One in three women will experience violence in their lifetime, most likely perpetrated by their partner or a family member. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues more women find themselves forced into isolation with their abusers, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Vogue.me investigates why domestic violence is on the increase and how those in danger can escape it.
“We believe you,” says Kerry Walsh. It’s her message to women trapped in their homes with abusive partners as Covid-19 surges the world over. “Not being believed and understood can stop women seeking help – there’s a lot of shame because you think it’s your fault. But it’s not your fault. We say that so many times.” The 47-year-old works as a facilitator for The Freedom Programme, a project that helps women who have suffered domestic violence come to terms with their experiences. She’s speaking from her home in locked-down London where she is self-isolating with her loving partner and teen daughter. She says that she’s very happy, despite the uncertain times – she likes staying at home and is enjoying time in her sun-soaked garden. And, compared to how she used to live, she doesn’t feel trapped at all. Because Walsh endured two long-term abusive relationships that spanned the majority of her adult life.
“I was used to being ordered about all my life – for years I had my confidence knocked and I had no self esteem,” says Walsh. “I’ve still got the scars. My life was just dominated.”
She is relieved to finally have her freedom, but when asked how women currently in abusive relationships might be faring during the coronavirus crisis, she is fearful. “It’s going to be awful,” says Walsh. “They will feel trapped. For those who are being mentally abused this is the time that it can turn physical quite easily. It makes me feel really sad just thinking about it. It’s not just being locked in, it’s the pressure of being cooped up with them.”
‘Them’ refers to the perpetrators – the psychological, emotional and physical abusers that rule their partners’ and families’ lives, exerting control over everything they say and do. Both men and women can perpetrate domestic abuse, but in the grand majority of cases, abusers are male and victims female. Statistics suggest that there is a current spike in domestic violence worldwide, with calls to helplines and visits to websites dedicated to helping those in danger seeing more demand. UN chief António Guterres has called for a ‘ceasefire’ due to the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence.” But why now?
“Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), which refers to physical, sexual and psychological aggression perpetrated by one partner against the other, typically spikes during natural disasters and times of sustained close contact, such as summer vacations,” says Dr Sarah Rasmi, psychologist and founder of the Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. “Restriction of movement [due to Covid-19] means that people who had an exit or a respite, the ability to disconnect from one another to mitigate the conflict that might trigger some of this violence – that’s not really there anymore. Globally we are all experiencing economic and financial pressures and uncertainly. People have either taken pay cuts, they have lost their jobs or they are concerned that those things are impending. There’s a lot of pressure there.
“[IPV] tends to happen for people who live in societies with a male dominant ideology. During times of crisis and economic pressure men feel or become unable to support their families in the same way, so they can’t live up to their perception of manhood and their masculine identity gets threatened, which is really stressful. As a function of that stress, sometimes people will perpetrate violence against their intimate partner,” concludes Dr Rasmi.
A lot of women don’t know they are being abused. They see control as just him being manipulative
But for women who are experiencing IPV, recognizing the signs and accepting that it’s happening to them can be as big of a challenge as seeking help. “A lot of women don’t know they are being abused,” says Pauline Hennessy, counseling manager, domestic abuse educator and facilitator of The Freedom Programme at Sutton Women’s Centre. “They see coercive control as just him being manipulative. Even when they don’t have a social life, when they don’t have access to money, when they can only see their parents or their family when he says so, they don’t actually see that as abuse. Some women think ‘he’s never hit me’ but when you’re a prisoner in your own home, that’s abuse.”
And now is the time that, with the added social and economic pressure of a pandemic, abuse that has so far been emotional and psychological could tip over into physical.
“When it comes to physical and sexual abuse they tend to occur in waves,” says Dr Rasmi. “So they will happen, then there will be a period where it may be dormant, and then it will peak again. Whereas emotional or psychological aggression or abuse takes place on a daily basis, so in a lot of ways it’s so much more pervasive. It has really strong impacts on the self-esteem and the wellbeing of the person on the receiving end.”
Another challenge facing women at risk of domestic violence is uncertainty over where to seek help, as normal life shuts down around the world due to the pandemic. Back in April in Lebanon filmmaker Nadine Labaki urged people to hang cloths from their balcony as a message of hope and solidarity to victims of domestic violence. Her message was clear – “we stand together.“
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“It’s difficult for women to know that services are still available to them, which explains quite a bit of underreporting,” says Hennessy. “‘He’ may be around 24/7 at the moment, and it’s really difficult for some of these women to report to the police or to an organization that could help unless she knows that she’s got someone there who can help her and put her in a refuge right there and then. Her worry is herself and her kids – a common threat is ‘if you leave I’ll kill you and the children’.
