The novel Covid-19 and the increase of Domestic Violence when home isn’t a safe place

by Magdalini Tsakyri,

Introduction

The current study addresses the ongoing phenomenon of Domestic Violence. A universal pressing issue that still hasn’t been resolved as it is still considered a private matter. The word ‘domestic’ is not necessarily referring to the abuse itself that takes place within a household, but to inter-generation violence. According to studies, it is estimated that the most vulnerable group in this type of violence are women of which 35% of them worldwide, have experienced physical or/and sexual violence from a former or ex-partner (CoE). Moreover, 40% of the abusive group are children, with various reports on child abuse, positively correlated with domestic violence at home (UNICEF). In order to be more specific, domestic violence comes in lots of forms of suffering such as physical, sexual, psychological and types of violence including threats, extortion, restriction of freedom and even economic harm.

It has been indicated that there is an existing connection between the effects of a global crisis and the increase of family violence(Sarkadi, Warner/Bami et al.,). The major psychological challenges of a crisis such as natural disasters, wars or conflicts and now the procedure of being quarantined – Covid19- creates fear, additional stress, frustration and financial strain which ultimately make a violent person even more violent (Serrata, Hurtado Alvarado). Since March 2020 almost every government in the world enforced a national lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the virus and protect its citizens. Although this protective measure of quarantine was necessary for public health, it did not have the desired result in cases where people simply cannot deal with isolation and therefore the problem of domestic violence suffered even more. Experts stressed that as long as the virus is out people must stay inside in order to avoid contacts and protect themselves from exposure. Nonetheless, for some people, staying inside doesn’t keep the danger out but keeps the danger indoors where a home cannot be the safest place anymore (National DV hotline).

”Why did they stay?”

When it comes to victims of domestic violence a frequent question that arises is ”why did they stay”? ”Why didn’t they just leave”?

It is important to clarify that people who end up being in a violent relationship are not voluntarily diving into an abusive relationship neither do they consciously accept this type of violence. Violence has to do with control and power and the perpetrator hiding his or hers true intentions until he or she manages to establish this control by constantly weakening the victim. In that way, the victim will eventually feel trapped and afraid to leave.

It’s important to understand that an abusive relationship doesn’t start being told that you are stupid or incapable on a daily basis nor does it start with being hit in the face […] To get to that point the abuser has gradually chipped away the person’s self -esteem, their self-worth, their self-belief convincing them that they are culpable and responsible for the abusive actions. They gradually isolated you from your friends and family and they make you believe that the only world that is real and that matters is the private world that you share together”

-Chiara Lisowksi, Survivor of domestic abuse speaks up- I left on Tuesday

According to specialists, domestic violence follows a pattern well known as the cycle of violence which consists of three phases. In the first phase – tension-building phase-, the abuser starts being aggressive and gets angry easily.  In phase 2 – the explosion phase- the perpetrator is causing scenes and tries to find excuses to get violent. By using any kind of violence, the victim eventually gets trapped, finds himself or herself alone and feels responsible for what happened. The last phase – the honeymoon phase- the abuser apologizes and promises this will never happen again. The abuser controls the situation by pretending that nothing has happened and no type of violence ever existed. Based on this pattern, the victim often is unable to realize that is staying in a violent relationship and that is submitted to abuse (Women&Children First).

Fear for the future, cultural beliefs, victimization and mistrust to authorities are several answers in the question ”Why did they stay”?

When it comes to the future, there are numerous reasons why the victim is not leaving even when the violence has been escalated dramatically.  A lot has to do with the economic aspect as it is more likely that the woman will be financially dependent on the male abuser (CoE). Usually, the pattern of a violent person includes isolation from family members and friends so the victim will feel that there is nowhere to go hence, this makes leaving even harder. Power and control demonstrate victims’ state of fear, especially when children are included. Concerns about what will happen to the children and the control of the finances have a crucial role in the victim’s decision. But the biggest fear that the victims have to confront is the physical integrity itself. Statistically, between 50% and 75% of domestic violence homicides are happening after the victim leaves because then the abuser has nothing left to lose (Kasperkevic). It is important to point out that in some societies the social structure is the deterrent reason why the victims cannot leave an abusive relationship. Social-cultural aspects in those societies correlate divorce with family dishonor even if the cause of the divorce is violence.

Behind closed doors, people from certain groups might be at even greater risk. Migrants and refugees usually are struggling to report abuse, considering they might not speak the national language or are dealing with discrimination and they don’t have access to information about legal aid (CoE). Also, people of the LGBTQ community are at the same risk. For these people finding support is even more critical since in lots of communities there is no legal recognition and access to social resources is limited. In addition, some of them might be afraid to reveal their sexual orientation so the perpetrator can take advantage of this to maintain complete control (Kritik).

