We have a problem.
We have known about gender injustice for centuries, yet only over the past one hundred years have we been actively working to end this vast inequality. The rights women have claimed, from voting rights to reproductive rights, have been hard fought and hard won. Undergirding all of those public battles, there has been the ongoing battle for a woman’s right to safety at home. Domestic violence has plagued people for as long as we have written history, yet even during our current health pandemic, this social problem continues to be defined as a private issue.
One reason for this is that governments and those who create policy insist on spreading false narratives, such as the one recently sent out by the Malaysian government: Don’t nag your husbands during quarantine and social distancing. This form of misinformation does nothing to help women be safe. It allows violence against women to be blamed on women. Home is the most dangerous place for a woman, and violence against women is about power and control.
COVID-19, combined with the pandemic of domestic violence, means that we currently have a pandemic inside an existing, entrenched pandemic. The only bright side is that now, every human understands what the word “pandemic” means. But how many people will come out of this time of crisis understanding what gender-based violence means? Just as COVID-19 strikes any age, sex, religion, culture, country, class, and education level, the pandemic of gender-based violence knows no boundaries. Whenever there is a crisis that upends life as we know it, I am aware that more women and children will pay a higher price. This almost always means that more violence will occur.
Countries are already seeing a significant uptick in levels of violence. My district, Montgomery County in Texas, recently reported an “increase of 35% domestic violence cases filed in March 2020 as were filed in the same time period in 2019. This rise may be due to increased isolation, stress, and more access to victims by perpetrators caused by the COVID-19 virus fallout.”
France has also reported a 30% increase in reported abuses and I woke up to this a few days ago:“Dear Indrani, in the Netherlands there seems to be a significant rise in domestic violence due to families having to stay at home and husbands not going to work.”
My work to end violence takes on deeper meaning in times of crisis.
Abuse is built on power and control, and every advocate knows that the most dangerous time for a victim is when she tries to leave. In November of 2019, Jennifer Schlecht and her 5 year old daughter were brutally murdered by her partner. He killed himself. There were no COVID-19 pressures in November. Women were already struggling under broken systems. Those who managed to carve out a semblance of normalcy did so by carefully staying out of the way of their abusers. We were not under the social pressures that we are under today. In so-called normal times, many women are already under significant stress in their homes. The cumulative daily effects of COVID-19 have taken these situations to the breaking points and beyond.
When victims and abusers are forced to shelter together and violence is predictable, the levels of despair become too much for systems that are already fragile.
I find myself wondering if school systems will have any mental health programs when students return. Some students will have been sheltering in homes that were active gender-based violence war zones. They will have been immersed in violence and rage, and yet we will expect them to behave as if they were on vacation or sleep-away camp where all was well. Fragile systems have fallen apart.
The National Domestic Hotline gives some tips when active abuse is in play:
- Create a space away from everyone else in your home where you can be alone and safe
- Get a family member to contact a Domestic Violence hotline with what you need and then pass on the support to you (if it is not safe for you to call yourself)
- Use the more discreet chat and text options to the DV hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/
- Take a shower by yourself
- Do chores/activities you do by yourself to get a break
- Call and talk to family and friends
- Go to the grocery store
The National domestic hotline also has a section on COVID-19 on their homepage for more ideas: https://www.thehotline.org/
Love Expressed as Violence is a Lie is my TEDx talk, where I point out what happens when children are abused at home.
The messages of increased abuse are coming from far and wide, and I am grateful that reports are coming in from major media outlets. Abusers do not know where to put their rage, and so they lash out at partners and children.
This COVID-19 pandemic “has shattered exit plans that some victims have spent months developing.” Safety planning is a very specialized niche, and victims go through every level of anxiety one can imagine. Some finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and then COVID-19 appeared from nowhere, just like the punches and rapes and other horrific abuses. Some woman may never regain the confidence to start their safety plan over again.
I am very grateful that many news outlets have devoted coverage to different aspects of what COVID-19 is doing to women, because the inequality in pay is another blow to women as they struggle to find ways to survive their abusers and economic burdens.
Let’s turn our attention now to the global south, where women are in even more precarious situations. Women with no education, no money, no social systems, and a culture that tells them it is their responsibility to make the family work, are stretched in ways that we in the global north cannot imagine.
Recently, it was reported that there’s “a lot of uncertainty about what is even possible right now.” Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said, “We know that when there’s added stress in the home it can increase the frequency and severity of abuse. We’re trying to prepare survivors for that.”
Many victims are worried that calling the police and or trying to go to a shelter will put them in harm’s way of the virus. Recently, I read about an abuser who accused his partner of giving him the virus. Victims are squeezed from all sides, and they are trying their best to survive within these two pandemics; COVID-19 and Violence against Women.
Please reach out to a trusted friend if you feel the urge to be emotionally or physically violent. Violence is a choice. Choose something else. If you have the bandwidth to learn some new skills to help with behavior changes go to www.RAFTcares.org.
We all have a part to play. The world will invest billions of dollars and science will hopefully give us a vaccine for COVID-19. For domestic violence, the situation is more complicated and involves many layers of understanding and change. We must apply our resources now to this critical work.