With the world in lockdown, for some, being at home is as dangerous as being outside

Many of the factors that contribute to domestic violence under normal circumstances have created a combustible mix during lockdown. (AP/Kamil Zihnioglu)

With a third of the world’s population under some form of government-mandated lockdown during recent months, hundreds of millions of people have been cooped up at home in a bid to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. These lockdown measures have created extra stresses for many people – from lost income to the tensions arising from staying in close quarters with relatives 24/7. For some people, however, the hardship has been compounded by one additional threat: being in lockdown with their abuser.

Shortly after lockdown measures were implemented in one country after the other, women’s rights organisations and domestic violence helplines all around the world started reporting spikes in domestic violence. In India, for example, the number of domestic abuse cases doubled in the first four weeks of lockdown, according to the National Commission for Women. In Argentina – a country where just before the lockdown it is estimated that one woman was killed by a man every 30 hours – Al Jazeera reports that the national emergency number for victims of domestic abuse sawa 60 per cent surge in calls in Buenos Aires province immediately after the lockdown. Meanwhile, Kenya is said to have experienced a 34 per cent increase in calls for help related to domestic violence during the first three weeks of the country’s dusk-to-dawn curfew.

The attention of lawmakers has been focused on mitigating the health and socioeconomic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic for understandable reasons, says Kalliopi Mingeirou, head of the Ending Violence against Women section at UN Women in New York. “But the pandemic we are currently ignoring is the violence against women and girls,” she tells Equal Times. “Because of the lockdown measures in place, a lot of women that were already experiencing violence before COVID-19, are now stuck and trapped with their abusers at home. They are far away from their social networks and far from their extended families.”

Many of the factors that contribute to domestic violence under normal circumstances have created a combustible mix during lockdown, says Mingeirou: the isolation of victims from their families and friends, something abusers often actively seek; unemployment and the attendant financial pressures; as well as increased consumption of alcohol and other substances.

In the UK, research suggests that 1 in 5 people are consuming more alcohol, and in South Africa – where Amnesty International recently described the rates of gender-based violence and femicide as “undeniably alarming” – the government has banned the sale of alcohol to curb excessive drinking during confinement. Early evidence seems to suggest this may have helped reduce domestic violence.

Although the lockdown measures have added an extra practical barrier, the step of seeking help is always a difficult one for survivors of domestic abuse to take and research shows that it can take people two to three years before getting help. “It is not easy for a woman to call and denounce her husband. That’s why it’s important to maintain a very close relation with anti-violence centres and to encourage women to talk to someone and to address the issue,” says Silvana Cappuccio, policy officer at the international department of Italy’s national centre, the CGIL. Her union has been working closely with local NGOs and support services that offer free legal and psychological help to domestic violence victims for many years.

Soon after reports of increased domestic violence emerged in Italy, CGIL union representatives started lobbying policymakers and news organisations to increase awareness of the hotlines able to assist victims of domestic violence. They also called for the creation of a mobile app that would allow women unable to make calls at home to enlist the help of police at the press of a button, explains Cappuccio. That app – called YouPol – is now in operation, she says, praising the Italian government for its quick action.

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A disproportionate impact on women and people from the LGBTI community

The coronavirus pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on women in a multitude of ways. The overwhelming majority of workers in low-paid, frontline jobs such as social care, nursing and food retail are women; women have always carried the weight of unpaid care responsibilities, but this has only been exacerbated by COVID-19; and mass job losses are taking place in women-dominated jobs such as hairdressing, cleaning, retail and airline cabin crew. To better protect women workers from the gendered impacts of the pandemic as they relate to violence and harassment in the world of work, Cappuccio is echoing the calls of the international trade union movement for governments around the world to ratify the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 190 (C190) and Recommendation 206 (R206).

Adopted by the ILO last year, this is the first ever global labour standard that seeks to prevent, and protect workers from, “a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices,” as the International Trade Union Confederation’s equality director Chidi King wrote in an blog on the new instrument for Equal Times, “…whether physical, psychological, sexual or economic”. As a new ILO publication on the ways in which C190 and R206 are important for the global COVID-19 response and recovery suggests, the Convention and Recommendation not only offer clear steps to mitigate the impact of domestic violence on the world of work, which is particularly important at a time when home has become a workplace for so many, but it also offers comprehensive guidance on everything from protecting informal workers, to preventing and addressing cyberbullying, to promoting better data on violence and harassment.