Social structures and gender-based perceptions are obtaining a lot of societies. Men can be also victims in a violent relationship and feel abused by a former or ex-partner; yet in many cases, they remain silent due to shame, religious beliefs, or denial  (Robinson, Segal). The male figure, as it is expected to be, requires a strong dominant man without weaknesses. This stereotype of masculinity is most of the times the reason why male victims do not report abusive actions against them. (Jotanovic).

However, gender-based stereotypes are disproportionately higher when it comes to female victimization. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the term victimization is used to describe a bad behavior or treatment to someone who has done a ‘protected act’ or because she/or he believes that a person has done or is going to do a protected act. Once again, we get reports about incidents of domestic violence. Τhe question ” Why did they stay?” itself indicates exactly the meaning of victimization as it creates guilt to the victim who cannot find the courage to leave an abusive relationship. There are many times when people choose to use victim-blame terminology when it comes to domestic violence cases. This usually happens when the victim happens to be a woman. The language in those situations holds an important role.

An example from Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Father’s Tongues by Julia Penelope where she is explaining how the use of passive voice can create an environment where the blame is on the victim. The example starts with one phrase in active voice and then sentence by sentence is changing following the rules of passive voice.

”John Beat Mary”

”Mary was beaten by john”

”Mary was beaten”

”Mary is a battered woman”

Through this example, Julia Penelope tries to show the impact and the power that languages hold and how the use of passive voice in every day tailing can determine the way we think and consequently the way we act. It can create and reproduce stereotypes that are getting perpetuated and in the case of domestic violence make the victim even more vulnerable. A connection like this creates blaming attitudes that are leading to secondary victimization. To face those kinds of situations the right questions must be asked. Questions not about Mary and what she did, where was she, why didn’t she react, but about John and every John. Following the pattern above, the victim becomes the protagonist and the role of the perpetrator has essentially pushed aside. Social media reenact this example by sidelining the abuser’s behavior and highlighting the role of the woman in the relationship. The victim becomes the cause of violence when the actions of the perpetrator are nowhere in the picture (Hirsch). Newspapers do their part by using victim-blaming terminology and disseminating circumstances of domestic violence as ”jealousy situations”, ”jilted lover”, ”cheating wife” placing the responsibility on the victim and justifying the cause of violence of the perpetrator.

Examples like this can be found in mass media when lots of headlines are using the aforementioned tactic of victimization. The front page of the newspaper  ”The Sun” had as a headline in 2012 ”BBQ dad killed 6 over a wife’s affair” a title that indicates indirectly that the killer was triggered by his wife affair and so he had a reason to slaughtered six people( Lloyd, Ramon). Other newspapers are promoting as well the victimization by not even mentioning in their headlines the assassin. Some examples: ”Teen gang-raped, murdered”, ”School student molested”, ”Senior citizen sexually assaulted” (Jayakumar). The newspaper North West Star wrote as title ”Woman beaten in violent assault near Mount Isa Civic Centre” ‘ By using this title the journalist is choosing to withhold the identity of the executioner and reveals a tendency for victimization whereas she could write ”Man assaults women and violently beat her. Police started an open investigation for domestic violence”.

Victim blaming, shaming or guilt are reasons why so many domestic violence incidents are not reported as it makes it harder for victims to speak up. The use of victim-blaming terms is a frequent and regular method used also by judges and lawyers. And here is another answer to ”Why did they stay?” question and it has to do with a general mistrust to authorities. The NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team reported a number of cases where ”mutualizing language used by judges and lawyers such as ‘volatile relationship’ or ‘stormy relationship’ to describe cases where a domestic violence abuser had a long history of using violence against the victim”.

Victim blaming culture is also surviving through the legal system and authorities who gradually preserve it. Often, authorities willingly or unwillingly are engaging in stereotypes and behaviors regarding violence against women that puts them at a disadvantage. Those gender-based perceptions lead to ”judicial stereotyping’’, a practice implemented by judges who ”are ascribing to individual specific attributes, characteristics or roles on the sole basis of her or his membership of a particular social group” (EIGE)

The ruling on ‘Tight jeans and Rape’ of the Italian Supreme Court is a representative example of judicial stereotyping. In 1998 the Court issued a decision to overturn a rape conviction about an 18-year-old girl who was raped by her 45-year-old driving instructor. The overturn was based on a girl’s dress code as she was wearing a tight jean and according to the judges, the removal of such a piece of clothing requires both persons. The case was adjudged as consensual sexual intercourse (Stanley,CoE). It took 10 years for the Supreme Court to finally overturn this statement mostly due to the big outrage expressed by protesters. (Couch)

Although this case is not related to domestic violence yet it indicates how the relevant justice system instead of following a gender-sensitive approach, sustains stereotypes that lead to secondary victimization and discrimination.

