While governments across the world have placed countries under lockdown and instructed people to “stay home” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 the number of reported cases of domestic violence has risen.

With schools and workplaces being closed, women and children have lost their freedom and are forced to isolate with abusers, with limited if not no access to emergency services, refuge shelters and community support. The restriction of movement has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of women and children facing abuse in almost all countries, with calls to helplines doubling in Lebanon and Malaysia and tripling in China. Australia has seen the highest magnitude of google searches for domestic violence help in the past five years.

In China, NGO ‘Equality’ which is dedicated to combating violence against women reported an increase in calls to the helpline since early February. In Spain, the emergency number for domestic violence reported an 18% increase in calls during the first two weeks of lockdown.

Meanwhile, French police have reported a 30% increase in the number of reported cases of domestic violence. French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner instructed his officers to be on the lookout for abuse as “the risk increases due to confinement.”

Renowned trauma expert at Harvard University Medical School, Judith Lewis Herman has found that the coercive methods that abusers use to control their partners and children resemble those that kidnappers use to control hostages.

“The methods which enable one human being to control another are remarkably consistent, While perpetrators of organized political or sexual exploitation may instruct each other in coercive methods, perpetrators of domestic abuse appear to reinvent them.”

Judith Lewis Herman

In addition to physical violence, which may not be present in every abusive relationship, common forms of abuse include: isolation from friends and family, no access to employment, surveillance and monitoring technology and social media, strict rules for behaviour and restrictions on necessities.

Although home isolation is vital in the fight against COVID-19 it provides abusers with more power. If women are confined to their homes, abusers have more opportunities to assume control and assert their power.

The UN chief António Guterres is now urging all governments to make prevention of the violence against women a key part of their response plans for COVID-19 and has provided the following recommendations to improve the situation.

  • Increase investment in online services and civil society organizations,
  • Make sure judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers,
  • Set up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries,
  • Declare shelters as essential services,
  • Create safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers,
  • Avoid releasing prisoners convicted of violence against women in any form,
  • Scale-up public awareness campaigns, particularly those targeted at men and boys. 

Numerous governments are now working with non governmental organisation9s to follow the UN recommendations. Canada is keeping all refuge shelters open with an extra $50 million to fund support shelters. France is covering the cost of hotel rooms used as temporary housing for survivors. The UK and Australia are also providing extra funding to organisation such as helplines who are under strain with the increase of cases.

As domestic violence cases continue to rise around the world, governments must continue to fund resources and provide protection for victims/survivors. While the fight against the coronavirus pandemic is essential to saving lives, there is an equally important fight against the “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence.