As world leaders continue to impose stay-at-home orders and many businesses, schools, and services across the globe remain shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is expressing concerns about reports of alarming increases in domestic violence and urging all governments to incorporate protections for abuse survivors into response plans for the public health crisis.
“Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence.”
—U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres
Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire amid the virus outbreak last month. “I appealed for an end to violence everywhere, now,” the U.N. chief said Sunday. “But violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.”
While domestic violence impacts both males and females, research has shown women and girls are disproportionately victimized. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, noted Monday that “in the previous 12 months, 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) across the world have been subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner.”
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” Mlambo-Ngcuka warned, “this number is likely to grow with multiple impacts on women’s wellbeing, their sexual and reproductive health, their mental health, and their ability to participate and lead in the recovery of our societies and economy.”
Guterres detailed related developments in a video address Sunday, explaining that “over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence.”
The secretary-general cited increased calls to domestic violence support centers, overwhelmed healthcare and police services, shuttered shelters, and limited funding for local groups that help survivors. He also urged governments worldwide “to make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.”
Specifically, Guterres called for:
- Increasing investment in online services and civil society organizations;
- Making sure judicial systems continue to prosecute abusers;
- Setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and groceries;
- Declaring shelters as essential services; and
- Creating safe ways for women to seek support, without alerting their abusers.
“Together,” Guterres said, “we can and must prevent violence everywhere, from war zones to people’s homes, as we work to beat COVID-19.”
According to a U.N. News report from Monday, “Lebanon and Malaysia, for example, have seen the number of calls to helplines double, compared with the same month last year; in China they have tripled; and in Australia, search engines such as Google are seeing the highest magnitude of searches for domestic violence help in the past five years.”
The New York Times reported Monday on the experience of 26-year-old Lele, a woman in China who said that her husband beat her with a high chair as she held their 11-month-old daughter. Lele said that “during the epidemic, we were unable to go outside, and our conflicts just grew bigger and bigger and more and more frequent.”
Since the Chinese government began shutting down cities in February, the Beijing-based NGO Equality has seen a spike in calls from abuse survivors seeking support, according to the Times. Some European countries have reported similar surges.
In Spain, the emergency number for domestic violence received 18% more calls in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the same period a month earlier.
“We’ve been getting some very distressing calls, showing us clearly just how intense psychological as well as physical mistreatment can get when people are kept 24 hours a day together within a reduced space,” said Ana Bella, who set up a foundation to help other women after surviving domestic violence herself.
On Thursday, the French police reported a nationwide spike of about 30% in domestic violence. Christophe Castaner, the French interior minister, said he had asked officers to be on the lookout for abuse.
“The risk increases due to confinement,” he said in an interview on French television.
A USA Today analysis of data from police agencies across the United States, published Saturday, found that although crime rates have generally dropped off in recent weeks, calls for domestic disturbances surged by 10% to 30% among many of the communities during the second half of March compared with the previous weeks.
For example, “the Montgomery County Police Department, just outside Washington, D.C., recorded 13% fewer call dispatches and more than a third fewer criminal incidents,” the outlet reported. “But cases of domestic violence there spiked, even as most other crimes declined… Data show Montgomery County police saw a 21% increase in such calls over the past two weeks, an average of 39 a day.”
An NBC News report from Monday contained similar findings, with 18 of 22 law enforcement agencies that responded to the outlet disclosing an increase in domestic violence calls during March. According to NBC:
Houston police received about 300 more domestic violence calls in March than they did in February, a roughly 20% increase. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, police fielded 517 additional calls about domestic violence in March compared to the same month last year, an 18% jump, while Phoenix police received nearly 200 more calls, an increase of nearly 6%.
“The financial stress alone creates a ticking time bomb for some families with a history of domestic violence,” said Steve Mueller, sheriff of Cherokee County, South Carolina, which saw a 35% increase in cases in March compared to February. “Unfortunately many of these domestic violence cases occur in front of children and often the children become victims of abuse and assault, as well.”
Other cities and regions that told NBC they saw an increase in domestic violence cases during March are Boston; Milwaukee; Seattle; San Antonio; Salt Lake City; Utah County, Utah; Fresno County, California; Montgomery County, Texas; East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Buffalo, New York; Sparks, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; Nassau County, New York; Cherokee County, South Carolina; and Charleston, South Carolina.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and a live chat service is available at www.thehotline.org. Those seeking support can also text LOVEIS to 22522. All services offer 24/7, free, and confidential support.