For many women, home is not a place of safety. Across the world, there has been a sharp rise in domestic abuse since the outbreak of Covid-19. According to the UN, 1 in 3 women worldwide are affected by intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of calls to helplines has doubled in Lebanon and Malaysia; in China, they have tripled; and in Australia, search engines experienced the highest volume of domestic violence help queries in the past five years.
Global pandemics are not the cause of men’s violence against women, however. Perpetrators of abuse are always responsible for their actions, no matter what is happening in the world.
Domestic abuse is a gendered crime which is deeply rooted in the societal inequality between men and women – the National charity Women’s Aid UK remarks-. It is an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.
The lateral effects that Covid-19 is having on victims of domestic abuse cannot be underestimated. The current disruption of social and protective networks decreased access to services and especially enforced lockdown measures have intensified the risk of violence for many women of all ages. As one survivor explains: “More time at home magnifies the issues, you can’t get away from it, I have to work harder to keep him happy.”
In April 2020 Women’s Aid UK ran a survey to gain better insight into how Covid-19 was affecting women experiencing domestic abuse. It found that 67% of survivors who are currently in an abusive relationship said the abuse they were experiencing had worsened since the outbreak, 50% of the survey respondents were aged 40 and over.
Through the lens of women over 40
Sadly, victims and survivors of domestic abuse over the age of 40 are a ‘hidden group’. According to a study published by the University Of Salford in Manchester, for these ladies, one of the preconceptions that exists is that as a more mature person they should be more able to ‘cope’ with living with abuse.
There are several reasons why women from this age group face more barriers to seeking help or leaving their abusive partners. In financial terms, there may be a lot more at stake than for a woman in her 20’s or early 30’s – investments, a mortgage, loans. At this point in life, some ladies may find themselves looking after elderly parents alongside children (if they chose to have any). It is also a crucial age for careers; it becomes harder to change jobs or ‘start over’ due to ageism. Under a climate of control, fear and abuse it can seem insurmountable to attempt to break free considering all these factors.
It is also common for women in the over 40’s age group to have been experiencing abuse – whether emotional, psychological, or physical – for many years, contributing to feelings of failure, increased feelings of shame for having ‘stayed’ with their abuser for so long, and the belief that no-one will believe them. For middle-aged ladies, UK Women’s Aid message is very clear:
We need to challenge the perceptions about who abuse happens to. Any woman, of any age, can be forced to live in the invisible prison of domestic abuse – including those with adult children and grandchildren. We want to send a clear message to all [older] women experiencing abuse that you are not alone, we’re here for you.
Prior to lockdown, fleeing abuse was already a huge challenge for many survivors. The enforced lockdown and isolation has now made it harder than ever. Isolation is already one of the many tools used by abusers to control women, limiting contact with family, friends and colleagues. For the women in long-term abusive relationships but who were allowed to work, the lockdown measures have now created a perfect environment for the perpetrators to potentially become more violent as they have no need to be careful about where they inflict injuries. And for so many women, regardless of age, leaving an abusive relationship is simply not a choice.
Signs of Hope
What is being done to assist all women right now? Historically, domestic abuse has not been at the forefront of most government agendas. The Coronavirus pandemic has pushed one of the most prevalent cracks in society into the limelight. For the first time in history, mainstream media coverage about gender-based violence is a daily occurrence. Domestic abuse, violence against women, intimate partner violence is on the agenda.
With governments having to look at all the consequences of Covid-related issues, this crisis has forced policy workers, campaigners and social workers all over the globe to innovate and find new and workable interventions to help women locked at home with their abusers.
At the end of April, MPs in the UK finally debated the Domestic Abuse Bill, a bill that has been continually delayed and de-prioritised in favour of Brexit and Austerity measures. The priority given to this Bill is positive in such challenging times and should help transform the current and future response to domestic abuse.
Leading UK charities noticed a drop in domestic abuse-related calls to the police – a consequence of being trapped 24/7 in lockdown with an abuser means very little chance to make a phone calls without being overheard. An immediate drive to extend online chat services and hours so women could have access to services and support without having call was developed.
Across Europe, similar innovative solutions have been set up so women can reach out for help as undetected as possible. In Spain, a special code word related to face masks was developed for women to use in pharmacies to alert professionals they needed help, who in turn would alert the police so they could seek support and protection. France followed suit and went further by setting up 20 ‘pop-up counselling centres’ around the country for women to access whilst shopping for groceries. In Italy, a special alert app was launched for women to contact support services without having to make phone calls.
What these examples demonstrate is that there are real efforts all over the world to innovate current support systems so that women can continue receiving help during these very challenging times. With domestic abuse at the forefront of many government agendas now, it is more important than ever to keep up the dialogue so that it remains a priority. Across societies, gender-based violence needs to be addressed and challenged, to include person-centred solutions for women of all ages.
S.O.S. Domestic Abuse Helplines
UK – WOMEN’S AID
Freephone 24-Hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247
Phone 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522
Call 1800 737 732