April 14, 2020

Not Always Safer at Home: COVID-19 and Domestic Violence

woman sad by a window

By Melissa Laitner, PhD, MPH, SWHR Director of Science Policy

With most of the world facing restrictions on movement due to the novel coronavirus, many media outlets are reporting on both expected and observed increases in domestic violence cases globally. In early April, the leader of the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, shared a video on Twitter warning of the domestic violence threat.

In the video, Guterres stated that “lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners.” He also warned of a “horrifying global surge” in domestic violence cases and advised governments across the world to prioritize the health and safety of survivors of domestic violence.

Why is coronavirus associated with such a staggering increase in violence at home? Jhumka Gupta, ScD, MPH, an associate professor at George Mason University and public health researcher with expertise in violence against women, recently wrote an article for Women’s Media Center suggesting that “[w]ith even less contact from friends and family, women may be even further cut off from the little support that would normally be available, thus potentially exacerbating violence.”

SWHR followed up with Gupta, who is also a member of SWHR’s Endometriosis and Fibroids Network, to ask what steps can be taken to help individuals currently at risk of violence during the pandemic.

“It is very important that women and girls who are experiencing or are otherwise vulnerable to such violence to know that help is available,” she said. “Hotlines are still operational and can be reached through phone calls or via text.”

She also advised developing safety plans. A safety plan is essentially a set of steps that one can take to reduce the risk of harm in unsafe situations with an abusive partner or family member. Some steps might include establishing code words with friends to let them know when you are unsafe or memorizing important phone numbers.

As for what others can do to help, Gupta said, “Friends and family should also reach out to check in on women’s safety. Health care workers, though extremely busy and stretched at this time, should be made aware of the risks for violence during the pandemic, and they can refer women to resources.”

Recently, there have been signs that the federal government is aware of this problem. In late March, a group of 24 U.S. senators sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asking for more information on U.S. domestic violence data and what flexibility federal agencies have in responding. The group, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), asked HHS to brief Senate staff by the end of March.

In addition, the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in late March included $45 million in emergency shelter provisions as well as money for the National Domestic Violence hotline. Talk of future coronavirus relief bills have included discussion about the need for mental and behavioral health support.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was recently quoted in The Hill on what she is seeing in her own state. “We know the impacts on people when you are in close quarters with a lot of stress. We see domestic violence. We see substance abuse. We see levels of addiction that we wish were not present with us. And so it’s something that I don’t think we have fully factored yet.”

In considering steps to address the surge in domestic violence cases, Congress may want to take guidance from other countries. Spain and Italy have both launched online chat services allowing individuals to ask for help without needing to make a phone call. Italy has also earmarked money to support survivors of violence. France is working to increase funding for existing emergency shelters and to fund hotel nights for victims needing to leave home immediately and also plans to set up assistance points for survivors at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Within the U.S., the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and related organizations have asked Congress to take further steps in helping survivors and their children. In a letter sent to congressional leadership, NNEDV requested help with housing resources, paid sick time, and protections for immigrants, who may face particular challenges due to concerns about citizenship status and deportation.

Gupta said policies to address the domestic violence crisis should include “adequate economic relief for families and communities,” especially ensuring funding for particularly vulnerable communities, such as refugees and immigrants.

Finally, it is important to consider that domestic violence will not end once the lockdowns do. Long-term assistance for survivors will remain paramount even after the immediate crisis lessens.

Gupta urged Congress to prioritize discussions of reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in the coming months in order to provide funding to rape crisis centers, shelters, and legal services for survivors. VAWA re-authorization talks stalled in late 2019, and the authorization for funding lapsed earlier last year as well.

“Any efforts for recovery and rebuilding must also center the safety of women and girls,” she said.

If You Need Help

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Advocates are available 24/7 and there is help in over 200 languages. All calls are free and confidential.

If you’re not able to speak openly via phone, you can privately message advocates on the National Domestic Violence Hotline here.

Futures Without Violence has compiled a list of resources for survivors as well as information about safety plans and self-care.

How You Can Help

Futures Without Violence has information on how to help family members or friends experiencing violence at home.

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence has information on how to help someone in an abusive relationship.

For More Reading

How to Help Domestic Violence Survivors During The Coronavirus Pandemic, InStyle

When Home Isn’t Safe: What the Coronavirus Pandemic Means for Domestic Violence Survivors, Vox

How Coronavirus Quarantining Could Lead To An Increase In Domestic Violence, Refinery29