“My husband won’t let me leave the house” has become an all-too-familiar cry for help since the mandatory lockdown was instituted in early March — not just in the United States, but all over the world.
Domestic violence has become a stealth epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic. So much so that the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a call the week of April 6 for governments to address domestic violence as a key part of their pandemic response.
Anita Bhatia, a deputy executive director of U.N. Women, told Time magazine, “The very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence.” While social distancing and isolation are absolutely essential, she added, they “provide an opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence.” (March 18)
According to the World Health Organization, 1 out of 3 women in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, making it “the most widespread, but the least reported, human rights abuses.” The WHO notes that while women make up the majority of victims, LGBTQ2S+ people also face elevated rates. But during times of crises, like wars and natural disasters, the risk of gender-based violence escalates.
One study showed that after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, domestic violence soared in Houston. “The stressors of being out of work, being at home, losing everything — that spiked our violence,” reported Chau Nguyen, the chief public strategies officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center. “You’re going to see it more and more.” (CNN, April 4)
A research report by a consortium which includes Johns Hopkins University concludes there could be 31 million new cases of domestic violence globally if coronavirus lockdowns continue for six more months. (www.unfpa.org)
Surge of domestic violence cases in U.S.
After the first coronavirus death was reported at the end of February and nonessential businesses began to close in mid-March, reports of domestic violence began to increase in cities around the country.
Of 22 law enforcement agencies that responded to NBC News’ request for data, 18 said they saw a rise in March. For example, Houston reported 300 more calls, about a 20 percent increase, while Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., had 517 additional calls compared to last year, an 18 percent jump.
One of the first states to pay attention to that surge was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office that announced the number of cases grew 18 percent from February to March, after New York’s “Pause” order went into effect. It went up 30 percent in April compared to last year. (ABCNews, May 28)
Cuomo’s office launched a task force at the end of May to find “innovative solutions to this crisis.” Headed by Melissa DeRosa, his secretary and leader of the New York State Council on Women and Girls, the task force is charged with developing recommendations “to help women who are stuck in dangerous situations.”
How abusers use COVID-19 to assert power and control
In early April the National Domestic Violence Hotline noted that it had received more than 2,300 calls since mid-March in which COVID-19 was cited as a reason for abuse. Violent partners were leveraging it “to further isolate, coerce or increase fear in the relationship,” reported Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the NDVH.
“Abuse is about power and control,” the hotline summarizes. Isolation is the primary technique abusers use to assert power and control over their partner and children. Sheltering-at-home and widespread job loss mean the entire family is trapped in limited space with limited finances. Such conditions only create a pressure cooker of uncertainty, which triggers abusers. They respond to this “perfect storm” with more beatings and psychological torture.
The NDVH cites ways COVID-19 is used to increase control. Abusers withhold necessary things like hand sanitizer or disinfectants. They use misinformation to frighten or prevent survivors from seeking medical attention if they have symptoms, like hyping the risk of becoming infected in an emergency room.
Abusers may stress that it’s not safe to use public transportation as a way to keep survivors away from family or their children or grandchildren. One woman reported her abuser threatened to throw her into the street so she would become infected. Another abuser beat a survivor because he was sure she was trying to infect him.
The hotline advises survivors to do three things: to create a safety plan to remain safe in the relationship, to leave or what to do after leaving; to practice self-care for health and wellness; and to reach out for help by maintaining social connections online or over the phone.
Meanwhile, the struggle for all women and gender-nonconforming people to have safe, healthy, happy and fulfilled lives continues. The coronavirus is forcing all the inequalities and injustices in capitalist society to the surface, like deadly racism, which has disproportionately taken the lives of so many Black and Brown people. Only by tearing down patriarchy, all forms of hatred and bigotry, and class society will we achieve the freedom we need to flourish and thrive under socialism.
Survivors are encouraged to contact the NDVH at 800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522.