By Hannah Androulaki-Khan
To make this unambiguously clear, this article is not seeking to diminish the severity of COVID-19, the implications nor the deaths attributed to the virus. On the contrary, it wishes to surface the hidden consequences of the disease. For an insurmountable number of people, the fear of COVID-19 does not just lie in the open-mouthed coughing, the un-gloved hands or the lack of hand sanitiser. The fear lies in the silent partner in crime of COVID-19, Domestic Violence.
Undeniably, being the social media savvy generation that we are, we have seen it across all platforms. The condemnation of those who flout lockdown rules, those who defy the order of their respective governments. Thousands of users, young and old, berating people in their statuses and in the comments section for not abiding to state mandated guidelines to remain at home, bar any essential trips. “Stay home! You’ll be much safer! We all want to go out and see our friends too but we have to do this to stay safe!”
So, what happens to the millions of people who are not safe at home? Placed in a scenario, a catch 22: stay at home and suffer at the hands of an abuser? Or leave home and risk oneself to the virus? Sadly, for many around the globe, home is anything but safe. The risk for them is death in the shape of a spouse, a parent, a child, a flatmate, rather than a virus. Forced to remain isolated at home in painful periods of uncertainty, with no signs of the virus relenting, rates of DV reports, victims and attacks have soared globally.
Like COVID-19, the violence can manifest and mutate into several different forms: physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse being inflicted at home. But the abuse is not always visible. In addition to the more recognisable forms of violence and abuse, the lockdown has forced several to turn to the internet for entertainment, studying and work, increasing global levels of exposure to cyber-bullying, exploitation and online grooming; victims of DV and abuse are rapidly running out of safe havens. Individuals who once had a moment of freedom outside are now trapped within the four walls of their homes. The continuous threat of violence and death within the place you are meant to be the safest in causes unimaginable stress, both physical and emotional. Aggravated by the endless lockdown extensions, the victims of DV are forced to try and survive both the virus and the violence.
The NGO UN Women released a report titled “The Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women and Girls and COVID-19” which sets an alarming narrative of how 243 million women and girls have been subjected to a physical/sexual violence by an intimate partner in the last 12 months, with supporting evidence of DV cases, reports of abuse, emergency calls and demands for shelter all intensifying since the outbreak.
The ongoing restriction of movement necessary to control the virus is correlated with exacerbated violence within the home, following a distinct pattern of abuse, similar to when the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks occurred. The figures within the report are alarming. Keeping in mind, the estimation is non-inclusive of men and boys, and it does not state what percentage of those statistics include trans and non-binary individuals. This is like having a painting by numbers sequence and you find some of the colours are missing. You will not get a complete picture. However much of the discourse surrounding this topic does lean towards an increase in gender-based violence. What percent of the victims are in struggling territories? Those that continue to be torn apart by war, famine and terrorism? With almost 1 in 3 women worldwide experiencing physical or sexual violence in their lives, that statistic alone is a horrifying number to read. Imagine the complete context when including the other groups who suffer.
Let us not forget the most vulnerable group of all, children. Children who once found an escape in school or playgrounds now remain shut in like zoo animals, at the mercy of frustrated family members. For most families, things like household funds, lack of food and home-schooling have become daily troubles to be grappled with. With emergency services overloaded, it’s not hard to see how they can be overlooked.
The likelihood of DV victims reporting it to the police is already despairingly low, coupled now with a pandemic that is pushing many essential workers to their limits, it doesn’t look like we will ever truly know the impact of COVID-19 in this context. With the ongoing lockdown and closure of shops, more and more people find themselves without social activities or income. Just like a pot of water left too long on the stove, their emotions reach a boiling point.
The ongoing insecurity that has engulfed the world is having dire consequences on the security of someone else. DV has always been categorized as an ‘invisible pandemic’. The data we currently have for DV victims illustrates how shockingly prevalent it is in contemporary society, and this is only from those who report their abuse. There are hundreds of thousands more who keep silent. The COVID-19 crisis has unwittingly provided a security blanket for those who occupy their time terrorising the lives of others. Police are spending their time patrolling parks and beaches, breaking up illegal gatherings, telling off people for sunbathing in a public park. Every minute spent chasing those who brazenly flout the lockdown procedures is a minute taken off someone’s chances of surviving being trapped with an abuser. Like DV, we can never truly know the extent of damage caused by COVID-19 unless it is reported. COVID-19 and DV both manifest themselves in several different forms, with some warning signs more evident than others. Both have the ability to mutate and adapt to their environments, making an almost ‘perfect storm’ scenario. Quarantine, isolation and social distancing all force victims to remain at home, restricting them from seeking help or advice from others outside.
Domestic violence, like COVID-19, does not discriminate, but there are disadvantaged groups who fall into the bigger risk category. Per the Council of Europe’s 2020 Declaration during the Istanbul Convention, these are groups such as migrant women and disabled women. Just like COVID-19, the actual cases of DV far outweigh those recorded due to several factors such as reluctance to report, proximity to those recording the information, and inability to speak due to safety risks and the social/cultural restrictions that prevent victims from seeking help. Many victims are forced to stay silent. For abusers, silence is golden.
Your social activities can wait. These people cannot.
Please stay at home, for DV victims and COVID-19 victims.
Stop letting these people become statistics. Let them become survivors.