Back in early July, Ana Lopez*, who lives in a country in South America, decided she couldn't take it anymore. After another heated argument with her abusive father, he held her down and strangled her. As she saw it, the threat of the pandemic was nothing compared to the danger she faced if she remained trapped in lockdown in the small apartment she shared with him. "I felt safe as far as the virus goes,” Lopez told me. "I didn’t feel safe drinking water in the kitchen." She made the decision to leave soon after, renting an apartment two hours away.
Across the Atlantic, Maureen Bailey from the Inner Strength Network (ISN), a London-based organisation that helps domestic violence victims, recalled the conversations she has had with one woman since lockdown was implemented.
“When the government in the UK said lockdown and don't go out, she was horrified,” Bailey says, explaining that the woman still lived at home with her abuser. "She used to ring me for the one hour break she had to go to get shopping and say, 'Maureen, this one hour is like a life-giving thing for me just to be able to talk to you.'"
These situations are hardly an exception. Countries worldwide are seeing an uptick in domestic violence cases since the pandemic ushered in lockdowns, curfews and other social distancing measures. According to the COVID-19 Violence Tracker, domestic violence was the single most reported category of violence worldwide from January to May 2020. And it’s unlikely to fare any better going forward: the UN Population Fund predicts that globally, there will be at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence for every three months lockdowns are extended. In response, governments, civil society and women's organisations have ushered in a number of ways to tackle what’s being described as a "double pandemic".
Finding adequate safe havens is a priority for responders to domestic violence victims. Countries like France and Russia have turned some empty hotels into refuges for women escaping violence, especially as shelters in many places are at peak capacity. Additionally, like hotels, pharmacies are being repurposed to help victims. In France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Chile and Argentina, pharmacies have become a haven where victims can get help by uttering the code word “mask 19”.
Lockdown has helped Eli access a safer home environment. Although she had left her abuser before the measures came into place in the UK, Bailey helped the young woman and her two children move closer to the facilities that she needed. She had been placed in housing far from any shops and pharmacies. It took lockdown measures, such as restricted public transit options, for authorities to consider a relocation. “Without COVID it wasn't possible to explain to [authorities] my situation," Eli says.
This concern for more safe spaces has one advocate in Kisumu, a city in western Kenya, hoping to establish a longer-term refuge for victims. “Most safe houses just have the survivor for a week,” Beryl Adhiambo from the Kisumu Feminists Society told me, explaining that many in Kenya don’t provide victims with services such as financial or psychosocial support. "So [survivors] just end up going back to the same abusers."
Adhiambo envisions a space that would fill this gap in the city, and one that would be inclusive of "women, trans women, trans and gender-non conforming persons," as well as queer people. “Sometimes it's even harder to explain to the police that a lesbian has been beaten [by her] partner," she explained. In the meantime, Adhiambo's group has established a mutual aid fund to support victims impacted by Kenya's coronavirus-era curfew, also partnering with the local government to set up a recovery centre.
Elsewhere on the continent, in South Africa, a second alcohol ban came into effect last week. The government has cited curbing domestic violence as one reason for the ban. It was partially lifted on the 1st of June, three months after it was first instituted.
According to Joy Lange, who heads the Western Cape Women’s Shelter movement, removing the alcohol ban resulted in increased instances of domestic violence.
“When the alcohol ban was lifted we saw an immediate increase in women coming in [to our shelters]," Lalange explained. "We know that research tells us there is a connection between domestic violence and alcohol abuse."
According to some advocates in India, however, rates of domestic violence there before and after the ban have remained the same. “They would abuse the women when they had alcohol, and now they are abusing them because they don’t,” Mumbai charity Sneha’s programme director Nayreen Daruwalla told Reuters.
Back in South America, technology is being leveraged to help victims. In Brazil, much of this work is being done by civil society organisations in lieu of the federal government's inaction, according to Ana Addobbati. Addobbati, the CEO of Social Good Brasil and the founder of Women Friendly, told me that although Brazil has an otherwise very centralised system of governance, since the pandemic, states have had to step up. In Rio de Janeiro, this has resulted in a system that has been put in place where victims of domestic violence can place a report online.
Avon, the global beauty company, which was acquired by the Brazilian company Natura in early 2020, has also spread informational videos through WhatsApp advising victims on how to find resources like shelters. The videos begin with beauty-related content. It then instructs viewers to put on headphones before sharing domestic violence-related information, explains Addobbati.
WhatsApp has also been the choice platform for a so-called justice network in the country, of 700 volunteers that provide medical, legal and psychological assistance.
Elsewhere, technology, too, is playing a role. In Yiwu, China, the government has launched a database where residents can check whether their partner has a history of domestic abuse. In Italy, Italian police have adapted an app that was originally created to report bullying in schools to now allow victims to contact the police without their partner's knowledge.
In London, Jackie is another woman Bailey’s organisation has helped in recent months. “I was pretty much on lockdown anyway for nine years,” Jackie says, referring to her abusive former partner. “[Being] isolated it wasn't that difficult to get used to.”
ISN's support has been Jackie’s saving grace. “I think if I didn't have [the network] in lockdown, I wouldn't like to say how I'd be now,“ she says.
In South America, Lopez has also managed to leave her abuser – but without seeking professional help. She grew up in the US, so an unfamiliar legal systems coupled with a language barrier has made it difficult for her to do so, laying bare the complexity of facing up to the challenge of tackling domestic violence.
Lopez is now working on shifting the blame for her family’s violence from herself: "I think after a lifetime of these kinds of situations, I have to prioritise my safety."
*Name has been changed to protect identity