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Isolated at Home with your Abuser: How to Support Domestic Violence Survivors During the Time of Covid-19

May 22, 2020

Unfortunately, as lockdown measures and orders continue to help slow the spread of COVID-19, women and children are stuck in houses with abusers.

Globally, organizations are raising the alarm on real and potential increases in domestic violence against women and children. UNFPA’s April 2020 report “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Family Planning and Ending Gender-based Violence, Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage” estimates that if the lockdowns continue for six months, there will be an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence, including domestic violence.  For every additional three months, there could be an additional 15 million women suffering.  These are staggering numbers.

Yet in some countries and communities, hotline numbers are silent and cases of reported violence are decreasing.  This is not good news: women are simply unable to call, reach out, or escape. As the pandemic continues, getting information to these women about how to keep safe is critical.

Equally important is getting information to all community members about appropriate ways to respond to suspected violence, even as those pathways must adapt to the new COVID-19 realities.  Organizations, neighbors, and communities are using creative ways to augment traditional surveillance and outreach methods.  Below I collate and discuss some ways different communities and organizations are detecting abuse, providing information, and empowering women and children to get to safety.

Providing critical information to new members of the “surveillance team” 

Women and children are no longer passing by school for drop-off, nor are they going to doctors or clinics for checkups.   Their “normal” patterns have changed, as have the people they see regularly.  In the US, some domestic violence shelters are training staff and volunteers handing out food at distribution centers to respond safely to a woman’s plea for help.  In England and Wales, supermarket workers are being trained to detect domestic violence. Throughout communities in Europe, women are using select words at pharmacies to reach out and escape.

Organizations that respond to domestic violence should be articulating new realities facing victims of domestic violence, and to the extent possible, mapping where trusted community touchpoints are now located.  Empowering these new champions with information about how to respond quickly and quietly can save a woman’s life.

Increasing ways to reach out through technology

Most countries and/or communities that have a domestic violence hotline use a phone-based answering service.  Most survivors try to reach out after an incident, away from their house if possible, as making a call during a violent episode can exacerbate the violence.  Domestic violence networks in the US and other countries have been expanding the reporting platforms.  Sites like CrisisTextLine help survivors via text chats. In India, the National Commission on Women launched a WhatsApp number to report domestic abuse in early April.  In Italy, the government launched an app in March of this year that enables domestic violence victims to seek help without making a phone call.  Operators for Mexican 911 centers are being trained to know that a woman ordering pizza is requesting support.  Each of these efforts, harnessing technology to enable women to discretely reach out for help, is critical. 

Even more important is communicating these new ways to reach help widely through inclusive communication campaigns, something Population Media Center has been doing through epilogues to their long-running radio shows. 

Neighbors helping neighbors

Neighbors can be the difference between life and death for many domestic violence victims.  Many communities in the US and Central America have started mutual aid groups to provide structure and best practices for neighbors to help neighbors.  One such group is encouraging community members to be on the lookout for anything different in their neighbors’ windows, front gardens, or porches. 

Female domestic violence victims have been known to put “markers” in public places to indicate they need help and can’t get it: a red cloth across a window, or gardening tools placed out in the wrong season.  This is a time where, more than ever before, people are consistently home and able to notice things about their neighbors. It’s a time where we must shift attitudes and behaviors as people unite around the possibility and power of community care.

Create and have a plan

Having a plan to escape is nothing new to domestic violence victims and survivors.  Knowing when and how to escape or reach out for help can be the difference between continued, escalating violence and safety.  This plan might differ with COVID-19 lockdowns and fear of contracting the disease. To help think through a plan, a South African organization put together a simple set of questions and considerations for domestic violence shelters and organizations to help victims during COVID-19.

What We Need To Do

Continuing to make sure victims of domestic violence have support is critical, especially as the other more visible impacts of the pandemic continue.  Neighbors have a role in providing support, as do the traditional organizations supporting victims and survivors. Organizations supporting victims and survivors will continue to need to be creative, flexible and have funding available to respond to the increasing need that is, unfortunately, already here. With more coming.