When Home is Not a Safe Place: Domestic Violence and COVID-19
By Clare Skinner*
Published on April 16, 2020
As COVID-19 continues to dominate global headlines, the overwhelming message from officials and experts around the world is both simple and uniform: stay at home. This message carries a presumption that home is a safe place to be. Yet for many vulnerable groups, including women at risk of domestic violence, this simply is not true.
Even in the absence of a global pandemic, worldwide rates of violence against women are staggeringly high. According to the World Health Organization, one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, “making it the most widespread, but among the least reported human rights abuses.” Although men and boys also experience gender-based violence, the vast majority of victims are female. Further, most incidents of violence against women are not carried out at the hands of a stranger. Rather, victims are far more likely to experience violence carried out by an intimate partner or person that they know, often in the presumed “safety” of their own homes.
Emerging evidence indicates that the situation presented by COVID-19, in particular the imposition of mandatory lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus, is resulting in a surge in these already alarming figures. For example, in the Hubei province of China—the heart of the initial virus outbreak—the number of reports to police of domestic violence incidents more than tripled in February alone, an increase that has been largely been attributed to social changes resulting from COVID-19. Meanwhile, the quality of services available to victims has deteriorated, with Chinese advocates observing that police appear reluctant to investigate or punish crimes of domestic violence at this time. There are similar reports of an alarming rise in domestic violence incidences in a range of other country contexts—including France, South Africa, Malaysia, Lebanon, Germany, Greece, Spain, Brazil, India, and Kosovo—in what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described as a “horrifying global surge.” At the same time, many countries are experiencing a corresponding reduction in available services, as organizations struggle to meet increased demand while also complying with novel COVID-19 regulatory measures.
This is not just a phenomenon happening overseas. In the United States, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has experienced an increase in callers expressing concerns about COVID-19 and the ways in which abusive partners might leverage the situation to further isolate victims. States such as Oregon and Texas have reported a significant increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines and demand for emergency shelter. As has been noted in the Guardian, these figures only reflect those cases where victims are able to seek assistance; they do not account for the many victims who are unable to leave home or call for help.
The disproportionate negative effects of humanitarian and health crises on women and girls are well documented. Human Rights Watch has previously reported on the particularly harmful gendered impacts of both the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak and 2015-2016 Zika virus outbreak, including a sharp increase in domestic and gender-based violence. Similar patterns have been reported in the aftermath of environmental and other natural disasters. For example, there is data indicating a 64 percent increase in domestic partner killings in Texas counties impacted after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and a 98 percent increase in physical victimization of women following Hurricane Katrina. Linda Phan, Policy Director for the Texas Council on Family Violence, has observed that while “these emergencies do not create the dynamic of domestic violence … they do exacerbate an environment in which domestic violence can occur.”
So far, the patterns and evidence emerging from the COVID-19 outbreak are proving consistent with this trend. Mandatory lockdowns and other physical distancing measures mean that victims are increasingly isolated from support networks and medical services. Instead, they are forced to remain in close quarters with perpetrators, in an environment of heightened stress and anxiety that can exacerbate the frequency and severity of abuse. As explained by Anita Bhatia, Deputy Director of UN Women, “the very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims,” by presenting “an opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence.” Further, advocates have warned that the economic fallout and unemployment triggered by COVID-19 could have disastrous consequences for victims. Not only is economic insecurity a significant risk factor that can escalate abuse, but it also means that some victims will lose their financial independence, making it even more difficult to leave abusive relationships.
There is no doubt that the challenges posed by COVID-19 are immense, such that extreme regulatory measures are warranted. Physical distancing is necessary. At the same time, government obligations to uphold the rights of women and to account for the situation of particularly vulnerable groups and adopt specific measures to mitigate the impact on these groups continue. In the context of COVID-19, this must include legal and policy responses that are responsive to the increased risks posed to women living in dangerous home environments. Many organizations are already finding creative ways of maintaining essential support services to domestic violence victims during these difficult times. For example, in China, advocates have hosted live-streamed workshops to raise public awareness about resources and services available to victims. In Oregon, service providers are developing safety plans and allocating more of their budget towards emergency accommodation. In the UK and Australia, there have been calls for special measures to evict alleged perpetrators, rather than victims, from households if there are allegations of abuse. However, the overwhelming message from these organizations is that they are facing a significant lack of funding and resources that is placing such efforts at risk. Governments need to urgently provide funding and support to improve the ability of these critical groups to provide services and safety to victims.
As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, we find ourselves at a critical juncture. Spikes in domestic violence represent just one of many ways in which the global crisis is amplifying existing gender inequalities and having a disproportionately negative impact on women and girls. There is potential for the current situation to lead to a marked decrease in gender equality, in what been described as “a disaster for feminism.” However, it also presents opportunities to draw attention to the deeply gendered nature of this crisis, and potentially be the first pandemic in which policy-makers respond in a gender-sensitive way. If this is to be effective, it is essential that leaders act immediately to mitigate the gendered impacts of COVID-19 and place gender concerns front and center of emergency planning, including involving women as a central part of teams designing responses.
*Clare Skinner is an LL.M. student at Columbia Law School (CLS), who has previously worked on family violence and child protection issues as a lawyer in Australia and is now pursuing a career working at the intersection between human rights, gender justice, and international processes. She wrote this piece as part of her work with the CLS Human Rights Clinic.
The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic works to advance human rights through partnerships with civil society organizations and communities. It brings together innovative education, social justice work, and scholarly research, and students are trained to be strategic human rights advocates.