The COVID-19 pandemic unmasked numerous ghastly problems, and home violence has become one of the most critical ones. The issue sharply increased and exacerbated as the number of murders caused by domestic violence doubled during lockdown. As a result, women from two to 82 years old lost their lives to home abuse. In only 11 weeks of quarantine, Italy witnessed 11 murders, including the homicide of Lorena, a 27-year-old trainee doctor killed by her boyfriend for allegedly “infecting him with COVID-19”. In Spain, four women became victims of domestic murder in lockdown, however, unofficial sources insist that the real number is twice as much. The number of women killed as a result of domestic violence increased to three per week in the United Kingdom amidst the pandemic.
To spare lives and protect victims in the future, much needed lessons must be drawn. It is imperative for governments and societies to answer uncomfortable questions today: what could have been done to save those lives, and how can we do better?
The Problem that Mustn’t Be Swept Under the Carpet
Quarantine measures forced victims under the same roof with their abusers and there was only so much they could do to protect themselves. Escape was hardly ever an option for the predominant majority as many women had either lost a job due to the coronavirus layoffs or never had one for they stayed at home as children’s primary caregivers. This socio-economic inequality exacerbated the issue: aggressors abused their power even more as they knew victims had no means to flee home.
But the problem is not new. Aspectum, a business intelligence company, has created an interactive map to expose the situation with home violence in the US and Europe. The map aggregates vast information about victims exposed to domestic abuse, how the rate of such crimes increased during the lockdown, numbers of shelters, and contacts of the support groups. Also, it explains the context of domestic abuse in countries by displaying data on GDP, the rate of unemployed women, and the laws against home violence.
As a silver lining, the level of domestic abuse has decreased within the last decade. Arguably, the most potent force behind positive changes has been the shift in the mindset. The ongoing discussions of this problem started in the late 00s lifted stigma from the issues which empowered victims to talk about their sufferings and ask for help. NGOs across the world try to provide victims with shelters and support hotlines. Legislative bodies, for their part, just recently started passing laws criminalizing all forms of domestic violence and abuse of women.
It’s Simply Not Enough
One of the achievements governments in many countries pride themselves on is the recent Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (better known as the Istanbul Convention). But how much of a success has it really been? 45 countries out of 47 members of the Council of Europe have signed the convention that recognizes basic human rights and prosecutes violence. However, since May 2011 only 33 countries have ratified it. This means that technically 12 signatories cannot execute the document’s main purpose to create legal instruments for protecting victims of domestic violence and holding abusers accountable. Issues with legal protection aren’t innate solely to Europe: nearly 1.4 billion women worldwide are grossly unprotected within the legal framework.
Meanwhile, victim-blaming persists. Sufferers admit that even though they were subjected to home violence, they chose not to report the crime or seek help. Furthermore, women still experience intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence. Thus, nearly half (46.6%) of female respondents in Moldova disclosed having been assaulted. More developed countries have also terrifyingly high levels of such sex crimes. Denmark and Latvia are the second on the infamous list with 32%. The rates of women who suffered sexual abuse in Britain and France are 29% and 26% respectively, and 25% in the Netherlands and the USA.
The sky became much dimmer in 2020. This year, the level of home abuse spiked dramatically due to lockdown. The countries that witnessed the highest upsurge in domestic violence included the USA and the UK (66%), Italy (55%), Poland (50%), Romania (50%), and Spain (47%).
Shelters became the most effective way to support sufferers of home violence, but their numbers are still far from sufficient. Most shelters, 1500 approximately, are in the United States. As for European countries, the United Kingdom and Germany provide around 360 support centers, whereas Spain and Italy have 265 and 232 shelters correspondingly.
How Do We Help?
Data from a limited number of countries demonstrate how acute the problem of home violence is. Globally the situation is significantly worse, especially in developing countries with a looser grip on human rights. A burning question still hangs in the air: what can be done to help victims without exposing them to risks?
- Police and emergency services
Home violence is a crime that in many cases requires direct, physical intervention from authorities often in the form of a raid. That is why it is paramount that victims of home abuse are able to seek support from police in good time. The all-round help should be provided, including attending crime scenes and ensuring medical assistance if needed.
All this sounds good in theory. In reality, however, the situation is not so rosy. Both NGOs and victims themselves criticized the lack of adequate involvement with domestic violence. However, successful examples do exist. One such major improvement was the introduction of the notion of “Coercive Control” which enabled officers to see the problem not as isolated incidents, but as a pattern of controlling behavior. Such knowledge further assisted the police to adequately respond to home violence reports, provide assistance, and become referral agents by directing women to organizations that can provide help.
Another example of an effective way to provide help discreetly during the lockdown was introduced in Spain and later adopted in France. Victims of domestic abuse could ask for help during pharmacy visits by using a code phrase: “mask 19.” This phrase prompted pharmacists to report home violence to the police.
- Safety apps.
This is a more discrete way to ask for help. The benefit of using such an app is that the victim can describe the situation they find themselves in without uttering a word. Still, there’s a risk that the abuser will spot an unusual app, which may lead to further escalation.
One such app is Bright Sky, created by Vodafone Foundation. It helps users identify an abusive relationship, provides information on how to leave it, and locates support centers in their area. Additionally, the app stores texts, photos and videos that document the abuse, so victims can use them later as evidence. The app is available in the UK and Ireland, and will appear in nine more countries over the course of 2020.
Here are some more apps that provide support for victims of domestic or gender related crimes:
- TecSOS (UK, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Germany);
- Easy Rescue (Turkey);
- Nokaneng (Lesotho);
- GBVCC (South Africa);
- Meddig Mehet (Hungary);
- PORMI (Spain);
- Sojourner Peace (USA).
These are recognized as the safest and most efficient way of reporting domestic violence. They can be accessed in popular messengers from different devices. Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the victim who reports the crime. Also, they have much broader capabilities compared to phone calls, including sharing locations and sending photos. Yet, even though this is one of the most effective ways to report domestic abuse, governments are still reluctant to utilize chatbots.
It has been years since the fight against domestic violence broke out, but recent events indicate that the battle is nowhere near its end. The statistics show that violence at home remains and prompted by the right conditions grows even worse. It’s a struggle that must be fought on legislative, law enforcement, and social levels until it becomes unthinkable to lay a hand on a family member or spouse.