By HEATHER BRADFORD
Twenty-one states have enacted stay at home orders which will take effect by Friday, March 27. By the end of the week, half of the population of the United States will be ordered to stay at home. Even without state directives, everyone should stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, this critical public health measure will exacerbate the problem of domestic violence as victims are confined at home with their abusers and face fewer resources to ensure their safety.
Domestic violence is itself an epidemic; according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 10 million people are abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. each year. One in four women and one in nine men have experienced either severe intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or stalking. In the face of this crisis, the needs of survivors will go unmet as COVID-19 continues to lay bare capitalism’s deadly failure to provide for human needs.
In response to the pandemic, The National Domestic Violence Hotline has created a fact sheet on how COVID-19 impacts survivors of domestic violence. The fact sheet warns that abusers may use the crisis to exert power and control in their relations. This could be done a number of ways, such as withholding items like sanitizer and disinfectants. Abusers may cancel insurance, hide insurance cards, or prevent a survivor from accessing medical attention. They may share misinformation to control a victim through fear and deception.
Beyond the behaviors of abusers, services to survivors may be increasingly limited, and survivors may fear seeking shelter because it is a communal living space. Travel restrictions make it harder for survivors to escape. In addition to the information outlined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, abusers may feign illness to garner sympathy and lure victims back to them. The economic prospects of increased unemployment and limited housing due to the crisis will make it harder for victims to leave. The cancelation of schools and closure of day-care centers creates a barrier for victims trying to leave with their children, who are at home with both them and their abuser.
The impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence has already been felt in China. According to The New York Times, China has reported more domestic violence during the COVID-19 outbreak. Chinese anti-violence advocate Wan Fei noted that reports of domestic violence doubled during the lockdown. Under Blue Sky, an anti-domestic violence non-profit in Lijiang Province, disclosed that reports of domestic violence had tripled during the month of February.
In January, a woman from Guangdong province in China was told by authorities that she could not leave her village after she had sustained life threatening injuries in a domestic violence incident. She disobeyed their orders, walking for hours on foot with her children until she reached safety with family members. In another incident, a 42-year-old Chinese woman committed suicide by jumping out of the 11th floor of her apartment building while quaratined with her abusive husband in Shanxi province. To counter domestic violence, some women have posted signs in their community urging others not to be bystanders. The hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic on the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo has also been an online initiative to raise awareness about the issue.
Across the United States, there are already widespread accounts of increased instances of domestic violence. Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center (DVCAC) in Cleveland reported to News 5 Cleveland that calls to their hotline were recently up 30%. Melissa Graves, the CEO of DVCAC, reported that these calls often happened during the day while abusers were at work, but with expanded layoffs and stay at home orders, victims will not have the privacy necessary to seek help.
Emmy Ritter, the director of Raphael House in Portland, Ore., reported to KGW8 News that there was increased call volume and more calls from survivors seeking hygiene products and food. These basic items are necessary to survivors who are struggling to rebuild their lives after fleeing violence. Salt Lake City police reported increased domestic violence calls over the last two weeks. Likewise, Transitions Family Violence Services in Hampton, Va., reported an increased number of calls in the last two weeks. Tasha Menacker of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual Violence expressed to the Phoenix New Times that her agency had seen increased call volume, but that other agencies in Arizona had experienced a decrease in calls. She attributed this disparity to the increased difficulty that some survivors might have finding the privacy to make calls.
To reach out to domestic violence services, survivors must be able to text, email, or call for help. Shelter in place orders, social distancing practices, quarantines, and increased unemployment curtail the privacy necessary to escape abusive situations and cut victims off from social networks that may be able to assist them or intervene on their behalf. Thus, victims are likely to be at home with their abuser for longer periods of time and are at the same time more isolated from the help they need.
The problem of domestic violence is deepened by the atomization of communities into individual households during stay at home orders. Anti-carceral feminists have sought to develop community responses to domestic violence that do not involve police and prisons, such as creating support networks, staying with victims in their home, providing housing and mutual aid, and self-defense strategies. Orders to shelter in place make it harder to connect with victims as neighbors, friends, family members, and activists. This isolation leaves survivors with fewer options outside of police responses, which can be violent and abusive towards racial minorities, chronically homeless, people with disabilities, and the poor.
Because of the risk of COVID-19 in prisons, the police response to domestic violence punishes perpetrators with the prospect of death and illness. Anti-carceral feminists are challenged with the task of developing ways to connect with and offer alternatives to policing in the face of social distancing. Posters and social media, like the efforts made in China, are one solution, but more is needed.
