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Thais Ayuso : Shadow Pandmic - The rise of femicide & domestic abuse during the COVID pandemic

“Effective immediately, all Spaniards must stay home except to buy food, medicines, go to work or to the hospital or for emergencies.” – (Reuters, 2020)

As the pandemic hit the world in the early spring of 2020, the world shut down. Quite literally, countries worldwide were issuing stay-at-home orders, encouraging people to reduce social contacts, and in some countries forcing people to remain home except to conduct essential activities, such as buying food or medicine.

For most of us, this pandemic has mainly been an inconvenience, limiting our freedom of movement and preventing us from socializing as often as we would typically prefer. But for some women, this reoccurring socialization was their lifeline. Not because they would feel lonely without it or because they work in the entertainment and/or service sector, but because this repeated socialization and public roaming allowed others around them to spot the various signs of their abuse and, consequently, try and help them.

Domestic abuse victims are often too scared to seek help independently. They are afraid of the consequences such actions may bring upon them. They fear the potential humiliation brought about by those who do not sympathize. Most importantly, they are concerned people will not believe their side of the story. This makes it hard for such victims to seek help.

Even in regular times, when surrounded by people who can spot a covered black eye or cuts on their arms, victims continue to face credibility issues. But in times of nation-wide lockdowns, when victims risk being trapped at home with their partner, they are some of the few who leave their home in search of help. In total-social isolation and exposure, victims traverse the streets without the refuge of crowds who may cover their entry into help centers. Beyond that, many abuse victims are often unable to access support either because they don’t know where to find it or because it is simply inaccessible. Furthermore, there are a multitude of other barriers, such as social stigma and the fear of being publicly humiliated, which cause victims to hesitate in their pursuit of health.

Many experts warned that stay-at-home orders and strict domestic lockdowns would push many victims into dangerous and potentially lethal situations. By forcing them to be locked in close quarters with their abusers, the risk of amplifying the already growing domestic violence crisis worldwide is very likely. This is what experts are now calling “intimate terrorism” (The New York Times, 2020). This prophecy has been mirrored in the data generated since the spring of 2020. In France, the number of domestic violence cases rose by 30% after March 2020 (TEDxTalks). In Spain, in the first two weeks of April alone, there was a 47% increase in calls to Spain’s domestic violence helpline, and the number of women contacting essential support services has increased by up to 700% (The Guardian, 2020).

“It’s all about power and control, it’s about controlling everything; you know a person’s movement, a person’s thoughts, a person’s freedom.” – Debbie Donastorg (Good Shepherd services)

Domestic abuse occurs in various stages and ranges from excessive control over movement and contact to physical abuse to femicide – the murder of a person purely based on their gender. It often starts as merely some overprotective tendencies and arguments with a partner and then escalates into physical violence as frustration gradually grows. This escalation is accelerated when people are trapped in close quarters, leading to a rise in violence and abuse during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, these couples would spend less time together, allowing the victim to find help more discreetly thereby deescalating the perpetrator's frustrations. Adding to that, some of the main drivers behind domestic abuse are lockdown-caused unemployment. This, combined with existing trauma and different violence modalities, two factors that have been exacerbated during the pandemic, only makes the domestic situation more dangerous. The uncertainty, stress, and lack of entertainment (distractions) due to unemployment are domestic violence drivers.

“It was 2:30 AM when Daniel Jimenez was woken up by the screams of his neighbor. After rushing outside his home in Valladolid in the north of Spain, he saw a woman dangling from a third-floor window. Another neighbor rushed outwith matrasses trying to break her fall, but both Daniel and the neighbors were too late – the woman fell to her death.” (Paraphrased out of The Guardian, 2020).

Especially alarming is the rise in femicides since the start of the pandemic. In Spain, 18 femicide fatalities were recorded from the beginning of 2020 till mid-March, with a third occurred during the coronavirus outbreak (IASSW, 2020). In the United Kingdom, nearly three times as many women were murdered in March by men – 14 in all- than the average for the same period over the last decade (IASSW, 2020). In Italy, the COVID lockdown had been an accelerator of femicides, with domestic killings accounting for 80.8% of the total in the three-month lockdown earlier this year (Eures, 2020).

Although this problem may initially seem like something prevalent in lower-income countries, empirical evidence shows otherwise. Amongst the countries with the highest murder committed by a partner (rate per 100.000 inhabitants) are Northern Ireland and Finland (Eurostat, 2019). This illustrates that this problem is not confined to certain parts of Europe. This is a problem prevalent in all of our social circles. The majority of domestic violence is not apparent. It does not have to take place in the form of physical violence, making this a pseudo-pandemic lurking behind the closed doors of confined homes, invisible to the public eye – and therefore all the more dangerous and deadly for its victims.

European hotlines for domestic abuse victims (or if you know of a victim):

Netherlands: Veilig Thuis (for victims of domestic violence and child abuse): 0800 2000

Spain: 016 (or codeword “Mascarilla 19” in a pharmacy)

Northern Ireland: 0800 917 14 14

Italy: 1522

France: 3919

Romania: 021 311 46 36

Women protesting in Mexico (2020).

Written by Thais Ayuso Deshmukh, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.

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