Increase in reporting of Domestic Violence during COVID-19: insubstantial research evidence in comparison to women’s lived realities
Jun 19 2020 / Posted in Gender Violence
- Dr. Nayreen Daruwalla, Programme Director, Prevention of Violence against Women & Children (PVWC), SNEHA
Covid-19 has changed our homes
The Covid-19 pandemic has become a global health crisis and its sudden outbreak has led to loss of jobs, economic insecurity, uncertainty about the future and poverty related stress. The global nature of the pandemic and associated fear and uncertainty provide an enabling environment that may spark or exacerbate diverse forms of violence. In the past, crises and times of unrest have been linked to increased interpersonal violence, including incidence of violence against women and children (VAW/C)1.
Violence against women and children is widespread across the globe, and there is a likelihood of pandemics interacting with vulnerable populations to trigger it. The best available evidence suggests that, worldwide, one-in-three women of reproductive age have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime, and more than a third of female homicides are committed by an intimate partner2.
Violence against women and children is generally underreported to police and authorities, among other reasons, due to shame, stigma, and fear of repercussions. One result of this underreporting is that we have a limited understanding of how VAW/C responds to pandemics—in contrast to other types of violence and criminal activity where data are more readily available3.
SNEHA’s Program on Prevention of Violence against Women and Children
SNEHA’s program on Prevention of Violence against Women and Children has been working for 20 years on addressing and preventing violence against women and children. Using a socio-ecologic model as a framework for action at different levels4, from the individual to the home to the community to society, we tackle the interplay between levels and intersectional factors through primary, secondary and tertiary prevention strategies. Primary prevention activities are carried out through campaigns and group education with women’s and men’s groups, leading to individual voluntarism to identify, respond to and refer cases of violence against women and children. Secondary prevention is offered through delivery of comprehensive services that provide counselling, crisis intervention and coordination with public health facilities and the police and legal aid, home visits to engage perpetrators and other family members supporting abuse, and mental health counselling to minimise the impact of violence. Tertiary interventions include extended counselling and mental health interventions such as individual counselling and psycho-education, role education with perpetrators, couple and family counselling, and legal intervention for survivors with the aim of empowering them to make their own decisions about their situation. It has been a challenging time for the program to move counselling interventions online in order to provide immediate relief and long-term solutions to survivors of violence.
Effects of quarantine
The mandatory stay-at-home rules, physical distancing, economic uncertainties, and anxieties caused by the pandemic have led to a rise in domestic violence globally. Across the world, countries including China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Tunisia, France and Australia have reported increased domestic and intimate partner violence5. India has shown similar trends. Within a few days of the lockdown, the National Commission for Women (NCW) noted a rise in the number of domestic violence complaints received via email. The NCW chairperson believes that the real figure is likely to be higher, since the bulk of complaints come from women who send their complaints by post, and might not be able to use the internet. Between the beginning of March and April 5th, the NCW received 310 reports of domestic violence and 885 complaints about other forms of violence against women, many of which are domestic in nature: bigamy, polygamy, dowry deaths, and harassment for dowry6,7.
Quarantines increase the risk of VAW/C by increasing women’s and children’s day-to-day exposure to potential perpetrators. Recent evidence suggests that when men migrate away from home rates of IPV decrease due to exposure reduction. In Bangladesh, when men in ultra-poor households were offered interest-free loans to facilitate migration, seasonal male migration reduced female exposure to physical and/or sexual IPV over a six-month period by 3.5%. 8Evidence focused on other crisis settings, including refugee camps and humanitarian assistance zones, confirms that when family members are in close proximity under conditions of duress for extended periods, rates of VAW/C increase.9In many senses, forced quarantines and social isolation measures are analogous to settings where forcibly displaced persons are relocated (e.g. camps or temporary centres), increasing exposure to perpetrators, living in containment with decreased freedom and privacy, under circumstances of physical and psychological stress. Further, quarantine measures and other restrictions on movement may lead to greater food insecurity, linking to pathways of risk via economic insecurity and exploitative relationships.
There is limited understanding of how violence against women and children responds to pandemics. The numbers of cases reported are most likely not proportional to the actual rise in domestic violence. This is because people locked in with their abusers may not be able to get access to a mobile phone, nor the space and time to call for help. Most avenues to seek help or to physically remove themselves from their situations are impaired.
Women whose livelihoods have been affected by the crisis might also now be in financial distress—which is one of the barriers to removing themselves from a violent household. Women who might have been saving up money to leave might now have to utilise these savings elsewhere.
The lockdown has affected the situation further because women trapped in a space with violent or manipulative individuals could be subject to increased rates and intensity of threats, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, humiliation, intimidation, and controlling behaviour. The ability to isolate a person from family and friends, monitor their movements, and restrict access to financial resources, employment opportunities, education, or medical care is
heightened by a lockdown. These coercive control behaviours often have lasting effects on people and can significantly affect mental health and well-being.
