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By Emily Rose Thorne, Mercer University Center for Collaborative Journalism
On March 23, residents of the United Kingdom were ordered to shelter in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Two weeks later, calls to the domestic abuse helpline shot up by 110% within a single 24-hour window.
As the pandemic continues to rage, experts say that the U.K. is not alone in seeing an alarming uptick of another public health crisis: intimate partner violence.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies IPV as a public health problem encompassing “physical violence, sexual violence, stalking or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse.” According to the agency, one in four American women and one in 10 American men experience IPV in their lifetimes. And in the U.K., Living Without Abuse–an organization providing support and resources for survivors of IPV–reports that the figure rises to one in four women and one in six men.
The pandemic’s impact across both regions has forced many families to stay indoors and isolate themselves from social groups. Aside from the emotional impacts of loneliness and the economic losses that many people have experienced, shelter-in-place orders appear to have contributed to increasing levels of IPV around the world.
‘A pandemic within a pandemic’: IPV reports skyrocket during pandemic
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yañez, policy and communication coordinator at the Latin American Women’s Rights Service in the U.K., said that the increase in domestic abuse calls reflect the increasing complexity of life in lockdown. Because domestic abuse thrives when an abuser can isolate their victim, she said shelter-in-place orders set up a perfect scene for abuse to take place.
“The lockdown was like a fertile ground for this isolation to become even worse, so the complexity of the cases relied on having to live trapped with a perpetrator,” she said.
Without the opportunity to leave for work or school, and with the increased time in close proximity to abusers, many people faced an increase in the abuse they were experiencing pre-pandemic.
One type of IPV that the Latin American Women’s Rights Service saw grow during the pandemic was sexual violence, particularly marital rape, she said.
“In general we saw that the experiences of violence of the service users increased and the forms of violence diversified,” she said.
Jiménez-Yañez also said that during lockdown, cases–and case management–have become more complicated.
“What was happening, according to our caseworkers, was that a case of a survivor or a victim that in the past took, like, a couple of hours to sort out now was taking a couple of days, or even a week,” she said.
Additionally, she said many women face multiple layers of marginalization that compound the difficulty of getting help. Some, for example, do not speak English and cannot take full advantage of the protections that could be available to them. And women who are undocumented or who don’t have stable immigration status can be denied access to services and shelters that are paid for with federal funds. Finally, police aren’t obligated to help women with insecure immigration statuses, according to Jiménez-Yañez, and migrant women would face the threat of detainment while working with them even if they were.
“In this country, they have prioritized immigration enforcement and immigration control over the safety of victims,”Jiménez-Yañez said.
In the U.K., a law to address domestic violence more broadly
Coinciding with the surge in cases, U.K. lawmakers are considering a landmark bill that would change the way countries handle domestic abuse and would label misogyny as a hate crime.
Councillor Grace Williams is a local cabinet member for children, young people and families. She said the bill defines abusive behavior and reframes the issue away from common misconceptions about relationships between abusers and the abused.
“The onus is on the victim to change their behavior by leaving, and if you look at the sort of dialogue about it, it’s all about, ‘well, why does the woman stay? Why has she gone back? Why didn’t she report it?’ but we know that things are more complex than that, and we know that we have to put some responsibility on the perpetrator to actually change their behavior,” Williams said.
The bill criminalizes specific forms of domestic abuse that were previously not considered as such under U.K. law, including financial abuse and tech abuse. It also requires local councils to provide shelter for survivors of abuse and secures additional protections for people testifying against their abusers in court, according to Global Citizen.
Some advocates worry that the bill fell short in protecting people from a full range of violence. They cite missing legislation on “revenge porn,” the non-consensual sharing of intimate images online. The bill also does not protect migrant residents who report IPV from questions about their immigration status.
The Domestic Abuse Bill passed in the U.K.’s House of Commons in July and is currently undergoing deliberation in its House of Lords–the final step in its process from bill to law.