As a result of the lockdown, many people are trapped at home with abusive partners. We examine the impact of the pandemic on rates of domestic violence in the United States and throughout the world.
Although the word “pandemic” refers to the possibility that a disease could affect everyone, it does not suggest that everyone is affected in the same way.
Some groups have been more severely affected by coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) than others. This is often a result of existing inequalities that the current global crisis only exacerbates.
One example involves domestic violence. People of all genders can experience this abuse, but studies conducted before the pandemic indicate that it disproportionately affects women.
For example, a U.S. Department of Justice special report on intimate partner violence (IPV) found that from 1994 to 2010, 4 in 5 people who experienced this form of abuse were female.
In 1994, for example, “85% of IPV victims were female, and the remaining 15% were male,” the authors note, highlighting a trend that remained roughly the same until 2010.
More recent data, spanning 80 countries, found that almost 30% of women who have ever been in a relationship have experienced “physical and/or sexual violence” from their partners at some point.
Pandemics and natural disasters tend to amplify these trends, and COVID-19 is no exception.
In this Special Feature, we examine the ways in which the current health crisis and accompanying lockdowns have affected people, particularly women, in abusive relationships or living arrangements in the U.S. and around the world.
First, it is important to note that this article does not offer advice about coping with an abusive partner or direct help. However, if you or someone you love is in this situation, help is available, even during lockdown.
In the U.S., the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 via:
- the phone, at 1-800-799-7233
- chat, at thehotline.org
- text, a person can text LOVEIS to 22522
Another resource is the StrongHearts Native Helpline, which is available by calling 1-844-7-NATIVE (762-8483) between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Central Standard Time.
Deborah J. Vagins, the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) told Medical News Today: “If you are trapped at home with an abusive partner — first, don’t let COVID-19 keep you from seeking services. Shelters, local providers, and hotline services are still open.”
“Your local domestic violence program is also there for you, and many of them are offering digital or virtual services. They can help you make a safety plan to fit your situation, such as staying with family or friends, staying in motels, or other options. You can also find a list of resources at https://nnedv.org/gethelp or find your state coalition at https://nnedv.org/coalitions.”
The following organizations also offer resources, including toll-free helplines, for people in the U.S. who are facing domestic violence during the pandemic:
- Futures Without Violence
- Asian Women’s Shelter
- Strong Hearts Native Helpline
- Asian Women’s Self Help Association
- Sakhi for South Asian Women
- W.O.M.A.N., Inc.
- The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which has a more comprehensive list of resources for various sociodemographic groups
- The Office on Women’s Health, which lists resources by state
When it comes to domestic violence, researchers and nongovernmental organizations are urging governments to look to previous health crises for examples of what to do and avoid in their COVID-19 responses.
In a new Bioethics report titled “Lessons never learned: Crisis and gender‐based violence,” lead author Neetu John — an assistant professor of population and family health at Columbia University — and her co-authors draw parallels between COVID-19 and previous epidemics.
Exacerbated violence and exploitation
They show that the 2014–2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa, for instance, led to increased violence against women because “Reports of violence were deprioritized, uncounted, and unrecognized.” School closures and quarantine further amplified abuse and exploitation of women and girls.
COVID-19 is set to follow the same path, warns a report from the United Nations: “The Ebola pandemic demonstrated that multiple forms of violence are exacerbated within crisis contexts, including trafficking, child marriage, and sexual exploitation and abuse. COVID-19 is likely driving similar trends at present.”
Furthermore, roles traditionally expected of women place them in disadvantaged positions during crises. Women are essential to the response during a pandemic, but they have little say in top-level decision making.
Too many duties of care, too little decision making
Globally, women make up 70% of the healthcare workforce and are more likely than men to be at the front lines of the COVID-19 response. They also make up the majority of staff providing cleaning, laundry, and catering services, for example, at healthcare facilities.
Moreover, before the pandemic, women were already doing more than three times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work than men, throughout the world.
However, women are often not reflected in national or global decision making concerning the response to COVID-19.
Terry McGovern, director of the Program on Global Health Justice and Governance at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and senior author of the Bioethics study, says:
“Gender norms and roles relegating women to the realm of care work puts them on the front lines in times of crisis, resulting in greater risk of exposure, while excluding them from developing the response.”
Indeed, other scholars have referred to the traditional role of women as that of a “shock-absorber.”
Previous MNT features have detailed the strain that caretaking duties during crises place on women’s physical and mental health and well-being and emphasized the dire need for more women in healthcare governance.
Violence against women rises in times of crisis
In an interview with The Fawcett Society, Pragna Patel, the founder and director of Southall Black Sisters, in the United Kingdom, also pointed out that the response to COVID-19 showcases a long-standing disregard for women’s rights and well-being during crises.
She said, “It is not unknown that in situations of conflict, in situations of crisis, in […] these kinds of emergencies, violence against women is one of the things that really rise.”
“There’s research around the world over a period of time that shows this, whether it’s in war situations or other conflict situations, during natural disasters, and so on […] This shouldn’t come as a shock or surprise to anyone.”
— Pragna Patel, founder and director of Southall Black Sisters
She also criticizes global governments’ nearsightedness in advising people to stay at home during the pandemic without first putting in place resources to serve women for whom home is the least safe space.
