The Pandemic and its Impact on Domestic Abuse and Violence

This -slightly longer- article focuses on gender-related aspects of domestic violence. After some introductory comments, I will present a view on the general scope of an endemic problem. I will also look into the specific context of the role of weapons, especially firearms, in that context, and the significantly higher victimisation of women including through the use of firearms. After that, I will discuss the alarming rise of domestic violence which we observe as a consequence of various measures undertaken to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. I will advocate the protection of the most vulnerable first. In this, I will focus especially on women and children.

As an introduction:

I began this blog entry based on discussions with friends on the consequences of the pandemic for women through heightened levels of aggression, abuse, and violence. So I wanted to write about the impact of the restrictions and lockdowns on domestic abuse and violence experienced by women. Though this still is a major thread in my writing here, after some research and thinking my reflections on the topic of domestic abuse during the pandemic became broader.

Physical and emotional abuse including violence are a disturbing reality in intimate relationships and families. I will reference data published by the NCADV and other information a few paragraphs below, but for starters: Already before the pandemic, in the United States, 1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner. At least once in their life, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. And according to statistical data just taken from the United States, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men has been raped during their lifetime. 1 in 10 women suffer from rape within what they would consider their own zone of safety and comfort: Within an intimate relationship. I don’t have to look for other data sources but can state due to heuristical and professional experience that the situation, for example in countries in Europe, will not reflect a significantly less disturbing picture. Exact numbers might vary, but we are not talking about a fringe problem. We are talking about a huge challenge.

However, there is an emerging body of data indicating that phenomena of domestic abuse and violence are on the increase throughout the pandemic. As the pandemic lasts, lockdowns are protracted and are getting more and more rigid throughout this winter. It is all but certain that the problem will continue to grow, perhaps exponentially, the longer and more severe these restrictions are. As the fight against the pandemic is now reaching a full year of implementation, and will continue, there is no reasonable doubt that these developments will have a medium and long term negative impact.

Why should this make all of us concerned? Like every parent I want to see my children experiencing only safe friendships, happy relationships, and I want to see them becoming capable of raising happy children of their own. The thought of witnessing a beloved child being on the receiving or giving end of an abusive relationship is a horror scenario for every loving and caring parent. It is only natural to push this thought aside, hoping that this may be something that my children, our children, won’t have to go through. Parents may engage in wishful thinking, and some denial, hoping that this may not happen to own daughters and sons, but may just be some distant risk, a risk more for other societies, other communities, may be for less privileged people, or just plain and simple for others. The reality is starkly different: Your daughter has a high chance to experience violence in sexual relationships, your son may be significantly at risk becoming a perpetrator, and to a lesser extent, a victim. Both your daughter and your son may experience helplessness and mutual abuse in toxic relationships. Both will experience the stress of raising children, many will experience single-parenting, and they will likely experience the crushing defeat when, despite best intentions, they yell at their own children, or slap them, or worse. It has happened to most of us in various shades of grey, let us be honest. We have been on the receiving side, and we have been on the giving side. And this prediction, based on time-tested statistical data, is one main reason why to focus not only on women, but equally pressing on the suffering of children experiencing violence and abuse in domestic environments, and their social neighborhood: Every statistical data will confirm that those who have been victimised in their childhood are way more likely to repeat this abuse, or to subject themselves to abuse, by way of what psychology calls re-enactment, once they have grown out of age. In addition, their proneness to alcohol, substance, and behavioral abuse leading to addiction is exponentially higher. What we do to our children, our children will carry this into their parenting and into their intimate relationships, and into their coping strategies.

That is why we need to be concerned about the widespread phenomenon of domestic violence and abuse. And that is why it’s increase throughout the pandemic is so much a concern for all of us.

So, on Covid-19: Statistical data and personal experience in a vast network of friends make it clear to me that this already existing problem is amplified by how we try to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus. We need to talk about how to protect the vulnerable, and how to capacitate people so that they are able to withstand the frustration, fear, and anger, instead of leashing out against the vulnerable. Of course, we need a sound combination of prevention together with deterring measures, we need education as much as vigilance in detecting abuse. We need zero-tolerance. But all of that starts with numbers, and with understanding the problem, and then the challenge.

