A safe home environment isn’t accessible to everyone. Globally, lockdowns and quarantines have coincided with a surge in domestic violence. The increase in domestic violence against Australian women during the COVID-19 pandemic has been attributed to several factors, one of them being increased isolation and decreased social movement which may have restricted avenues for women to seek help.[i] According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, one in 10 Australian women experienced domestic violence during the initial stages of the pandemic.[ii] The institute released a statistical bulletin on the prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper is a consolidation of data gained from an online survey completed by 15,000 Australian women during the initial stages of the pandemic. It concludes the drivers of increased violence are complex, but more than likely involve impacts of COVID-19 restrictions, including the increased time spent at home, the social isolation and the financial stressors.
Bristol University sociologist Marianne Hester notes that domestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as Christmas.[iii] Global lockdowns have kept women in these unsafe spaces, where they are forced to spend more time with an abuser. In April, UN Secretary General António Guterres urged all governments around the world to make the prevention and redress violence against women a key part of their COVID-19 national response. “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest – in their own homes,”[iv] Guterres stated.
In Australia, many women reported it was the first time their partner had been violent, while for others the violence escalated. Two-thirds of Australian women who experienced domestic violence during the pandemic said the violence had started or escalated in February. 53% of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence before February 2020 said the violence became more frequent or severe once the pandemic started. Google reported a 75% increase in internet searches relating to support for domestic violence in Australia.[v] And in NSW, 40% of COVID-19 front-line workers reported an increased request for help from domestic violence.
The surge in domestic violence has been acknowledged globally and described by The New York Times as “acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”[vi] The United Nations refers to the increase in domestic violence as the COVID-19 Shadow Pandemic. UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, launched the Shadow Pandemic public awareness campaign in May 2020.[vii] The campaign provides confronting statistics on the rise of abuse. In one weekend, calls to domestic abuse helplines in the UK went up by 65%. In Argentina, emergency calls for domestic violence increased by 25% since the commencement of lockdown. Helplines in Singapore and Cyprus have registered an increase in calls of more than 30%. In Chicago, a domestic violence hotline saw an increase from 383 calls in the first week of March, to 549 calls by the end of April.[viii] In the UK, more than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first three months of lockdown; and by June, calls were 80% higher than usual for UK charity Refuge. In South Africa, authorities said there were nearly 90,000 reports of violence against women in the first week of lockdown.[ix] The UN has reported that Lebanon and Malaysia have seen helpline calls double; and triple in China.[x]
Existing helplines, shelters, and support networks for abused women are exhausting their resources to cover the rising needs for help. They are also having their resources restricted by COVID-19 regulations. António Guterres says that globally “healthcare providers and police are overwhelmed, and understaffed; local support groups are paralysed or short of funds. Some domestic violence shelters are closed; others are full.”[xi] The New York Times notes that many shelters have cited worries over the spread of the virus inside their facilities and have stopped accepting newcomers.[xii] The Shadow Pandemic campaign calls the private sector to action, to leverage their existing resources and influence to keep women safe at home and at work. “Employers have a ‘duty of care’ to their employees working remotely from home and are in a good position to support those who may be affected by domestic violence.”[xiii]
On March 29 the Australian Government responded to the crisis with a $150 million contribution to support domestic violence initiatives 1800 RESPECT and Mensline Australia.[xiv] The announcement was made with Christine Morgan, CEO of National Mental Health Commission, who reiterated to the public that “home is not always safe.”[xv] However, in Australia, one in three women who experienced abuse said that at least on one occasion they wanted to seek advice or support but couldn’t because of safety reasons.[xvi] Being confined to a shared space, with restrictions on leaving, has reduced access to help. Many Australian support services have found it difficult to engage with women during this period of social distancing.[xvii] Government funding has been adopted in other countries including the UK, which contributed £30 million to help victims during the pandemic. However, many organisations, such as UK’s Refuge are seeking long term funding as domestic violence isn’t an isolated event during COVID-19.[xviii]
Prior to COVID-19, violence against women was already considered a significant public health problem by the World Health Organisation (WHO).[xix] The WHO 2013 report on global violence against women reveals the statistics on the pervasive problem, which is in epidemic proportions, requiring urgent action. Overall, 35% of women globally have experienced violence. That’s one in three women. The majority of violence against women is by an intimate partner. Worldwide, 30% of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner. And 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. In the complex context of COVID-19, an existing public health epidemic has become a shadow pandemic.