"Words like torches in a sea of fog"

Written by Stefano Cisternino

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7 April 2021

Unsafe at home: spiking domestic violence during the pandemic

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The current Covid-19 pandemic has not only led to a health crisis but also a “hidden” social epidemic. Kofman and Garfin explore how social quarantine,  although effective in combating the virus, has put others in danger.

The mandate to “stay at home” used widely across the USA and many European countries to mitigate security, has ironically increased the risk of domestic violence for those with abusive partners. This is especially true for victims of domestic violence, with low income and ethnic minority women being more vulnerable. 

In addition, there are many other factors caused by the pandemic that have added barriers to their protection.

For example, Kofman and Garfin state:  “Although it is the case that many DV [Domestic Violence] victims might utilize text and hotlines to get help under normal circumstances, being in close and constant proximity to violent partners might make it nearly impossible for many to do so during stay-at-home orders. Thus, many might not call for help until violence has escalated to the point that they necessitate 911 service calls.”

The scholars point out that this increase in domestic violence may result from pre-existing social and systemic problems that can reach critical levels under conditions of stress and uncertainty. This condition has also been observed in other disaster situations, such as during or after hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and oil spills.

However, while the current pandemic shares some similarities with other disasters, Kofman and Garfin highlight the crucial paradox for those at risk: “If they decide or are forced by their partners to stay at home, they risk being subjected to or aggravating violence. If they are able to leave, they risk exposure to a highly infectious and dangerous virus.”

Indeed, it is generally recognised that the most dangerous time for a victim of an abusive relationship is immediately after leaving the relationship, as the risk of serious physical harm, injury and homicide is particularly high.

In addition, due to the exceptional situation caused by Covid-19, finding refuge in one of the shelters is not so easy – or safe. 

Many of these centres, due to implementing social distancing guidelines, are either just nearing or at their capacity and lacking in resources. This means some centres can only accommodate victims for short periods, and in a time when hotel vouchers are unavailable, this increases their risk of returning to a violent partner.

The scholars stress that it is more important than ever to commit appropriate funds and resources for victims and survivors (but also for centres, shelters and agencies), as waves of domestic violence will continue and possibly increase even after the end of this pandemic. 

Particularly from a psychological point of view, this violence could lead to numerous consequences for its victims, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which is linked to other psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, and physical disorders such as pain and gastrointestinal and respiratory problems.

Kofman and Garfin point out that for the United States, the National Resource Center for Domestic Violence has compiled detailed guidelines and recommendations to counter this epidemic of domestic violence. They suggest implementing these measures at the local, state and national level in order to effectively protect victims not only in the present but also from the inevitability of future disasters or pandemics.

In conclusion, I think it is more necessary than ever to plan for the plurality of consequences that this virus has on global society. It is essential to begin planning for concrete preventative measures that counter domestic violence, applicable both during this pandemic and for the immediate future. 

This virus may be a turning point in redefining global society. But for better or for worse? That depends on whether words are followed by deeds.


Read Yasmin Kofman & Dana Garfins’ (2020) full paper here.

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