As a consequence, an already serious problem is becoming even more dangerous, and especially so for vulnerable groups including women and children. This matters to all of us, because it can happen to ourselves, and to our loved ones. This is not a scenario one can stay distanced from. Like I, many readers will be able to reference situations within their own social circle where violence happened. We need to find solutions, and we need to collectively engage now. Shaming and fingerpointing is no option, people who we deeply care about may find themselves being victims, or perpetrators, tomorrow.

Some more detail on the general problem of domestic violence and violence in sexual and intimate relationships:

Throughout my international work violence against vulnerable community members and against women and children has been a constant experience I am faced with in literally every heart-numbing aspect. Of course this is especially visible in situations of conflict and war. I have written several times about the fundamental impact of trauma that victims of such horrible violence have to experience.

Letting war and conflict aside for a moment, domestic violence against vulnerable individuals, often women and children, is a tragic daily mass-occurence within all societies. It affects the fabric of families and communities and is often not allowed to be visible, because of taboo, denial, and shame. It is challenging to see in all its aspects for external observers because of this built-in hide-and-deny-mechanism. It requires active communication to see it. International humanitarian workers see it, of course. Social workers see it, directly or indirectly, of course. You have to be “within” to be able to see.

My national policing work before I entered into international work was riddled with experiences of this domestic violence against women and children, and violence against members of the LGBTQ-community. My understanding of the primary reasons for why it can be challenging to detect such abuse roots in this time. It also transcends into my international experiences, because this mechanism of how domestic violence is being kept away from visibility as much as perpetrators and victims can manage (and neighbors looking the other way), it appears to be pretty universal. It is the same in all societies I have been in.

When I talk about violence in domestic contexts, I do not mean physical violence only. As horrible as forms of physical violence are, they are a sub-set. There are forms of emotional abuse and violence which equal the severity of impact and consequences and in some cases create even more pain, suffering, and long-term damage. Victims of violence can also be men, and perpetrators can be women, even children. Statistical data exists aplenty. Here are a few reference points for a more general narrative: A Deutsche Welle article, and one in The Guardian. For an initial mapping of the scope of the problem, I will refer as an example to statistical data published by “The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)“, a U.S. NGO. Some excerpts:

“1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. This includes a range of behaviors (e.g. slapping, shoving, pushing) and in some cases might not be considered “domestic violence.”

1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.” “1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner. Data is unavailable on male victims.“1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence (e.g. beating, burning, strangling) by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”

“The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. … 19% of domestic violence involves a weapon.”

“1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States has been raped in their lifetime.”

So, before focusing on aspects of violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, I needed to set the record straight by at least indicating that women and children form a majority of victims, but that violence against men, carried out by their female or male partners, is not the rare expection, but albeit smaller, a considerable case group.

On the role of weapons in cases of domestic violence:

For the United States, NCADV states that “The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. … 19 % of domestic violence involves a weapon.” This points directly towards the area of support by the German Federal Foreign Office assisting other countries in reducing the illicit impact of small arms and light weapons and effectively controlling the legal aspects around them. This support policy of the German government is very broad in its strategic motivations, it includes, for example, reducing stock and illicit possession of leftover weapons from war and conflict, support to harmonization of law, policy, enforcement and criminal justice aspects, curbing the illicit flow and criminal use of weapons by organised crime and terror inside and outside the European Union, and more. However, in this holistic undertaking the German government places strong emphasis on all gender related aspects. Germany has founded the “Gender Equality Network for Small Arms Control GENSAC” as a global initiative. On this website you find the following description: “The Gender Equality Network for Small Arms Control (GENSAC) aims to make Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) control more gender responsive and amplify international, regional, national and local best practices of those who have been doing “arms control behind the curtain”, including representatives from civil society organizations, women’s groups, conflict prevention and development communities.”

Like the scope of the problem of domestic violence and the significant over-representation of women becoming victims is huge, so is the role of firearms and other weapons in it. At the same time, practioners like myself stress that women are under-represented when it comes to policy-making in areas where they are much more affected by a problem than male members of a society. We want this to change, and it includes the dangerous role that weapons play in cases of domestic violence. I invite you to look into the very comprehensive material which has been made available by one main partner of the German government in my current line of work, the “South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC)“. On their very comprehensive website, gender in Security Sector Reform features high, and you will find various publications and research on domestic violence and the over-representation of female society members in the group of victims. The gemstones of gender related analysis which can be acccessed in SEESAC’s publication library are numerous. Scratching the surface, here some select fast facts, this time valid for South-East Europe (SEE):

97.2% of all legally owned firearms in SEE are owned by men. Men committed 98.4% of firearm-related criminal offenses in South-East Europe, 98.5% of all firearm-related incidents and 98% of all firearm- related homicides. Men account for 83.8% of victims of firearm-related homicide compared to 16.2% of women.

