By Gülden Boyner Ulusoy and Annemarie Schumacher Dimech
“Peace is not the just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for Covid-19 face violence where they should be safest: in their homes. Today, I appeal for peace in homes around the world. I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic” Secretary- General of the United Nations, Antonio Gutteres (2020).
Covid-19: How safe is “Stay Home Stay Safe”?
Stay-at-home orders can reduce activities associated with community spread of Covid-19, including population movement and close person-to-person contact outside of the household. Since the start of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders have been widely implemented.
Confining people to their homes and limiting movement has raised concerns about a potential increase in intimate partner violence (IPV). Emerging data, reports from China, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries show that since the outbreak of Covid-19, violence against women and girls, and particularly domestic violence, has intensified(Kofman & Garvin 2020). In their Journal of Clinical Nursing editorial, Bradbury-Jones and Isham (2020, p. 2047) clearly state: “Within such a short time span, there is clear evidence that we need to speculate no more. Domestic violence rates are rising, and they are rising fast.”
Stay-at-home orders, which are intended to protect the public and stop widespread infection, left many IPV victims trapped with their abusers. One in four women are exposed to violence in their life time, and violence by an intimate partner can be in various forms: physical, emotional, sexual or psychological. During every sort of emergency, including epidemics, women are the most vulnerable population faced with increased violence. Women who are refugees, and living in conflict-affected areas are particularly vulnerable. Indeed, Bradbury-Jones and Isham (2020) describe this phenomenon as the “pandemic paradox”, where people are required to stay home to reduce risk of contracting the Covid-19 virus but for some, home is not a safe place and this safety measure actually puts them at a higher risk for IPV.
In the long run, intimate partner/domestic violence can have a serious health impact on women and their children. Violence against women can cause fatal physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies.
Increased risk of violence
Available data reports that less than 40 per cent of women who experience violence seek help, and women who do, mostly call their friends or families. Only 10 percent of these victims seek help from the police.
Socioeconomic factors are also significant. Disadvantaged women and girls are at higher risk of experiencing violence. This includes reduced access to resources, limited finances and lack of social support. An increase in reports of IPV is happening at the same time that services are being compromised due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Life-saving care and support for women who experienced or are experiencing violence may be disrupted when health service providers are overburdened and preoccupied with handling Covid-19 cases or must limit their outreach due to safety measures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Psychologist Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, says other factors may also contribute to the uptick in IPV. Prior to the pandemic, victims of violence could get away from the violent situation by seeking refuge with their family, going to a shelter or filing a protective order with the police. During the Covid-19 pandemic, these options are limited or no longer available for most women.
As mentioned, disadvantaged groups are at higher risk for IPV. Race and age are indicators of a person`s likelihood of being exposed to violence by an intimate partner, with minorities and older women at particular risk. Disabled women are more vulnerable to rape and sexual harassment along with other forms of intimate partner violence. Moreover, longitudinal studies show that intimate partner violence rates are highest in impoverished neighborhoods (Kofman&Garvin, 2020).
How to support survivors/ victims of domestic violence and abuse
Direct practice workers (e.g. social care workers, occupational therapists, GPs and midwives) as well as community groups are fundamental in recognizing any type of abuse. They can advise and support women who are self-isolating with a perpetrator, for instance by:
. Informing the person about shelter or a charity which provides confidential housing information, gives legal advice on housing issues and offers an emergency help line.
. Helping to reach out to supportive family members and friends. Encouraging them to make an emergency plan in case the violence escalates. This could be identifying a neighbor, friend or relative to go to should they need to leave the house urgently.
. Deciding on code words with friends, family or professionals to signal they are in a dangerous situation.
. Offering support to children who are directly or indirectly affected by domestic violence.
This phenomenon experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic calls for a change in strategy to facilitate access to help and support, even during lockdown phases, as well as taking into consideration the effects of the pandemic on IPV (e.g. Sharma & Borah, 2020).
To conclude, we as a community should be aware and informed about IPV and domestic violence in general. Particularly in times of the pandemic, where professional help is not easily accessible, we need to look out for each other even more. Information together with knowledge about available resources and support will empower us as a community to know where to get help for ourselves and others.