By Luma Andrade
Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of domestic violence, which some may find distressing. Therefore, please respect your boundaries and do not proceed with this article if it might negatively affect you.
Some people are lucky enough to be able to call their houses their homes, but other people can only dream of doing so.
Some people rush through their days thinking about the warm feeling of coming home. Other people rush through their lives thinking about the moment they will be free from their abusers.
We have been living in a pandemic for thousands of years, and little has been done about it. On a daily basis, the shadow pandemic of domestic violence affects millions of women around the world. The common perception that domestic violence only involves physical assaults needs to be torn down as it neglects other – equally serious – forms of abuse. It can also take place in emotional, sexual, psychological, and economic ways.
In order to provide a far-reaching perspective of the seriousness of this issue, several statistics and testimonials will be presented throughout this article.
Some statistics of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic
Domestic violence is not bound by borders, and neither is its intensity. The rising number of domestic violence cases during COVID times can be seen all around the world. To show this, I will provide some examples across different continents. When speaking about the American continent, Brasil has had 648 cases of femicide during the first half of 2020, which is an increase by 1.9% compared to the same period in 2019. In the same way, domestic violence reports increased by 8.1% after lockdown orders in 2020 in the United States.
Regarding member states of the European Union, there was a 60% increase in the number of emergency calls made by women from several states who are the victims of domestic violence when compared to the database from April 2019. Unfortunately, the same pattern of drastic rise in abuse can be seen across Asia. From April of 2020 until March of 2021, the National Commission for Women (NSW) received 25,886 complaints of crimes against women, in which of them 5,865 complaints of domestic violence in India – 5,297 solely in 2020. When compared to the NSW data from 2019, there was an increase of 2,337 cases of domestic violence in the year of 2020. Another Asian nation whose horrific increases in domestic violence call attention upon it is Thailand, where domestic violence reports increased by 66% since March of 2020.
Moving on to the Middle East and Africa, there was a 33% increase in complaints about domestic abuse during the lockdown in 2020 in Jordan. As if this were not enough, 69% of respondents in a survey affirm that gender-based violence has increased since the pandemic started. I have to admit that one of the most shocking and painful statistics comes from South Africa, where the police received 2,300 calls related to gender-based violence during the first week of the lockdown only.
On a more isolated side of the globe, there is Australia: a country where referrals to the support service during January to August in 2020 increased by 189% and phone calls increased by 55% compared to 2019. Also, a survey conducted in July of 2020 showed that 10% of women involved in relationships suffered from domestic violence during the pandemic.
Lack of movement leaves victims trapped with their abusers
During non-COVID times, 1 in 3 women worldwide experienced physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner throughout their lives. As presented, this statistic already shows the absurd and extreme scale of these human rights violations. Now, more than ever, we are witnessing a massive increase in the vulnerability of women due to the combination of two pandemics: domestic violence and COVID-19. Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus started to spread around the world, the necessity to stay at home arose in order to prevent more infections and casualties. With this, victims were trapped with their abusers at home which combined with other factors, led to a massive increase in the frequency of domestic violence and abuse cases. Be that as it may, the odds of having the option to contact somebody without their abusers finding out is exceptionally low, since the need to stay at home imposes a limitation of victim’s movement.
Economic instability, unemployment as triggering factors
The current economic instability and intense unemployment levels due to impositions of necessary lockdowns in different nations are also contributing to this issue. No one should be left in a position where they have to choose between risking infection just to be able to put food on the table or keeping themselves and their families safe from a deadly virus, but be unable to provide for them. Most governments lack appropriate resources and aid instruments to diminish the financial damage experienced by the population. Thus, small businesses were and are still severely affected by lockdown measures, leading to an increase of household stress levels combined with threat of unemployment and reduced income contributing to the escalation of violence and abuse at home.
Alcohol consumption and the pandemic
Multiple researchers found that there is a relationship between the boredom of the quarantine, stress levels and the increase of alcohol consumption. Keep this in mind as I remind you that the World Health Organization’s (WHO) study estimates that 55% of domestic abuse perpetrators had consumed alcohol prior to the attack. There is a huge debate on whether the consumption of alcohol is a true trigger to domestic abuse or whether they are just two separate social problems being arranged together. I am far from being a professional in this topic, therefore, if you are interested in this specific debate, you should consult reliable sources from professionals. However, the statistics are alarming. According to the fact sheet of Intimate partner violence and alcohol of WHO prior COVID-19, victims believed that the abusers were consuming alcohol prior to a physical assault in 55% of cases in the United States; 32% of cases in England and Wales; 65% of victims claimed that their partners were often, if not always, drinking alcohol before physically assaulting them in South Africa.
As we know, these concerning statistics are made from a certain sample of victims. Imagine if every single victim were included in those studies, and if they were to fall into the existing trend, the numbers would be insane (not that they are not right now since every single case of domestic assault is absurd). We also need to feel for all the victims who did not and still do not have a chance to report to authorities.
The presentation of this data serves a unique purpose: to show how this relationship between stress under the pandemic and increase of alcohol consumption can leave even more women vulnerable in their homes, as it can lead to an increase in the occurrence of domestic violence. I would like to stress that my personal opinion is based on the fact that the systematic cultural and sexist factors are the ones creating the roots of domestic abuse, and therefore, do not think it is acceptable to justify this issue with the use of alcohol. There is an urgency to unmask those roots, and talk about it. As stated by the President of the Inter-American Society of Psychology, Sandra Elizabeth Luna, the blaming of domestic violence on the irresponsible consumption of alcohol takes away all visibility and neglects the necessity to address the true causes of this systemic issue. Even though the use of alcohol can be a triggering factor, it is far from being the cause of the problem.