Statistics already indicate that the ongoing pandemic has caused a rise in domestic violence around the world. For example:
- In France, the number of reported cases of domestic violence has risen by 30%, though this figure may actually be significantly higher.
- Calls to domestic abuse helplines in Cyprus and Singapore have also risen, by approximately a third in each country.
- In Argentina, calls to emergency services about domestic violence have risen by 25%.
- In China, one police station in Hubei province saw a tripling of domestic violence reports during the quarantine in February 2020.
- The U.K.’s largest domestic abuse charity, Refuge, reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day, while a separate line for perpetrators of domestic abuse who want to change their behavior saw a 25% increase in calls.
What we know so far about the situation in the U.S.
There are currently no official figures indicating the effect of COVID-19 on domestic violence rates in the U.S.
However, the NNEDV CEO told MNT, “While [the] NNEDV does not operate a phone hotline, the number of inquiries we’ve received on the WomensLaw Email Hotline [about] issues related to coronavirus has tripled, so far, in April from March.”
Vagins added: “Reports from dozens of U.S. communities and other countries […] point to increases in incidences of domestic violence. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase incidences of domestic violence in the U.S., as it already has in other countries.”
In Oregon, for example, domestic violence hotlines are seeing a spike in demand for their services as COVID‐19 spreads throughout the state.
According to the authors of the Bioethics paper, “Callers are worried that they will not be able to obtain or extend restraining orders against their perpetrators with reduced court access and police services.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) also warn that rates of domestic violence in the country are bound to rise.
The APA note that before the pandemic, survivors were often able to escape violent situations by staying with a family member, going to a shelter, or getting a restraining order, but that these options seem less feasible at the moment.
The APA also draw attention to added strain on LGBTQ people and other members of marginalized communities during the pandemic.
“Being on lockdown, having fewer choices, having other people make large life choices for you, like when you can leave the house — these things replicate the trauma that some LGBTQ people have experienced, both in their relationships and as members of oppressed and marginalized groups.”
– Carrie Lippy, Ph.D., director of the National LGBTQ Institute on IPV
Organizations that work with domestic violence survivors report that measures such as quarantine and physical distancing increase tension within households. As the authors of the Bioethics paper note, “Confinement in physical spaces, along with economic and health shocks, have increased household stress levels.”
As a result, women have experienced more physical violence, as well as compounded stress and mental health consequences. Patel points out that, in addition to physical violence, women are being subjected to mental anguish and heightened coercion and control tactics, all of which harm their health and well-being.
She also observes that the pandemic may lead to rising incidence of suicide and self-harm, as well as an increase in the number of homicides.
Vagins shared some of these views. She also explained in more detail about the needs and stressors that domestic abuse survivors currently face:
“The needs of these survivors are similar to what we see after a natural disaster: access to medical care and basic supplies for themselves and their children; enough money for essentials like food, utilities, rent, childcare, cleaning supplies, and transportation; and the ability to attain or maintain employment. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is impacting the whole country at once, with a ripple effect in almost every sector.”
“While these needs are the norm for many people across the country right now,” continued Vagins, “abusive partners may limit a survivor’s access to these and other resources in order to maintain power and control over them.”
Vagins also emphasized that COVID-19 in itself does not trigger abuse — it exacerbates existing patterns.
“It is important to note,” she said, “that stress, job loss, and other COVID-19 pressures do not cause abuse. Domestic violence is a pattern of power and control, not [just] an individual act of physical violence.”
“Someone who has not been abusive does not suddenly become violent and controlling because they have lost a job or are under stay-at-home orders. However, abusers do take advantage of stressful situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to gain more control and to keep survivors from accessing resources and support.”
– Deborah J. Vagins, president and CEO of the NNEDV
With regard to domestic violence and COVID-19, it may not be too late to set the record straight.
The United Nations have listed actions that governments throughout the world must take in order to end violence against women and girls during COVID-19. These are:
- “Allocate additional resources and include evidence-based measures to address violence against women and girls in COVID-19 national response plans.
- Strengthen services for women who experience violence during COVID-19.
- Build capacity of key services to prevent impunity and improve quality of response.
- Put women at the center of policy change, solutions, and recovery.
- Ensure sex-disaggregated data is collected to understand the impact of COVID-19 on violence against women and girls, and inform the response.”
Vagins explained that, in the U.S., the pandemic has only heightened existing needs for housing, financial, and childcare services, as well as resources that address “other barriers that impact survivors’ safety.”
For instance, “According to [the] NNEDV’s ’14th annual domestic violence counts report‘, in a single day in 2019, more than 11,000 requests for assistance were unmet, due to a lack of resources,” the CEO told MNT.
“We continue to advocate for Congressional action to close serious gaps in funding and policies to keep survivors and their children safe,” she added.
Futhermore, as John and her colleagues note in their research paper, “Recognizing, valuing, [and] supporting women’s roles and giving them a voice in global health governance can go a long way in avoiding unintended consequences, building resilient healthcare systems, and reducing intersectional inequalities and vulnerabilities across gender, race, class, and geography.”
In terms of attending to women’s rights and well-being during a global crisis, COVID-19 gives us “another opportunity to do this right.”
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