Most telling is SEESAC’s Fast Fact – collection on the misuse of firearms in domestic violence in South East Europe: Homicide committed by a family member is the most common form of femicide in SEE. 61% of all killed women were killed by a family member, compared to 12.4% of all killed men. 38.6% of all killed women and 1.2% of all killed men were killed by an intimate partner. 43.5% of all women killed by an intimate partner in SEE were killed with firearms. 68.9% of women killed with firearms were killed in their homes, apartments or yards. 37.4% of reported domestic violence incidents which involved firearms had a lethal outcome.

Interim conclusion: Because of it’s short-, medium, and long-term damaging consequences including for future generations, domestic violence must be considered a zero-tolerance-topic, and the highest investment into how to prevent and to tackle consequences must focus on violence against women and children.

On emerging data related to the Covid-19 pandemic:

November 25, 2020, German news media reported warnings issued by the United Nations and the European Union: Lockdowns in Europe cause a worrying increase of registered cases of domestic violence against women and girls. December 19, 2020, the magazine “The Economist” focused on this increase with the headline “Covid-19 threatens girls’ gigantic global gains“. December 21, 2020, “The Wall Street Journal”, in its article “Covid-19 Is Pushing Women Out of Work. Just Look at Italy.” focused on structural abuse harming gender equality. December 26, 2020, German news media reported about warnings issued by the German victims protection organisation “Der Weisse Ring”, a highly renowned NGO. According to their own data, approximately 10 % more victims of domestic violence called their helpline during the first ten months of 2020. December 28, 2020, German new media reported a warning issued by EUROPOL. According to EUROPOL, cases of sexual abuse of children during the pandemic are strongly on the rise and perpetrators of pedophile behavior do not only increasingly look for child pornography in the Internet, but also attempt to increasingly contact children for purposes of abusing them. And concluding a list of disturbing data reference points, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development OECD, a global organisation, issued a report “Women at the core of the fight against COVID-19 crisis“, starting with the sentence “The COVID-19 pandemic is harming health, social and economic well-being worldwide, with women at the centre.”

Enough references. There is a ton more. However, whenever I make a statement, I try to provide evidence. Evidence still matters, truth still matters. And the truth is: An already existing worrying phenomenon with implications for all of us and for our children is becoming worse, the longer the pandemic lasts. In my prediction, this is not a linear deterioration, but will resemble exponential developments.

If I wanted to come up with a list of comprehensive action points, I think I would fail. And perhaps, nobody would continue reading this already long article.

However, a few points based on what I say at various points in my writing:

  • Domestic violence is a wide-spread phenomenon with very damaging short-, medium, and long-term, including generational, harming consequences.
  • With children being victims through witnessing this violence, or being subjected to it, long-term damage to their entire lifes is likely. For reference, I refer to my blog articles on trauma.
  • Prevention and deterrence has to focus on the most vulnerable groups first, and that includes especially women and children. Every prevented case of violence contributes to less domestic violence in future generations.
  • Women are under-represented when it comes to discussing, and implementing policy that affects, globally, their own well-being, economic, and security interests. This has to change.
  • The more relaxed the weapons policy of a country, the more likely is that women and children disproportionately suffer from severe forms of abuse, and violence, including through homicide and femicide. We have to continue to outlaw “male behavior” that equals masculinity with possessing and displaying weapons. Personally, I do encourage parents to even consider limiting the existence of toy-weapons in their households. Whilst I have professionally operated a large variety of small arms as a police officer, my children have not seen us parents encouraging, or condoning, the use of toy weapons.
  • Counter-measures curbing the spread of infections during the Covid-19 pandemic increase anger, frustration, fear, and aggression. At the same time the opportunities to “vent” these emotions in a healthy way have become unavailable. We have to increase a policy-discussion about this, and we have to do this now, instead of hoping that vaccinations may bring us to the end of the crisis quickly. We are, still, witnessing the darkest chapters of the pandemic, and this is not changing anytime soon enough.