Τhe general mistrust of competent authorities derives from the different barriers women are facing when accessing justice. This assessment does not exclude men or boys as victims of domestic violence but points out the significant differences between the way in which men and women are experiencing violence and are treated afterward. Sometimes the authorities due to lack of awareness tend to behave differently when it comes to victims of domestic violence, a fact that creates legal barriers for them to seek justice. A barrage of questions, pressure, the insistence of facts will likely create a hostile environment for the victim (CoE). At this point, it is worth mentioning an example. Florida’s Judge Collins castigated a victim of domestic violence and send her in jail because she failed to appear in court due to her anxiety and depression caused by domestic abuse. The judges’ response was “You think you’re going to have anxiety now? You haven’t even seen anxiety,” and send the women to jail for 16 days (Cooney).

Behaviors like this not only increases the already existing stress from the court process but discourages the victims to arraign cases of abuse.

The novel Covid-19 and the global increase in domestic violence.

It is proven that the global crisis can leave ineradicable imprints on economic, political but also social structures on societies. Researches have demonstrated a rapid increase of family violence in cases of natural disasters or conflicts, where women have experienced violence in the highest rates in comparison to men. More specifically after Hurricane Katrina, a study noticed a rapid rate of victimization in women from 33,6% to 45,2%. Hurricane Harvey had similar effects as organizations and shelters indicated that incidences of domestic violence have increased as well as mental health issues especially on children (Serrata et al.,). Countries that have suffered from the consequences of conflicts have also high rates in family violence or child maltreatment due to stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, fear and depression (Catani et al.,).

By the end of February 2020, the same consequences raised worldwide due to the novel Covid-19, coronavirus, and quarantine was globally imposed from governments as it was considered the best safeguard measure. This measure though wasn’t the safest for many women and children who are subject to domestic violence since the impacts of quarantine created an even more dangerous environment for them(WHO).

According to UN WOMEN violence against women, and particularly domestic violence has increased in several countries. Statistics from all around the world tend to confirm this. In France, for example, cases of domestic violence have increased by 30%  from the lockdown according to the French Interior Minister (Euronews). The ongoing calls on National abuse hotline in the UK have risen dramatically to 65%(Mohan) while in Zagreb since the beginning of isolation the Autonomous Women’s House said that they are receiving 10 calls per day(Bami et al.,). Australia’s government mentioned that Google has registered the most searches online for domestic violence help in the past five years (Abramson). In Canada, Germany, Spain and the United States, government authorities, shelters, women’s rights associations, activists and civil society agencies have indicated a significant upsurge of domestic abuse cases (UN WOMEN).

From Europe and Balkans to transatlantic nations and different continents it appears like humanity is facing a double pandemic, of Covid-19 and of domestic abuse that has also increased sharply. Those are examples only for a few countries and as experts are indicating the real number is much bigger given the fact that victims do not always report home abuse incidences.

During the quarantine, we all faced psychological stress and challenges since social disconnection can lead to tense situations both on physical and mental health. For the abuser and the victims of domestic violence through the situation is even harder since quarantine is creating circumstances that foster violence.

Substantial adverse effects of the corona crisis such as financial strain and stress about the future or income loss can create conflicts within the family without implicating that a violent person will become violent due to stress. Nonetheless, some experts insisted that financial pressure exhausts families and can trigger violence. In Greece, a rise in domestic violence was observed following the country’s financial crisis.  According to a Thomson Reuters report, experts believe that the economic hardship that Greek families were facing pushed more men to violence and left women unprotected without the choice to leave (DoP).

As was mentioned before abuse is all about control. The nationwide lockdown gave the perpetrators leverage to exercise this control and use the virus as an excuse to subdue the victim. It is possible abusers’ shares misinformation about the Covid-19 in order to threaten the victims about what can happen if they leave. One of the main purposes of abusers is isolation from family and friends. Quarantine made this isolation possible and gave to the abuser a ”good” excuse to prevent the victim from leaving and reaching out to relatives or friends due to fear of spreading or/and getting the virus.