While the private sphere becomes increasingly atomized, domestic violence shelters are generally considered essential services. This means that in the event of stay at home orders or a lockdown, shelters remain open. It is vital that shelters remain open, as they are one of the few resources that survivors and victims have during this crisis.
However, like other essential services, this puts shelter staff at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Shelters are often communal spaces where diseases are easily spread due to cramped conditions, the challenges of maintaining sanitary conditions, and lowered immunity from stress. Shelters must remain open, but shelter staff should receive hazard pay for their work. Shelter staff should also have access to the protective equipment necessary for cleaning the shelter and assisting sick residents.
Gloves, thermometers, masks, and cleaning supplies are in short supply due to the needs of medical institutions. Other necessary supplies include tylenol, diapers, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, food, and other items, some of which have become scarce as they are hoarded by fearful shoppers. A social response to fighting COVID-19 should include making certain that these necessary supplies are distributed to shelters. Shelters themselves should be expanded by making use of empty hotels, dormitories, or empty houses, so that conditions are not as crowded, sick residents can be properly quarantined, and the increased demand for shelter space can be met.
Whereas shelters are essential services, many other services provided by domestic violence agencies are not considered essential. Visitation centers, legal assistance, support groups, and educational programs may not be deemed essential nor safe. Workers in these areas face job loss and clients who need these services are cut off. By expanding the capacity of shelters through the opening of additional facilities, some of these workers may be able to continue their work. The need for safe staffing levels at existing shelters as staff members become ill also creates a need for more workers. This potentially increases the number of workers who are exposed to COVID-19 but required to ensure necessary services.
At the same time, funding is required to make certain that shelters, hotlines, and other services can continue to operate. Domestic violence resources rely on a variety of funding sources, including grants and private donations. Services that rely on fundraisers and donations may lose funding due to cancelled events. In Dane County, Wis., the county government gave Domestic Abuse Intervention Services $58,000 so they could continue to operate during the COVID-19 crisis after they had to cancel a fundraiser. That amount was only enough for the Dane County shelter to operate for two more months. Fundraisers themselves may become less able to support domestic violence services as donors face financial strain in a spiraling economy. Rather than bailing out corporations, public services that have been shuttled away from government provisions to the non-profit and private sector should be fully funded.
Survivors need safe places such as shelters to meet their immediate needs, but they also need the means to rebuild their lives. The mass unemployment arising from the outbreak will make jobs scarce. Landlords may be reluctant to take on new tenants if they know that rent and evictions are suspended. Survivors need the means to rebuild their lives, which means expanding social programs and public housing.
Financial abuse is one of the many ways that abusers exert power and control in their relationship. Survivors may not have access to money, their own bank account, or control over financial decisions. The overall economic inequality of women makes it harder for them to leave in the first place, as their abusive relationship may provide them with economic security. Paid maternity leave, free and safe abortion on demand, guaranteed housing, universal health care, free and extensive day care, free education from pre-school to Ph.d, are necessary to empower women. Extending these rights to women will go a long way to mitigate the power and control abusers have over them, but also the power and control that capitalist society has over them.
COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge to activists and advocates against domestic violence. In the interest of public health, billions of people around the world are relegated to their individual households. For those who are homeless or incarcerated, this creates enormous barriers as they lack a safe place to physically distance themselves. For victims of domestic violence who find themselves locked down with an abuser, it can be a death sentence.
Response to the pandemic has relied upon the social arrangement of private households, but this is not a safe place for many nor a place that is accessible to all. It is a sphere wherein women have been tasked with the unpaid reproductive labor of capitalism. Domestic violence has historically been viewed as a private matter to be resolved within families or between couples, rather than a social problem. As such, individual households have been and continue to be the hidden arena for all manner of horrors against women.
The inequality of women and the violence against them enforces their economic role in the household to sustain capitalism. Considering that the COVID-19 pandemic may last for months, come in waves, and is unlikely to be the last pandemic wrought and exacerbated by capitalism, the question of how to keep people safe during a pandemic without worsening the oppression of women requires deep consideration. For now, keeping shelters open and safe, providing for staff and survivors alike, developing alternatives to policing, building communities in the face of social distancing, and putting demands on the state for increased social provisioning are some of the things that can be done to tackle the epidemic of domestic violence in the context of a pandemic.