When a lockdown is not actually safer: Intimate partner violence during COVID-19
The first thing that came to mind when I heard about COVID restrictions and mitigation strategies was how exceptionally dangerous this time could be for women living with abusive partners. “Self-isolate,” “stay at home,” “practice social distancing,” and “recession” are all words likely to be terrifying to many women who are living with intimate partner violence (IPV). The lives of these women are often filled with fear and danger under normal circumstances, but during this new normal of the global pandemic, the lives of these very often “invisible victims” are at an increased risk for more violence — and even murder.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, epidemiological estimates showed that nearly one in three women experience IPV, and approximately one in four women experience severe IPV. Other data show that nearly half of all female homicides are from a current or past male intimate partner. Although these numbers are already unacceptably high, historical data show increases in rates of IPV during pandemics and times of economic crisis. Other data show that domestic violence tends to increase when families spend more time together, such as over the holidays.
COVID restrictions have caused a spike in IPV
Unfortunately, the realities of COVID-19 and its restrictions have indeed caused a perfect storm for women experiencing IPV. First, there have been numerous media reports indicating huge spikes in calls to IPV hotlines, sometimes doubling and tripling the typical number of requests for help, after stay-in-place orders were mandated.
Second, reports have indicated frightening increases in femicide from IPV. The UK has reported femicide rates higher than they have been in the past 11 years, double the average for a 21-day period. Mexico has reported an 8% increase in femicides, with nearly 1,000 women murdered in the first three months of the year. These data clearly indicate an escalation of more severe forms of violence, likely leading to an increase in the number of IPV-related traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Repetitive TBIs are some of the most underappreciated dangers of IPV and have been associated with a range of negative cognitive, psychological, and neural outcomes — which many believe may make an escape from an abusive situation even more difficult.
Third, women’s ability to escape abusive situations has been reduced during this time. In many situations, COVID-19 mandates require that women remain locked down with their abuser. Friends who women may have previously been able to turn to may no longer be in a position to help, due to social distancing regulations. Women may also be justifiably afraid to leave for fear of exposing themselves and their children to the virus, including going to a shelter — if shelter beds are even available.
With abusive partners home more frequently due to lack of social outlets, and/or loss of employment or working from home, it may be impossible or more dangerous for women to find a safe space or time to seek help. Reports have shown that the closing of courts has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for women to obtain orders of protection. Consequently, some women may have been planning to leave but are no longer able to carry out that plan.
Weighing the risks and benefits of getting help
Women may want to leave due to escalation of violence — including traumas to the head — but feel they have no place to turn. Faced with two undesirable choices, choosing to weather the abuse and endure the effects of more severe violence may seem a better option than the potential danger of seeking medical help and/or support services and contracting COVID-19.
What can you do?
If you know someone who may be experiencing abuse or who is very isolated, check in with her frequently, ask how she is doing, and provide her an opportunity to let you know things may not be going well. If you are in a position to take her in, be sure she is aware that is a possibility for her if needed.
If you are a medical professional, consider mentioning that family violence has increased since COVID-19, and ask women if they feel safe at home.
If you are experiencing violence within the home, please remember:
- You are not alone; IPV occurs to one in three women!
- This is not your fault, and you should not feel ashamed to seek help.
- If you are injured, do not delay getting critical care because of contamination fears. Reports show that some emergency rooms are less busy than usual, and all medical staff is extensively trained and prepared to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- If you know you are at risk, reach out to The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY, or if you are unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. They are available 24/7 and can work with you to find help in your area.
- Have a safety plan. Even obvious things may not seem obvious when you are in a terrifying situation. Having a safety plan will help with that.