring extreme levels of exploitation every single day. The State must start looking beyond traditional support mechanisms that have proven inadequate in tackling the multifaceted requirements of survivors. Bold structural solutions must be in place to address this crisis and also prevent future violence. The world needs collective efforts to improve the overall health and economic security of survivors of domestic violence.

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