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How can communities support people who are experiencing domestic violence in the face of COVID-19?

By Sara Chitseko:

Reports of domestic violence have significantly risen since countries went into lockdown, with UN Women describing it as a "shadow pandemic" (UN Women, 2020). The government instruction to "stay at home," is crucial to protect public health. But we must understand that staying home is far more difficult if you are experiencing domestic violence.

According to the World Health Organisation, one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence, mostly from an intimate partner (WHO, 2019). This means it is the most widespread, but among the least reported of human rights abuses. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, many of us have found ourselves reconsidering the role we play as individuals and communities and our responsibility to each other. For those of us who can stay home to reduce the spread of the virus, we must ensure that we are looking out for our neighbours and protecting those whose lives may be in danger, due to experiencing violence and abuse in their homes. 

Coronavirus has been described as an 'invisible killer' and domestic violence is often referred to as a 'silent killer' (BBC News, 2017). The latter finds its name because it carries a stigma, where those who experience it frequently face shame and fear speaking out. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone (ONS, 2019). However, from Monday 26th March when lockdown started, to Tuesday 7th April, there were 10 domestic homicides (Victims Commissioner, 2020). The National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25% increase in both calls and online requests for help - visits to their website were 150% higher, compared to in February (BBC News, 2020). COVID-19 has created a crisis on a scale that has never been seen before in most of our lifetimes, but what about those who now face a double danger - of deadly disease outside and deadly abuse at home?

The rise in domestic violence is not unique to the UK. In China, a significant number of local police stations saw a threefold increase in cases reported in February, compared with the previous year (The Guardian, 2020). A national domestic hotline in the US reported that a growing number of callers were facing situations where their abusers are using COVID-19 to further control and isolate them (ibid). The hotline's CEO described how, “Perpetrators are threatening to throw their victims out on the street so they get sick,” and how they've "heard of some withholding financial resources or medical assistance” (ibid). Domestic abuse isn't always physical - it's a pattern of controlling, threatening and coercive behaviour, which can also be emotional, economic, psychological or sexual (Womens Aid, 2020).

There has been growing controversy in the media over claims that 'coronavirus doesn't discriminate.' Truth is, the impact of COVID-19 is shaped significantly by the inequities people already experience as a result of disability, race, class, gender and more. While men and boys do experience domestic violence and may certainly face challenges in accessing support, women and girls continue to be much more likely to have these experiences (Womens Aid, 2020). Furthermore, being locked down with your abuser doesn't only make you more vulnerable to violence, it also means it's harder to seek support and assistance, due to fear of being overheard, as well as being unable to leave the house.

Thankfully, in the face of this double-edged crisis, individuals, communities and institutions have been pioneering innovative new ways to provide support and show solidarity to people who are experiencing violence under lockdown. In France, pop-up counselling centres can be accessed in supermarkets (Aljazeera, 2020). In the US, Sanctuary for Families created a guide for survivors, which includes advice such as, 'create a 'buddy system code word.' Those at risk are recommended to identify two people they can contact if in trouble with a plan already in place for what action the 'buddy' should take (SFF, 2020).  Here in the UK, BBC journalist, Victoria Derbyshire tactfully spoke to people that may be at risk by presenting the news with a domestic violence helpline written on her hand (CNN, 2020). Internationally, CHAYN is a global volunteer network addressing gender-based violence by creating intersectional survivor-led resources online (CHAYN, 2020). It is these initiatives which may just be a lifeline to many experiencing domestic violence in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

With increased reports of people calling the police on their neighbours, it is crucial to understand that, there are alternatives to calling 999 which can keep people safe without causing more harm. So, what action can communities take to support and protect those that may be experiencing domestic violence in the context of COVID-19? These are some starting points:

  1. Get to know your neighbours. Leave a note with your number or open up a conversation over the garden fence if you have one. Agree to reach out to each other before calling the police. This is particularly important for white people who have recently moved into Black and Brown areas. The existing community are likely to already know who is having relationship issues and who is trusted to intervene; who is struggling with their mental health and who is best able to assist, without calling police. (Rose, 2016).

  2. Educate yourself on the historical impact of policing and incarceration on Black  and other marginalised communities. If you are from a community that is not over-policed and over-criminalised, redefine your understanding of safety to include your whole community.

  3. If you are well and able, join your local COVID-19 Mutual Aid Group. They're on the ground in neighbourhoods, therefore in a strong position in terms of identifying people in your community who may be experiencing abuse and violence. They're also already part of a coordinated community response to community need, therefore more likely to be able to pool knowledge and skills to address domestic violence incidents.

Our sense of self generally comes from the world around us. The coronavirus pandemic has meant that we are finding new versions of who 'we' are and that might just be your neighbours and local community. If we understand that we are all interconnected and only as strong as the most vulnerable, then we can also understand the need to do more to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities are protected. Quoted in 'The Revolution Starts at Home,' CARA member, Rebecca Farr eloquently explains:

"I am not proposing that sexual violence and domestic violence will no longer exist. I am proposing that we create a world where so many people are walking around with the skills and knowledge to support someone that there is no longer a need for anonymous hotlines [...] I am proposing that we break through the shame of survivors (a result of rape culture) and the victim-blaming ideology of all of us (also a result of rape culture), so that survivors can gain support from the people already in their lives. I am proposing that all of the folks that have been disappointed by systems work together to create alternative systems. I am proposing that we organize" (Transform Harm, 2020).

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