When it comes to the specific COVID-19 scenario, the study of Aaron Chalfin, Shooshan Danagoulian and Monica Deza called “Covid has strengthened the relationship between alcohol consumption and domestic violence” is great. An enriching analysis which tested the hypothesis of the relationship between alcohol consumption and domestic violence after the implementation of stay-at-home rules in Michigan. The gathering of data is done by merging public data on 911 calls in Detroit, MI, with geo-location data which allows the track of visits to bars and liquor stores. After conducting their research based on empirical methods and descriptive analysis, it was concluded that “domestic violence calls rise with the number of visits to both bars and liquor stores in the post-pandemic period”.
The lack of police interference and limited access to judicial systems
The implementation of lockdown measures hinders the investigation and prosecution process of crimes related to domestic abuse due to the reduced number of working employees, which slows down the entire process. Those measures also significantly impact the ways to get in contact with victims, witnesses and perpetrators.
Focusing on the scenario in India, the specific case of Pathavi*, an Indian woman living in Chennai who was being physically assaulted by her alcoholic husband and had her basic human rights to life and security neglected by the police. On the 25th of March 2020, she had gone out to seek help at the police barricade on her street, but in return was turned down and listened to the words “Go home and sort it out, the police and courts are shut for 21 days.”
The lack of assistance from those who are supposed to enforce the security of the population is a form of structural violence – in which invisible violence is perpetrated by institutions on specific social groups, regardless of intention, in order to achieve the structure’s interests – towards the female population.
It is not news for anyone that the system has been failing us. As a woman, I write this with my heart in pain for all of the women who have suffered and still suffer from various forms of structural and cultural violence daily. Sometimes, I wonder what world some people live in when I hear someone questioning the veracity of the assault if the victim did not go to the police to report her abuser. Only in a fantasy world would it be this easy to go through the judicial process; to have enough resources to do so; to be able to cope with the constant act of revisiting traumas and stay sane, and a lot else. The number of victims who are turned down and silenced when trying to report their abusers is extremely horrifying. There are also several cases of women who were able to get judicial assistance, but unfortunately, it is far from the common reality for the victims, especially those living in countries with unstable democracies and high-levels of corruption, like Brazil.
I wish I could put into words how the local spheres of authorities significantly silences daily victims of assault just because the abuser is an influential person in town or nationally speaking. Not to mention all the money to turn judges or the “sudden” disappearance of evidence in policial investigations, if the victim even has a chance to get one.
In 2020, there were more than 105 000 complaints of violence against women in just two different hotlines platforms in Brazil. This is the number of reports that made their way to the government. In order to reach those emergency hotlines, the victim needs to have access to a cell phone. In a country that has 52 million people living under the line of extreme poverty in 2020, how can we make it a requirement to have a cellphone in order to be able to report your abuse? Especially now, with the need to stay at home and isolate due to risk of contamination, it makes it even harder for people to get access to public phones or to make a call from someone else’s phone. It is impossible to provide proper assistance to victims of domestic violence without making it accessible for people within different socio-economic contexts. The assistance must be far-reaching, and not only accessible to more privileged social groups, as having access to a cell phone can be considered a privilege under those scenarios where people are living in miserable conditions.
Let me tell you about Maria, an amazing 25 year old woman who had the joy of life taken away from her. Maria has beautiful brown eyes, the intense look that you might get lost in and a warm smile. After graduating in Economics, she started to date a guy and life seemed perfect on social media, until it was not. Maria lost her job in March of 2020, generating tension in her household since she decided it was not possible to pay the rent anymore, and her boyfriend started to threaten her. Daily screams, daily punches in the face, daily economic manipulations, daily control of her social media and contacts. You may be wondering if she asked for help from her parents or something along those lines, right? Her parents live out in the fields on the other side of the country, with little to no knowledge on how to use the internet. Also, her mother suffers from a very serious heart-disease and Maria could not handle the possibility that telling her could result in her mother having a literal heart attack.
Locked inside with her abuser on the outskirts of the city, where she was controlled by him all the time, Maria had nowhere or no one to run to. Tired of only hoping for better days, she one day gathered all of her pieces of evidence and went to the police station while her perpetrator had a doctor’s appointment, to which had to go alone due to COVID restrictions. “Where are all the proofs? I need more than a bruised eye. Didn’t you just graduate from an amazing university?“, the police officer told her. She was screaming in pain while the clock was ticking, and she would need to run home to not get caught by the abuser. Every second counted and her life was at risk. She was turned down by the ones who are supposed to protect the victims. At this point, you might be thinking that it could not get any worse, but I hate to tell you otherwise. The next day, her abuser received a call from the police officer that had neglected Maria the day before. Turns out they were friends from high-school. I don’t know how to tell you what happened after this phone call, but it was the last time Maria was able to feel her entire body pulsating.
The clock now marks 195 days since Maria has been intubated in intensive care with one leg amputated. The clock now marks 100 days since her abuser started his Master’s degree.
We need to fight for justice for all the Marias out there, and make sure that there are no more Marias to come. I know many Marias out there. You probably know many Marias out there, even without knowing that they are victims of domestic abuse.
*Name changed at the Aljazeera News to protect the victim
Edited by Teun van Dieten, artwork by Chira Tudoran