The effects of quarantine are directly seen on mental health issues. Poor mental health, mental disorders and related factors, including alcohol abuse, have been shown to increase risk of violence against women and children, with hypothesized effects both during and after times of quarantine.10
Cases Reported through SNEHA Helpline, Crisis emails and Volunteers
A recent set of systematic reviews of interventions to prevent violence against women and girls developed a typology of effectiveness and the quality of evidence for it. There was some evidence to support interventions with women, men, and young people through group education and community mobilisation.11The program’s primary prevention activities have been a major factor in reporting of cases to counselling centres. Community surveillance, identification and providing first psychological aid has led to higher reporting of cases before the pandemic. From January to May 2020, our counselling centres have registered 1847 cases of violence.
Figure 1. New cases of violence against women and children registered at SNEHA counselling centres, by consultation route
Figure 1 shows that the program saw a fall in referral of cases from the community in April 2020. This was the time when the community was impacted profoundly by the pandemic. Day-to-day survival needs and insecurities made the issue of violence less pressing, but reporting increased again in May 2020. At the same time, the centre registered an increase in cases being reported through SNEHA helplines and emails. The COVID-19 situation has led to women using discreet mediums of reporting which are not easily discernible in their homes.
Figure 2. Reporting of cases of violence against women and children through email and helpline
Figure 2 shows an increase in the number of women reaching out through crisis email and helpline. Contact through the helpline has gone up remarkably in the last three months. These women have reported a history of domestic violence although they have not sought help earlier. The reasons provided for seeking help in present times are contentious arguments leading to physical violence, allegations on her character and morality, control over financial and other resources, and dissatisfaction with expected roles and responsibilities despite the work load of women increasing in their homes. There is inconsistency in women using crisis emails to reach SNEHA, which increased in March 2020 but decreased again in April and May. In our experience it is harder to describe the complexities of a situation in an email and probably those women who are comfortable with writing are availing the email facility.
Figure 3. Classification of cases reported
Figure 3 shows that the major categories of cases reported in the time of the pandemic have been IPV (46%) and domestic violence (39%); 6% of cases were of sexual assault and 1% were cases of violence against children. Domestic violence was also reported from their natal homes in several cases. The numbers of children reporting violence are very low, possibly because they do not have access or agency to report violence, or because they have limited sources of understanding that they are experiencing violence.
Mental Health Interventions
A total of 443 survivors were screened for mental health concerns after gauging their mental health state. Of these, 222 were identified for further assessment for common mental health conditions. 85 survivors were provided the services of a Clinical Psychologist and 22 were provided the services of a Psychiatrist. Our data on mental health assessment before COVID-19 show that 10% of survivors required clinical services. The figure during lockdown was 19%. The COVID-19 situation may have aggravated instances of violence and its consequences for mental health conditions.
Our reasoning about the present situation in the rise of domestic and intimate-partner violence situation in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic is supported by the data generated from several countries across the globe. We have seen more reporting through helpline and email which also reiterates the women form all strata of society undergo different forms of intimate-partner and domestic violence. In our experience women often do not seek help, unless in extreme situations. The pandemic has exacerbated the risk of violence with significant and non-significant triggers leading to volatile and unsafe situations for them. The risk factors for intimate-partner and domestic violence seems to be largely financial worries, close confinement, general anxiety, opportunities for coercive control. Violence against children remains a big concern as the reporting has gone down and there is a need to devise strategies to reach out to children. The intersectionality of violence with mental health has always been an area of concern, but has emerged to be an area that requires immediate vigilance and attention.
1Fraser, E. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Violence against Women and Girls. Helpdesk Research Report No. 284. London, UK: VAWG Helpdesk.
2Devries K, Knight L, Petzold M, Merrill KG, Maxwell L, Williams A, Cappa C, Chan KL, Garcia-Moreno C et al. (2018). Who perpetrates violence against children? A systematic analysis of age-specific and sex-specific data. BMJ Paediatr Open 2(1).
3Palermo, T. and A. Peterman (2011). Undercounting, overcounting, and the longevity of flawed estimates: Statistics on sexual violence in conflict. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 89(853): 924-926. 4http://vetoviolence.cdc.gov/index.php/violence-prevention-basics-the-social-ecological-model/ 5Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children. Amber Peterman, Alina Potts, Megan O’Donnell, Kelly Thompson, Niyati Shah, Sabine Oertelt-Prigione, and Nicole van Gelder. Working paper 528, April 2020, Centre for Global Development
8Mobarak, M.A. and A. Ramos. (2019). The Effects of Migration on Intimate Partner Violence: Evidence for the Exposure Reduction Theory in Bangladesh. Working paper, accessed March 19, 2020: https://sistemas.colmex.mx/Reportes/LACEALAMES/LACEA-LAMES2019_paper_321.pdf.
9Wako, E., Elliott, L., De Jesus, S., Zotti, M.E., Swahn, M.H., and J. Beltrami. (2015). Conflict, Displacement and IPV: Findings from Two Congolese Refugee Camps in Rwanda. Violence Against Women. Violence Against Women. 21(9): 1087-101.
10Devries, K. M., Mak, J.Y., Bacchus, J., Child, J.C., Falder, G., Petzold, M. et al. (2013b). Intimate Partner Violence and Incident Depressive Symptoms and Suicide Attempts: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies. PLoS Med 10: e1001439.
11WhatWorks. A summary of the evidence and research agenda for What Works: a global programme to prevent violence against women and girls. Pretoria: UKAid, 2014.