An article written by Stacey Musimbe-Rix from the KSS CRC Research and Policy Unit
Domestic abuse victims during coronavirus is impacting not only our daily lives but some more than others. The pandemic has not only threatened their physical and mental health but also their safety. It is useful to examine the impact that the lockdown has had on domestic abuse figures, the rationale behind this, along with strategies for prevention for the future.
Figures of domestic abuse
Domestic abuse is a global problem responsible for more than 87,000 female deaths in 2017 (UNODC, 2018:15). We know that women are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse under ordinary circumstances and the lockdown has only served to exacerbate this inequality. The Office for National Statistics in the UK reported that in the year ending 2019, 80 women in the UK had been killed by an ex-partner or intimate partner which equates to a monthly average of 6.6 women (Office for National Statistics, 2020:810). Unfortunately, emerging evidence has shown a global spike in domestic abuses cases and homicides during the COVID-19 lockdown.
In the United Kingdom, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline reported that, on Monday 6 April, the calls to the helpline soared by 120% and visits to the website rose by 700% compared to the previous day (Independent, 2020). In Brighton, the local domestic abuse charity reported that they had a 150% increase in calls to their local helpline. Ingala Smith (2020) recounted that, in the nine days preceding the coronavirus lock down announcement, there were 8 domestic homicides recorded in the UK and this is in comparison to 8 homicides recorded in the previous month. In the period 23 March-12 April 2020 there were 14 domestic homicides, the highest figure recorded for 11 years. The increased figures are consistent with figures reported in other countries such as France which reported a 36% increase in domestic abuse cases; China reported a threefold increase in reported domestic abuse cases in February and Lebanon reported that domestic abuse figures have doubled since the lock down (The Times, 2020). The only reported anomaly has been in Scotland which reported a 20% decrease in calls and online visits to their helpline service since the lockdown.
Disconcerting but not unexpected
The domestic homicides and rising domestic abuse cases are disconcerting but not unexpected. Johnson (2005) theorises that domestic abuse can be situational and in the case of the lockdown- personal stress due to health concerns and economic hardship can serve as a catalyst for violence in the home. According to Bristol Cable (2020) ‘studies show that abusers are more likely to murder their partners in the wake of personal crises, and when families are together for a long time without the usual outlets like going to work.. lockdown is a mixture of the two.’
What we need to be careful of, is to blame coronavirus for domestic abuse (Ingala-Smith, 2020) As with many other triggers for domestic abuse, the lockdown is likely to amplify a preexisting problem not create it. The lockdown is the perfect storm for domestic abuse as victims are more vulnerable and there is more opportunity for perpetrators to exercise control. Domestic abuse is widely acknowledged by many scholars (Stark 2007; Dobash & Dobash, 1992) as rooted in power and control, therefore domestic abuse can escalate when the perpetrator feels they are losing control (Monckton-Smith, 2019). Notably, in many domestic homicides- coercive control was present within the relationship (Monckton-Smith, 2019). Many survivors of abuse have reported that perpetrators have been using lockdown rules to further control them and their children. KSS CRC probation service has seen a trend in perpetrators threatening to infect victims and children with CO-VID-19 as a means of maintaining control. Moreover, domestic abuse thrives in isolation and the physical isolation from support networks means that victims could be experiencing higher rates of abuse without intervention. KSS CRC has found that some victims are minimising the abuse during phone conversations, perhaps due to the perpetrator’s constant presence.
Pragmatic responses across the world
Given the extent of the problem it is important to document some pragmatic responses across the world. There has been an increase in funding across come countries – in France the government pledged hotel rooms for those escaping domestic abuse. There is anecdotal evidence of domestic abuse victims around Europe using local pharmacies to ask for help. Boots UK has started an initiative where victims can visit one of their local pharmacies to ask for help. Some police forces in the UK have asked delivery drivers and postal workers to look out for signs of domestic abuse in homes. In Brighton, virtual Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARAC) have been convened in order to continue safeguarding the highest risk victims of domestic abuse.
Prepare for future crises
Despite such efforts, it is important to reflect on our domestic abuse preparedness for future crises. Research has shown us that domestic abuse is likely to increase during times of national crisis and when families spend long periods together. As such, we need to develop preventative rather than reactionary policies that will mitigate a probable surge in domestic abuse during such times. Not only are policies important, COVID-19 shows us that where possible, intervention should happen at the earliest possible opportunity. The onus should not fall on domestic abuse organisations, and the survivors, to keep themselves safe. Keeping victims safe is everyone’s responsibility.
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