The Covid-19 pandemic has seen domestic violence rates soar. Ahead of UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th, Marnie Holborow explains why it is time to challenge the lack of state support for survivors of domestic violence.
Governments have relied on individual households as the main quarantine mechanism in the Covid-19 pandemic. This comes with huge psychological and social costs which in countries familiar with pandemics is called the quarantine paradox.
Socially retreating to ‘home’, in all its guises and conditions, is required to escape the virus, but it also has serious psychological and socially disruptive consequences. This pandemic has uncovered these other sides of life, which normally lie half-hidden under the daily routines of society, and exposed deep fault lines in capitalism.
One dark side that has surfaced has been domestic violence. With lockdowns, restrictions to social interaction and staying at home, there has been a surge in the cases of intimate partner violence. The UN has described it as a worldwide “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19.
A Global Issue
Initial figures for the period of Covid are very disturbing.
In May, the World Health Organisation reported that, across their Europe member states, there was a 60% rise in emergency calls from women subjected to violence by their intimate partner. Online inquiries to violence prevention support hotlines had also increased as much as five-fold.
In the first waves of lockdowns, France saw a 32 % jump in domestic violence reports in just over a week and in Lithuania there were 20 % more domestic violence reports over a three-week lockdown period, than over the same period last year. In the US, figures show that in two counties, Milwaukee and Seattle, domestic violence homicides are twice 2019 totals.
In India, there has been more than a twofold rise in gender-based violence and in China some provinces domestic violence reports for this year have tripled compared to last year. In South Africa in the first week of lockdown alone back in March the police had received more than 87,000 gender-based complaints.
This is indeed a pandemic within a pandemic.
Ireland has been no different. During the height of the first lockdown, Women’s Aid responded to a 43% increase in calls from women who were trapped with abusers at home. In Northern Ireland, more than 8,000 incidents of domestic abuse have been reported to the PSNI during the Covid-19 lockdown. Over the year, domestic abuse comprised 18.6% of all police recorded crime, an increase from 16.2% during the previous 12 months.
Safe Ireland, the national agency for domestic violence working with 39 frontline services, in their recent report quantifies the prevalence of abuse and coercive control. From March to August 2020, almost 2,000 women, and over 400 children, received support from a domestic violence service every month during that period. Furthermore, 3,450 women and 589 children, who had never contacted a domestic violence service before, looked for support and safety in the first six months of Covid-19 restrictions. A staggering 33,941 helpline calls were answered across the country over the period, an average of 184 calls every day.
Women already scared to make the call for help, have fewer opportunities to do so under Covid because the abuser at home more, or all the time. Sarah Benson of Women’s Aid reports:
Over the last eight months, women told us that their partners were using the lockdown restrictions as an excuse not to leave after they had been violent. When abusers couldn’t get access to their current or former partners, their abuse persisted through text messages, phone calls and video calls and also through online means. For women who had previously experienced abuse, the restrictions that the Government placed on movement brought a resurgence of traumatic memories of being abused and controlled.
Women are fearful, but also fearful of stigma and blame themselves, which add to the deterrents against reporting the abuse. This means we may be hearing about only a portion of domestic violence cases.
Domestic violence is linked to and exacerbated by inequality, lack of social provision of housing and services, and the fact that states and governments do the minimum to prevent it or deal with its effects.
While intimate partner violence occurs across classes, economic deprivation, unsafe housing, lack of safe and free childcare and other social supports can make much worse already tense situations, especially in a pandemic that is causing substantial isolation. Being cooped up for months in small living spaces flows from the desperate lack of housing provision. Exorbitant rents are keeping people in substandard accommodation and figures from July this year show that some people have been on Dublin City Council Housing list for more than 20 years.
Pent up violence lurks in poor living conditions where there are few social supports. All forms of violence in the home cannot be addressed without also addressing these social factors.
The biggest scandal is that governments refuse to adequately fund services for survivors of rape and domestic violence.