However, the financial impact of the coronavirus is likely to make it even harder for people to escape abusive situations. To mitigate the economic impact of the weeks-long closure of businesses and industries, governments the world over are likely to deepen cuts to public services in the coming months, particularly in areas relating to childcare and subsidised housing. And many charitable organisations have already felt the impact of mass job losses, reporting steep decreases in donations from the public.

But this is no excuse not to provide assistance and protection to those who need it, says Cappuccio. “There are remedies, tools for government and employers to address this increase [in violence because of COVID-19 lockdowns]. We know that there is a strong connection between violence at home and work, and we absolutely need to address this in terms of human rights,” she says, pointing out that violence at home has ripple effects in the workplace. “If a woman is subjected to violence at home, she brings with her the frustration of a person who is deprived of the needed respect for her dignity when she goes to work.” Domestic violence can also affect a victim’s ability to concentrate at work, their safety in the workplace, and without paid domestic violence leave, survivors may not be able to organise the help they need to escape their situation, as being at work may be the only time they have away from their abuser.

LGBTI+ individuals in lockdown with abusive relatives or partners have also been severely affected by the lockdown measures, says Svetlana Zakharova, communications manager at the Russian LGBT Network. The number of people who’ve contacted the organisation via its hotline and live chat service since the Russian government imposed a coronavirus lockdown at the end of March has doubled, prompting the NGO to make its chat service available around the clock rather than just seven hours a day.

Many of the people who’ve reached out to the network in the past few weeks have been young people. Most underage callers haven’t come out to their relatives, Zakharova explains, and being cooped up with adults whom they’re dependent on is compounding already strained relations. “These minors cannot use the same patterns to avoid conflict that they would normally use. For instance, they cannot just go away and then after a few hours pretend that nothing happened,” she explains. “They have to stay in the same space and all the difficulties are getting more and more acute, and they lead to more violence.”

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And the psychologists who staff the Russian LGBT Network’s helpline and live chat are likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg. “People don’t think about same-sex, homosexual relationships as abusive relations and, quite often, people who are in abusive relations don’t realise this themselves,” she says, pointing out that awareness-raising around the issue in Russia has entirely focused on heterosexual couples. Official domestic violence figures compiled by local agencies are also limited and fragmented. “I assume that the level of domestic violence cases is growing but people just do not make reports,” Zakharova says, adding that members of the LGBTI+ community are deeply wary of enlisting the help of the police due to deeply entrenched homophobia in Russian society.

Obstacles to help and a rise in child abuse

Zakharova also worries about the practical barriers to getting help: almost all the help resources the Russian LGBT Network offers require a good internet connection. But many people live in remote, rural regions with poor connectivity or can’t afford a data package. “That is really getting more and more important as more and more people are losing jobs,” she says. “I don’t know how we’re going to deal with that.”

The lockdown measures and school closures in many parts of the world have also put children living with abusive parents or relatives at increased risk of violence. It’s why, earlier this month, the World Health Organization called on governments to include measures to protect children from violence, neglect and abuse in their COVID-19 response and prevention plans, and to designate child protection services as essential services as lockdown measures are relaxed.

“We are really worried about the increase in calls we’ve seen to child abuse helplines,” says Tim Stroobants, director of the Child Abuse Expertise Centre in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium.

“Some children for instance say that there’s constant yelling and fighting in their home, that threats are made, that smacks are occasionally given. Or, they’ll say: ‘I’m being forced to stay in my room all day.’ These are all things we also hear at other moments, but the isolation is making them worse.”

The common thread tying such abuse together, he says, is stress in a family and powerlessness to deal with that stress. “All the usual mitigating factors have fallen away, such as having healthy outlets to deal with stress and contact with others,” he explains. “But it’s not as if these are very nice people who have suddenly become very violent. These are families where stress already ran high, where that stress has now become even more difficult to channel and is escalating more quickly under the current, difficult circumstances.”

Like Zakharova, Stroobants is worried that helpline staff are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Children often feel guilty about and responsible for the abuse they experience, and taking steps to seek help is a huge hurdle for them, he explains. “If, on top of that, the message is being given that help services have been curtailed, I really am afraid about the many situations that won’t come to light,” he says. “So, it’s really important to communicate that these help services continue to be active and in operation, and that everyone who wants to get in touch can do so.”

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