Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Illustrations by Alex McPhail, BA
My name is Brittany Pompilii, and my pronouns are she/her. I reside on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabewaki, Attiwonderonk, Mississauga, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations peoples. This land is currently known as Niagara, Ontario. As the author of this post, I acknowledge that my privilege, and therefore my experiences, inform my perspectives on the issue of domestic violence and COVID-19. I am a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender woman. I do not intend to speak on behalf of all women who have experienced domestic violence, especially the experiences of BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ folx. I also want to acknowledge that my privilege has provided me safety, opportunities, and financial stability across my life. As a research team member, I am committed to using my research and writing skills to contribute to helping all women access public health information - a right that all women are entitled to yet do not always receive. I hope that one day, the public health system represents all peoples’ experiences and treats all people equitably. Until that day, I hope to continue advocating for women and their health and safety in any way I can.
In this post, I worked to shine light on the experiences of all folx who have experienced domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the data published on this topic did not include disaggregated demographic information, meaning there is no confirmation that these research findings represent all folx’ experiences with domestic violence during COVID-19. I hope to continue updating this post as more research gets published on this topic. Although, as you read this post, please keep in mind that previous research indicates that BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQ2S+ folx are disproportionately impacted by both domestic violence and COVID-19, and the statistics reflected here may be even higher within these communities.
Domestic violence during COVID-19 is a global pandemic within a global pandemic (2). The COVID-19 safety measures put in place by government leaders around the world are new methods that domestic abusers leverage to gain control over their victims (6). The policies put in place to reduce transmission of COVID-19 have increased risk of abuse among individuals facing domestic violence (8). Establishing COVID-19 safety regulations comes at a cost for many women and gender diverse folx living with an abuser. The main COVID-19 safety measures are (1) stay-at-home orders and (2) social distancing (8). These two measures give power to domestic abusers, as it allows them to exert more control over their partners at home.
Stay-at-home orders force survivors of domestic violence to remain close to their abusers all day for months on end. Mandatory isolation gives many women little to no opportunities to seek help or get support. For many survivors of domestic violence, stay-at-home policies create more time and space for violence to occur, especially sexual abuse. Sexual abuse within the home has increased during the pandemic, while physical violence decreased. This might be because abusers do not want their partners to go to hospitals or emergency centers out of fear of them contracting COVID-19 (3*). Regardless, domestic violence has been on an overall increase since March 2020, with domestic violence centers around the world reporting up to 62% increase in helpline calls, up to 150% increase in website traffic, and up to 30% increase in domestic violence cases globally (3*;4;5).
Social distancing policies cut off women's access to friends, family, healthcare, and support services. Many survivors of domestic violence reach out for help in-person; however, social-distancing regulations require people and organizations to stay in touch and offer their support online. Friends and family members are encouraged to connect with each other via video conferencing or online messaging, and service providers have to adapt their services to online mediums. For many survivors, communication is challenging, since many abusers monitor all of their online activity including web history, social media, phone calls, and emails (6). Many survivors cannot seek help, since they can no longer discuss abuse in a safe space.
Regulations put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 increases the risk of violence within the home for many women. It is well documented that domestic violence against women increases during natural disasters and catastrophic events (like a global pandemic), yet no protection against domestic violence is embedded into countries’ COVID-19 regulations (4). While it is very important to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, there should be funding, extra supports, and widespread awareness specifically dedicated to protecting individuals experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, domestic violence at home. Instead, many domestic violence support agencies are forced to create awareness and adapt services after domestic violence has spiked rather than having measures in place to protect these women beforehand. Domestic violence victims were not taken into account through preventative measures at the advent of COVID-19, and they are suffering additional consequences as the pandemic continues on. These consequences include lack of safe housing and decreased health.
Social distancing policies cut off women access to friends, family, healthcare, and support services. Many survivors of domestic violence reach out for help in-person; however, social-distancing regulations require people and organizations to stay in touch and offer their support online. Friends and family members are encouraged to connect with each other via video conferencing or online messaging, and service providers have to adapt their services to online mediums. For many survivors, communication is challenging, since many abusers monitor all of their online activity including web history, social media, phone calls, and emails (y time and the lack of social distancing in these spaces (7).
Domestic violence is also associated with other negative health outcomes. Increased rates of domestic violence during the pandemic means that more women are dealing with these health outcomes, including (4;1):
Excessive worrying and anxiety
Mental illness (e.g. depression, PTSD)
Gastrointestinal and respiratory issues
Domestic violence is a major public health issue for women and gender diverse folx, and was so before the COVID-19 pandemic began. There is no reason why safety measures for survivors of domestic violence were not implemented in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Women are still experiencing domestic violence as the pandemic continues on, especially as stay-at-home and social distancing measures are still in place across the world, including Canada.
Still, there are ways Canadians can advocate, support, and spread awareness to help survivors of sexual violence. Governments can increase funding to domestic violence agencies across Canada, so more services and shelter spaces can be provided to survivors of domestic violence (8). In addition, preventing violence against women and gender diverse folx should be a priority in public health discussions around COVID-19. Preventative interventions and awareness campaigns should be implemented as early as possible - not only when domestic violence rates start increasing (1; 9). Community members can help spread awareness of domestic violence during COVID-19 by sharing resources and information on personal social media platforms (2;8;9). These actions help distribute important information to those who may need it but cannot access it themselves. Checking-in with friends and family members to ensure they are safe can help create a positive space for survivors to seek help and feel heard.
Read on the importance of healthcare services for survivors of domestic violence during COVID-19.
Some of the data available and used to inform this post compares women and men. The term “women” is used when referring to cisgender women or where research did not specifically mention the gender identity of women included.
*These sources do not specify the gender identity of the women included. Historical representation leads us to believe only cisgender women were included.
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Barbara G, Facchin F, Micci L, Rendiniello M, Giulini P, Cattaneo C, Vercellini P, & Kestermann A. COVID-19, lockdown, and intimate partner violence: Some data from an Italian service and suggestions for future approaches. Journal of Women’s Health, 2020, 29(10), 1239-1242. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2020.8590.
Evans ML, Linduer M, & Farrell ME. A pandemic within a pandemic. The New England Journal of Medicine, 2020, 383, 2302-2304. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp2024046.
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Van Gelder N, Peterman A, Potts A, O’Donnell M, Thompson K, Shah S, & Oertelt-Prigione S. COVID-19: Reducing the risk of infection might increase the risk of intimate partner violence. The Lancet, 2020, 21, 100348. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2020.100348.
Walters J. COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders: Impacts and policy responses in the contact of intimate partner violence. World Medical & Health Policy, 2020, 12(4), 533-539. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1002/wmh3.366