Domestic Violence and Covid-19: How to Support Victims?

horizontal background woman in isolation at home for virus outbreak or hypochondria .

What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence includes physical, sexual, emotional, financial, and/or verbal violence perpetrated on an individual by their spouse or spouse’s family. The use of abusive tactics by the spouse’s extended family is more common in immigrant cultures than in American communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2017), domestic violence prevalence is as high as 1-in-4 women and 1-in-10 men in the United States. The amalgamation of cultural and structural factors, both in immigrant and non-immigrant communities allude to higher risk of victimization among women. 

The Dangers Of Covid For Domestic Violence Victims

Now let us look at domestic violence in the context of the current pandemic, COVID-19. Journalists, researchers, experts and practitioners are pointing to an increased risk of domestic violence victimization given the current crisis. A recent NY Times, article called domestic violence an “opportunistic infection.” According to the article, this “infection” is flourishing in the conditions created by the stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders owing to COVID-19.

Social distancing is forcing victims to spend more time with their abusers at home. Perpetrators may face challenges such as job-loss, pressure of financial sustenance, loss of control or general insecurity about the future. These challenges are increasing their frustration and the likelihood of perpetrating abuse. Victims have usually sought help in abusive situations, primarily when their abuser is not around. They seek help is by talking to their friends, relatives or others, privately. This option does not exist any longer because victims are trapped with their abusers. Victims may no longer have free access to cellphones, laptops or desktops to contact friends or family-members. Some may feel scared about the abuser discovering their attempts to seek help.  The challenges may be higher for immigrant victims due to the increased dependency on their spouse. 

Role of CBO’s in Supporting Victims

There are important initiatives by community-based organizations (CBOs) targeted at supporting victims in this time of stress. Organizations like Surviving Economic AbuseSafe HorizonFutures without violence and Sayfty provide resources for victims as well as their friends/family.  Because victims may not be able to proactively seek resources, it is pertinent for friends/family to be aware of signs of domestic violence. Some such signs may be physical, while others may include panic, being easily startled, distress and general anxiety.

Something interesting that a pharmacy in Europe used has been the implementation of code words. A victim used the code word, “mask 19” to let the pharmacy professionals know that she was being abused (CNN, 2020). Late last year, the reports of McDonald’s employees providing support to domestic violence survivors were making the rounds. As part of McDonalds hiring process, employees receive training in providing assistance to victims. This training is offered under the Safe Place Initiative (ABC 10, 2019).

How helpful would an initiative of this nature be in the present times? Training employees belonging to essential services like grocery stores, supercenters (Walmart, Target) and hospitals in providing assistance/resources to victims would be beneficial. There are certain CBOs that are providing support to victims through virtual check-in’s by advocates, safety planning for victims and children. However, it is imperative to also have some proactive measures in place. For example, virtual check-in sessions for the entire family, shared through Facebook and whatsapp groups. Information at grocery stores, supercenters, hospitals. These virtual sessions can support victims who may not be able to reach out for help. Advocates can use these sessions as a means of providing general self-care/self-help strategies for potential victims as well as family members. 

Self-Care To Support Victims

Domestic violence coupled with isolation during this quarantine, can increase mental health concerns for victims. Therefore, in addition to supporting victims, it is important to actively seek out families and train them in using self-care strategies. Self-care can be helpful in reducing the feelings of anxiety, powerlessness and helplessness among abusers, limiting their feelings of perpetrating abuse. Simple strategies like online meditation, journaling, painting, listening to motivational ted-talks, developing a new hobby or skill can help victims. These strategies can be used in addition to telemental health counseling options to improve the overall well-being of victims.

Some easy-to-use self-care resources can be accessed through the Futures Without ViolenceCenters for Disease Control and Prevention and Safe Horizonwebsites. Given the current COVID-19 situation, it is likely that the stay-at-home orders will continue for a few more weeks. It is imperative that practitioners/scholars innovate new ways to continue proactively providing support to existing or potential victims. 

About The Author

Dr. Abha Rai is a domestic violence expert and a social work researcher. She is passionate about domestic violence issues, especially those confronting immigrant communities and groups. Dr. Rai has extensive community-based experience, both in India and the United States. She has also published academic papers and blogs in the area of gender-based violence, broadly.

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Image Source: NY Times
Editor: Dr. Shruti Kapoor