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When Home Is More Dangerous Than the Coronavirus

Lockdowns are leaving domestic violence victims worldwide trapped with abusers.

A sign that reads "You can't stay home if there is no home"
A sign that reads "You can't stay home if there is no home" hangs on an apartment building in Berlin on March 27. Maja Hitij/Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Imagine living in fear of the person who shares your home. Imagine that every day is a nightmare of criticism, name-calling, control of what you eat and wear, and physical violence. Now imagine that you’re trapped inside with that person while the world is grappling with an ongoing health crisis.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people in countries worldwide, from Malaysia to New Zealand, are facing calls to self-isolate in order to halt the spread of the disease. Everyone is paying a price—whether from a loss of income or a lack of social contact. But for those already in unsafe situations under the shadow of domestic violence, self-isolation could be fatal.

Domestic violence affects people of all ages, genders, sexualities, cultures, and levels of income. It’s not a problem directed solely at women, although they are statistically more likely to experience domestic violence than men.

In the U.K., where I live, 1.6 million women experienced domestic violence in the year ending March 2019. Women are also more likely to be the victims of sustained abuse—83 percent of those who suffered more than 10 incidents were female. And women are more likely to be killed at the hands of abusive partners or ex-partners, with at least 114 women losing their lives in Britain in 2019.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

That’s a pattern that repeats worldwide—especially in countries where social services are poor or nonexistent and where housing situations are deeply insecure. In China, where coronavirus originated, migrant women were particularly vulnerable to abuse even before the outbreak; reports of domestic violence have surged since people have been confined to their homes. In some areas, calls to police stations have increased threefold compared to the same period last year. Chinese police have a poor record of handling domestic violence and are even less prepared now that their time and energy are consumed by handling quarantines.

In South Korea, where an energized women’s movement has been facing a renewed wave of misogyny, nearly 80 percent of men admitted to abusing girlfriends in past relationships when surveyed. While Korea hasn’t been forced to adopt harsh isolation measures thanks to a test-and-trace policy, the crisis has made it even harder to find new housing in a country already suffering from a severe shortage of shelter, as seen in the Oscar-winning movie Parasite.

And in Italy, which passed tough new domestic violence laws last year after an epidemic of femicide, women’s groups are already sounding the alarm, as they are in Germany.

“We know that the government’s advice on self- or household-isolation will have a direct impact on women and children experiencing domestic abuse,” the U.K.-based domestic violence charity Women’s Aid told Foreign Policy. “Home is not likely to be a safe place for survivors of domestic abuse. We are concerned that social distancing and self-isolation will be used as a tool of coercive and controlling behavior by perpetrators and will shut down routes to safety and support.”

If people are forced to self-isolate, they are at risk of being trapped in abusive and coercive situations, with less opportunity to access vital services. Children are also suffering in these circumstances, as witnessing abuse can take the same toll on young people’s mental health as actually being abused themselves.

“Self-isolation is an important step in the fight against the coronavirus … but can be dangerous for the thousands of children who grow up in homes with domestic abuse,” said Emily Hilton, senior policy and public affairs officer at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Advocacy groups such as Women’s Aid are arguing that safety advice and planning for those experiencing domestic abuse should be included in the national government recommendations on COVID-19. The U.K. has spent the past 10 years under conservative governments that have stripped funding from essential services—including protection against domestic violence. Funding cuts to local councils have amounted to 40 percent since 2010, and council funding for women’s refuges has been slashed by $7.8 million.  

“The impact of self-isolation will also have a direct impact on specialist services, who are already operating in an extremely challenging funding climate and will be rightly concerned about how to continue delivering life-saving support during the pandemic,” said a Women’s Aid spokesperson. “They could see challenges in funding, staff shortages, and further demand for their help.”

There are also issues around domestic violence shelters. They are often crowded spaces that operate on short notice. That will make it particularly tough to cope with what may be growing demand while adhering to social distancing regulations. Prioritizing testing for newly rehoused victims may need to be a priority.

During last week’s Question Time, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quizzed on the provisions in place for victims of domestic abuse. He answered that funding was being put back into local councils to help them fulfil obligations. But these vague answers do nothing to solve the problem. At present, support for those suffering from domestic violence is not a statutory service—meaning that the extra funding for councils does not guarantee vital assistance for those in crisis.

There is some small good news. The emergency restrictions set out in the U.K.’s Health Protection Regulations 2020 state that no person may leave the place they are living except under certain circumstances, including to “avoid injury or illness or to escape the risk of harm.” This means that people fleeing violent or coercive domestic situations will not be targeted by the police as flouting lockdown regulations.

While this is a welcome and sensible caveat, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has also plunged people into financial insecurity, potentially trapping them in abusive situations. More than a million people could lose their livelihoods in Britain alone. Without a stable income, it is much more difficult for victims to leave violent partners and protect themselves and their dependents.

As the world continues to battle the coronavirus crisis, those living in dangerous situations must not be forgotten. Anyone experiencing domestic violence should be able to access immediate and appropriate support—not trapped with their abusers for weeks.

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing abuse in the U.K., visit the Women’s Aid, Refuge, or ManKind sites, where you can access support from national online and telephone services. In an emergency, you should always call 999. If you live in the United States, contact the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence or the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In an emergency, always call 911.

Harriet Williamson is a journalist, mental health activist and artist. Twitter: @harriepw

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