The UK government failed to extend any of its extra £76m funding for domestic violence groups to Northern Ireland, despite the plea for help on behalf of local groups. Meanwhile the Irish government leaves the bulk of support services for survivors of rape and abuse to charity status organisations.
Women’s Aid’s help lines rely on volunteers. The agency receives some statutory state funding but mainly it relies on donations, fundraising events, and charity shops. According to Safe Ireland, the Government is responsible for starving the professional domestic services of the funding and resources needed to deal with the numbers of women and children seeking help.
For example, there are nowhere near enough refuges for survivors of domestic violence. International norms are that there is one family place per 10,000 of the population; Ireland has only a third of this. In 2018, refuges were unable to accommodate 3,256 requests from women. This meant these women were forced to return to the abuser or else become homeless. Under Covid, there are further barriers to getting safe accommodation due to greater risks of infection in the refuge centres.
Women’s Aid reckons it would cost the Irish government €1bn to provide adequate funding for specialist services for responding to domestic abuse. In state expenditure terms, this is not a huge sum: it is only a tenth of the money the state spends on spent on debt servicing, for example. Yet government refuses point blank to make registered charities like Women’s Aid and Safe Ireland fully state funded social care agencies.
Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, written nearly twenty years ago brought domestic abuse into the public sphere. The main character, Paula Spencer had the urge to tell her story against a society that maintained a code of silence around her experience. As the state today persists in refusing to recognise publicly the right of survivors of abuse to full societal support, they are complicit with domestic abuse continuing to go unchallenged.
Governments’ attitudes to domestic abuse is part of an overall attitude to home life – it is a private sphere, a life-style choice and not in need of structured, social supports In crises, however, governments turn to individual households to protect their populations. In normal times too, although much less openly, society depends on home as the ultimate place of provision for people’s daily needs.
Individual households provide a vital often unrecognised function for capitalism – the provision of a refreshed and cared for workforce for today and through having children and childcare a new one for the future. The myth is that family, home and relationships are for personal needs, the place for self- fulfilment and love. Yet as I have written elsewhere, the reality is much more complicated.
Many more responsibilities have fallen on the family and individual households in recent years. The absence of state funded services combined with cuts to support services during the last recession, leaves mainly women to fill the gaps – to care for children, for disabled people, for the sick and for older people. Women are at the sharp end of the tensions within home life.
The lack of affordable housing means that many women have restricted choices and literally nowhere else to go. The pandemic has intensified these tensions. Closures of schools and childcare facilities have added to the stress at home. Balancing work, childcare, and children’s education, alongside work in the home, have burdened women with multiple roles.
Furthermore, it is women in low paid jobs who have been most at risk of being laid off during the pandemic. With means of financial independence closed off, the chance of escaping an abuser is even more difficult.
The state’s reluctance to fully recognise the reality of domestic violence is further reflected in a legal system stacked against women. The criminal justice system is not responsive to the needs of survivors of domestic violence. Court cases involving violence against women often appear to put the survivor on trial not the perpetrator of violence.
Yet the institutional anti-woman bias can be broken. In March 2018, the acquittal of four rapists in Belfast horrified women across the island and they came out in hundreds to protest. The victorious Repeal movement shows that many women are simply not going to settle for brushing issues affecting women under the carpet. The huge international #metoo movement called out sexual harassment and sexual assault at work.
A similar movement needs to call out sexual violence in the home. In some ways because of the isolation of the home, breaking the silence collectively is more difficult. Tirana Burke, the Bronx-based black activist who founded the first #metoo movement in the US in 2006, said in a recent interview that what was required was to give voice politically and collectively to a growing spectrum of survivors of domestic violence. She sees history is a forked stick:
Those trying to make progress are the rock, while the forces of the right and the state are the rubber band pulling back. What they don’t realise is the further they try to pull us back they’re just giving us energy to go further. And if the rubber band breaks? We’re just going to pick up the rock and throw it anyway.
She is right. We need to protest in large numbers as we have done before, break the silence of domestic violence and stand up for the survivors.