As the abuser is getting even more violent the victim feels even more helpless. For a victim of domestic violence leaving was always the hardest step. With the present situation and the strict rules of isolation, getting help is now even harder. Shelters, social services, the legal system and social workers are obligated as well to follow the rules of a social distancing almost everywhere in the world. Some shelters probably can be already full or keeping a low number of people. If the victim is old or has a chronic health condition probably will be afraid as well to seek help and come in contact with others. Staying home with an abuser 24/7 traps completely the victim and make the contact for help, even by phone, harder. With support services and networks shattered children are also facing a great risk, especially the ones who are experiencing violence in the house. There is a big chance child who is locked in with their abusers and are submitted to sexual violence to suffer even more as there is a big chance this abuse will be happening more frequently(Fetters, Khazan). Even if the violence is not being addressed directly to them but is taking place between the parents, kid’s health is being at a huge risk and can leave potential long-term consequences (Guterres).

As it was mentioned above, an environmental factor such as stress, anxiety or finances strain can be associated with violent behavior. Another contributing factor to violent and aggressive behavior is alcohol consumption. Many longitudinal studies have pointed out a causal relationship between alcohol use and intimate partner violence. In that case, victims of domestic violence are even in a more vulnerable place during the quarantine (Drinkaware/ Buddy T). The uptick in drinking can be caused due to several reasons like stress, anxiety, boredom, depression. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 the quarantine triggered all those reasons which are linked to alcohol consumption increase (Stoogenke).

 “My husband won’t let me leave the house”, a victim of domestic violence tells a representative for the National Domestic Violence Hotline over the phone. “He had flu-like symptoms and blames keeping me here on not wanting to infect others or bringing something like COVID-19 home. But I feel like it’s just an attempt to isolate me.”

[Source: M.Godin]

“Before the quarantine he would insult me, use slurs [..], that I’m kissing another man. But he had never hit me, until now…Last weekend he hit me hard in the head, with his fist, for the first time” Those were the words of women who spoke to Croatia’s oldest shelter, the Autonomous Women’s House of Zagreb.

[Source: Bami et al.,]

 

“I spoke to a female caller in California that is self-quarantining for protection from COVID-19 due to having asthma,” an advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline wrote in the organization’s log book. “Her partner strangled her tonight. While talking to her, it sounded like she has some really serious injuries. She is scared to go to the ER due to fear around catching COVID-19.”

[Source: M.Godin]

Quarantine brought up again to the surface the phenomenon of domestic violence. The reported calculated number does not correspond to the real number of domestic abuse cases since most of those cases are rarely reported (National DV Hotline).

Governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations and charities have already taken initiatives in order to help. In many European countries victims of violence at home or sexual assault could go to the nearest drugstore and use the code word ”mask 19”. In that way, the pharmacist could help the victim get help by calling the authorities (Kottasová, Di Donato).

But measures like this can only help a small number of victims who manage to escape and found the courage to speak up. Awareness and providing information can help to awaken citizens who have seen signs but they didn’t know what to do or if they should interfere. But awareness without real action cannot do much. Covid-19 will not only leave excruciatingly painful memories and economically damaged countries but also it will create fear, stress, depression, economical barriers and many other factors that can deteriorate violent behavior.

With 4.390.535 active cases today, a number that keeps growing, no one can guarantee that the second wave of coronavirus won’t come and next lockdown measures won’t be imposed again (worldometer). Without implying that a potential second quarantine wave would again touch upon domestic violence but it’s time to face the reality and pay attention to the issue.

Conclusion

Since the movement restrictions due to the coronavirus crisis were imposed, domestic violence cases have reached a tipping point. Even before the pandemic, the numbers were astonishing but the current situation underlines the devastating truth: while home should be the place, we feel most secure, yet for some people, it turns out to be the source of violence. Governments failed to fully address the issue and now is the time to raise awareness in order to achieve protection through interagency cooperation. We must assure that we can provide safe shelters so victims can eventually find the strength to leave an abusive situation while they will know that there will a safe place waiting for them. A place where there’s no space for stereotypes, victim-blaming attitudes and pressure. A place where questions are not orientated on the victim’s behaviors and actions during the relationship but to a healing a supportive procedure. This place shouldn’t be just a shelter but the community as a whole. This community requires more than some initiatives but radical reform of the system based on a bold and progressive plan for a profound change. As the greatest scientists and doctors are working so hard to combat the coronavirus is it time for governments to pay attention and fight domestic abuse. Domestic violence isn’t a private or a women’s matter, it is everybody’s issue and as long as people are suffering inside their houses it is impossible and ironic to talk about an equal and democratic society.

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