A second wave of lockdowns is being contemplated or implemented in a number of states in the U.S. amid a surge in coronavirus cases. Quarantine is stressful for everyone, but it’s especially hard on domestic abuse victims. When American cities first entered various states of lockdown in March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline recorded 951 calls in a two-week span in which callers specifically mentioned the pandemic as exacerbating abuse. It’s not just a problem in the U.S.: Some experts are calling the wave of domestic violence sweeping the world a second pandemic. And while myths about domestic violence spiking during the holidays (or on Super Bowl Sunday) have long been debunked, authorities agree that an increased amount of high-stress time indoors this winter could lock many people in with abusive partners or parents.
Fiona Zublin, Senior Editor
a global pandemic of violence
1. Lockdown Nightmare
As COVID-19’s second wave leads to new confinement periods worldwide, many fear that domestic violence will spike again. During the initial round of lockdowns, European domestic violence hotlines saw a 60 percent uptick in calls, while calls to Israel’s hotlines tripled between March and September. In the Philippines, Quezon City’s mayor reported that complaints of domestic abuse have gone from five per week pre-pandemic to 12 per week. Britain saw 16 domestic abuse killings during the first three weeks of lockdown this spring, more than triple the average rate for that period over the previous decade. To increase awareness, some studies are even putting a price tag on the domestic violence wave, with one estimating that the tiny kingdom of Lesotho loses 5.5 percent of its GDP in the form of abuse-related health care costs, legal fees and absences from work and school.
2. School’s Out
Child abuse reporting actually plummeted as schools were shuttered — but authorities say that’s likely a sign of a problem. Such incidents are often discovered and reported by teachers when students exhibit signs of mistreatment. Emergency room doctors, meanwhile, say they’ve seen increased evidence of abuse. One possible cause? Parents are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress — often trying to home-school and work from home while coping with economic and medical uncertainty — sometimes to the breaking point.
3. Not Just the Pandemic
Domestic violence was, of course, a problem long before the pandemic. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers show that violence involving an intimate partner jumped 33 percent between 2014 and 2018, and 63 percent of female victims who knew their killers in 2018 were wives, girlfriends or exes of their assailants, according to the nonprofit Violence Policy Center. Laws can also enable abusive situations: U.K. legislators are currently lobbying against family court policies that sometimes force women who have been abused to see their former tormentors — and even pay for those visits — in the name of child visitation rights.
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While the majority of domestic abusers are men, those numbers are slowly shifting. One U.K. study this year found that 10 years ago, 19 percent of perpetrators were female; today it’s 28 percent. The number of attacks committed by sisters doubled between 2010 and 2018, while attacks by stepsisters and half sisters quadrupled. According to experts, when siblings abuse one another, it’s often because they’ve seen similar abuse between their parents.
2. When Wives Attack
Husbands and boyfriends are also victims of domestic violence. In the U.S., the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has found that 1 in 7 men have been the target of severe physical violence by a partner (compared to 1 in 4 women). And it’s not just in the U.S.: Between 2010 and 2014, calls to Ireland’s sole male-victim-focused domestic violence hotline increased by 42 percent, while Australia saw calls from male victims double between 2005 and 2012. Those statistics may indicate positive change, though, with men able to acknowledge abuse and seek help in ways that masculine norms may have previously prevented.
The LGBTQ community is hardly immune to domestic violence. Approximately 1 in 4 gay men and 1 in 2 lesbians report that they’ve experienced abuse, and their societal marginalization poses particular challenges, as partners sometimes threaten to out each other to family or employers, while resources are often more limited for LGBTQ victims than for heterosexual women. Bisexual women are the most likely group to be abused by their partners — though 9 in 10 who reported abuse said the guilty party was male.
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Some studies indicate that the more women there are on a police force, the more likely women in that area are to report domestic violence. That could offer clues about ways to make official reporting channels more accessible to people in harm’s way. It’s little wonder many women don’t want to talk to police about intimate partner violence: Research reviewed in 2016 found that between 5 and 40 percent of police officers confessed to perpetrating domestic violence themselves. In September, a video circulated on social media of a senior police officer in central India beating his wife.
In response to a wave of domestic violence reports during its first lockdown in the spring — a jump of 36 percent in Paris — France established pop-up counseling centers and opened up empty hotel rooms for people who needed to leave their homes. The government budgeted to pay for up to 20,000 hotel rooms per night around the country. In another innovation, the government encouraged women to use pharmacies, one of the few places people under strict confinement rules were allowed to visit, and report that they were in danger much the way women in Spain did by using the code word “mask 19.”
3. Severing Ties
Though she became a punchline in the 1990s, Lorena Bobbitt — famous for cutting off her husband’s penis in a fit of what a jury determined was temporary insanity — was a victim of domestic violence and alleged rape by her husband. Bobbitt now runs a charity for victims of abuse, while her ex-husband cycled through careers in porn and pro wrestling before being arrested again for domestic abuse. In 2009, John Bobbitt offered a public apology to Lorena in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
In China, the eastern city of Yiwu is trying to help people avoid marrying abusers in the first place. Anyone getting married can fill out a form to find out whether or not their future spouse has a history of abuse. China is playing catch-up, though: Domestic violence has only been legally punishable there since 2016, and until 2001 it wasn’t even grounds for divorce. Still, some 900 women have died at a partner’s hands since the law was enacted, including one well-known social media influencer. Lhamo was attacked, allegedly by her ex-husband, in September as she was live on China’s version of TikTok. Found covered in burns, she died two weeks later. China is putting domestic violence atop the agenda now, especially after a post-pandemic rule this spring forcing couples seeking divorce to take a monthlong "cooling-off" period before separating. That rule won’t apply if either partner has a history of domestic abuse, but some worry about cases slipping through the cracks.