Domestic Violence Amid COVID-19: A Hidden Epidemic

MPH Student Allison Stewart explores the state of reporting domestic abuse amid covid-19 lockdowns and the need for more protection of women and children in a post-pandemic world.

June 1, 2020

As the world grapples with the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, confinement, compounding stressors have cultivated conditions for domestic violence and child abuse to flourish. A trend in increased domestic violence worldwide, confirmed by statistics released by the United Nations, mimics the aftermath of past catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey when stressors related to economic vulnerability, limited access to social support systems, and shifts in daily routines led to increased violence in the home.

Yet, domestic violence was already a significant public health issue before COVID-19. About one in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Worldwide, about 35% of women have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. There is also a common link between domestic violence and child abuse, as children often witness intimate partner violence (IPV) or become victims to abuse and assault themselves. Among victims of child abuse, 40% report domestic violence in the home and at least one in seven children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation has exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities for many by giving more power to the perpetrators, who exercise an intimate terrorism and use the stay-at-home guidance to exert further control over their victims. Restricted movement, mounting stress, and lack of escape for victims cultivate conditions for more frequent and more dangerous violence in the home.

The figures of increased violence, however, are a vast underestimate of cases of domestic violence today. Reporting of violence has been incredibly limited due to the unique conditions that allow domestic violence and child abuse to flourish and evade detection. Child abuse, in particular, is often reported by educators, coaches, doctors, and others who are no longer in close contact with children as a result of COVID-19 school closures. While the world’s attention is on the day-by-day progression of the pandemic, victims of violence have been neglected.

As Columbia Mailman students and as public health professionals, we have the potential to address the gap between increasing demand of services for victims of violence and declining accessibility.

While public health expertise and funding have rightfully been directed at the immediate danger of the Covid-19 virus, we must not neglect other public health emergencies that are unfolding around the world as a result of this pandemic.

As a research assistant for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia’s Earth Institute, I have been supporting the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative in building child-focused disaster preparedness in communities in North Carolina and Puerto Rico that were affected by Hurricanes Florence and Maria. In recent months, community members in Puerto Rico have highlighted the catastrophe they are facing: the effects of COVID-19 are compounded by the continued recovery from the earthquakes of 2020, Hurricane Maria, and other pre-existing vulnerabilities, including child poverty. They constantly emphasize the importance that community networks and solidarity and the sharing of tools and resources has had on their recovery from repeated disasters.

We can better protect women and children in homes as we remain under conditions of social distancing by improving surveillance of violence through strengthened community networks and by leveraging technology to promote online safety plans, individual screenings for abuse, and by rebuilding social cohesion that was shattered when lockdowns went into effect.

We must adapt systems in the coming months to consider the influx of new domestic violence cases that will arise when social distancing protocols ease and to prepare for the lasting implications of violence and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEAs), including physical and mental health outcomes. The surge in domestic violence we see today is only a glimpse into the crisis of pandemic-related violence and psychological trauma that will continue to surface in months and years to come. Growth in trauma-informed care resources and federal relief to ensure long-term funding for state and non-profit organizations serving victims of violence are essential.

We must also craft public health responses that are guided from a human rights and gender rights perspectives and uphold the principle that health is a human right. This pandemic does not affect everyone equally; it has exposed inequities in the health systems as well as structural factors that result in a disproportionate burden of disease among minority populations. The social distancing and stay-at-home protocols have put domestic violence victims, many of whom are women, children and LGBTQ+ individuals, at greater risk of abuse. We must work to proactively reach marginalized populations and to mitigate the underlying vulnerabilities that will continue to foster stressful home environments, even after the pandemic wanes. The rise in domestic violence with COVID-19 reveals the urgency in prioritizing domestic violence as a public health issue and the necessity to incorporate the perspective of women and children in response plans for public health emergencies.

This piece originally appeared in the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) blog

Allison Stewart is 2021 MPH candidate in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health. She received her BA in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. 

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