We’re told that right now home is the safest place for us to be. That home is our sanctuary during the outbreak of this global pandemic. However, for the millions of people across the world, predominantly women, who experience domestic violence, this understanding of home is far from their reality.
As we see the lockdown of countries and cities across the globe, what does this mean for those for whom home, rather than being a place of safety and protection, is the place they fear the most?
It is estimated that approximately 1 in 3 women globally have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime . In the UK last year 1.6 million women ⁱ reported to have experienced domestic abuse  and 80 women were killed by their partner or ex-partner—equating to approximately three women every fortnight .
While self-isolation is necessary to curb the spread of coronavirus, it risks exacerbating cases of domestic abuse. For those women experiencing domestic violence, self-isolation has them trapped in their homes with their abusers. Coercive control is already a common tactic used by abusers to isolate their victims from the outside world. So, instructing households to self-isolate gives the perpetrator greater authority and mandate to continue this abuse. At the same time, it also crucially gives the perpetrator an increased time frame in which to carry out their abuse.
Self-isolation is likely to make it increasingly difficult for abused women to access the support and safety they so vitally need. Being self-isolated in a home with an abusive partner will give women less opportunity to find time away from their perpetrators to seek help and resources safely. This will undoubtedly be intensified by having even less contact with friends and family, and fewer opportunities to access public spaces such as GPs and schools, which often play a significant role in identifying abuse.
Extensive research on domestic violence shows that in times of stress and crises incidents of abuse increase. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Claire Barnett, the executive director for UN Women UK, said “When communities undergo additional stress – from disease, to drought, to their local football team losing a match – rates of violence rise” . The stresses and tensions associated with the requirement to self-isolate, as well as the financial strain that has already been placed on many families as a consequence of the virus, is therefore likely to create an environment where women (and men) are at increased risk of experiencing domestic abuse.
In fact, evidence already suggests that coronavirus has led to a spike in cases of domestic abuse. In February, local police stations in China saw a threefold increase in domestic violence cases reported compared to the previous year . Domestic violence activists in China claim a vast majority of these cases were related to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Similar trends have started to emerge elsewhere. Over the past weeks the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the United States has had an increased number of callers saying that their abusers are using COVID-19 as a way to further cut them off from their family and friends . And in the UK, Avon and Somerset police have reported that in the last two weeks there has been a 20.9% increase in incidents of domestic abuse .
To respond to the rise in domestic abuse cases that we are likely to face and to keep victims safe, it is paramount that the government and authorities see tackling domestic violence as a priority. This includes ensuring all domestic abuse professionals are identified as key workers, so that they can access childcare as they continue to work to support those at risk of violence. They can also ensure that they are considered as part of the COVID-19 contingency planning, enabling provision for staff to be replaced when they find themselves ill or needing to self-isolate. It also crucially includes an immediate increase in funding to support domestic abuse charities and refuges, which are already facing strain due to the effects of austerity cuts.
The coronavirus outbreak highlights to us all the importance of looking out for the most vulnerable people in our society. As we face the uncertainty of what the next few months may bring for all us, let us be mindful of those whose home is far from a safe sanctuary.
What can you do?
-Be extra vigilant of possible cases of domestic violence. Even though we are being asked to self-isolate in our homes, we don’t have to be cut off from our communities. Use technology to check in on friends and neighbours you may be concerned for.
– Donate. Domestic violence charities will need extra resources to deal with the anticipated increased caseload. You can give to national charities such as Women’s Aid, Refuge or SafeLives, or find and donate to your local domestic abuse charity.
-‘Everyday Allyship’— UN Women UK are setting up an ‘Everyday Allyship’ platform for individuals to share advice on how to be a good ally, access information on your local services and help protect those most vulnerable to domestic abuse. You can keep up to date with that here.
– Prayer. As we continue to pray those affected by the virus, make sure to pray for victims of domestic abuse for whom self-isolation puts them at greater risk of harm. Also pray for wisdom for domestic abuse professionals as they face greater caseloads and navigate doing their job in these unprecedented circumstances.
You can find out more information about supporting those experiencing domestic abuse from Restored, an international Christian Alliance that aims to transform relationships and end violence against women (VAW) by working through and with the church and Christians worldwide. You can find their guidance around Coronavirus here.
[ⁱ The real figure is likely to be higher, given the lack of reporting associated with domestic abuse crimes.