“There is a typical perpetrator of domestic violence, they use the same tactics and hold the same beliefs. They target and groom their victim, then they very subtly test the boundaries, slowly confusing and disempowering their victim until they have control over her life in every way. They also believe that they are the only person in the relationship whose needs must be met, which is their partner’s responsibility.
“He does not have to take responsibility for his bad behavior because that is all her fault: she does things, or doesn’t do things, or just looks at him the wrong way and that causes him to be abusive. He consistently changes the rules to ensure she can’t do anything right and undermines everything she says and does. Everybody else will experience him as a really good guy and a kind man. This prevents her from speaking because she believes it’s her fault that he is abusive and that no one would believe her anyway. However, there isn’t a typical victim. I have had women from all walks of life and cultures on my program, and they all tell the same story,” concludes Hennessy.
The helpline number for victims in Lebanon: 81788178
As difficult as reporting abuse may be, help is available, with ever more ingenious methods of seeking it coming to the fore. BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire hosted a news show with the UK’s Domestic Abuse Helpline number written on her hand. Women in France and Spain are using code words to alert authorities to the violence taking place in their homes. And in the Middle East, women’s refuges are stepping up their facilities to deal with the challenges posed by social isolation. While in the video shared by Nadine Labaki by ABAAD, a UN ECOSOC-accredited organization, provides the helpline number for victims in Lebanon: 81788178.
“As we always say to women, you and your family’s safety and dignity is a priority, so if you are facing a threatening situation, seek help from the specialists and together we can break the cycle of violence,” says Ghanima Al Bahri, Care & Rehabilitation Director at Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC). “As a pioneering entity in the region, DFWAC has always been ready and prepared to deal with crises, including Covid-19. The specialists at the Care and Rehabilitation Department have been trained in applying scientific crisis intervention methods and providing psychological first aid when needed.
“DFWAC is following the UAE government’s instructions towards remote work. The team who are responsible for providing care and rehabilitation services to sheltered women and children are working in the field based on reduced shift schedules, while the services provided to external clients is being delivered remotely by our specialized team of case managers, counsellors and therapists through different channels – phone calls, emails and so on,” says Al Bahri. “Covid-19 has not affected the quality and the continuity of our services, as the hotline, counsellors and shelter are still providing the same services. So DFWAC encourages any victim suffering from abuse, violence or exploitation to reach us by calling the hotline on 800 111.”
And with similar steps being taken by organizations across the region and the world, this is welcome news for women who need these services now more than ever.
Identifying the safest space in your house is really important.
“If you are experiencing this, you need external support,” says Dr Rasmi. “There are loads of resources available – calling and making sure that you reach out for support is so important. Another important step is to try to find a place that’s safe. Usually when somebody is experiencing abuse, part of our safety plan would be to try and remove them from the situation but that’s not super feasible at the moment. So identifying the safest space in your house is really important. And regardless of the type of violence or abuse that somebody is experiencing, we need to maintain social connection with outsiders as much as possible because abuse thrives in situations of social isolation. We need to stay in touch with people outside our environment and lean on them for support – it can be a good idea come up with a code word to share with somebody close to you to signal to them that you’re in distress and you need support if you’re unable to do something about it directly.
“But as an added challenge, people everywhere are really stressed and anxious right now, and as a function of their own challenges it might lead some people who would normally be a solid support system to experience a bit of compassion burnout and fatigue. So if you know someone who is living in a tricky situation it’s important to believe them and reach out to them and try to be there for them despite the challenges we are all facing,” says Dr Rasmi.
So how can we help someone who we suspect is being abused? “Just be there for them, tell them you’re there,” says Walsh. “Speak to a professional for help if you feel you need to.”
And if you suspect that you’re being controlled or abused? “Don’t push it aside – listen to your gut,” says Walsh. “Because one thing you lose when you’re being abused is that you don’t trust yourself anymore.” Thankfully there are plenty of organizations that women can trust working hard to keep them safe – and Covid-19 won’t stop them.
The following social and cultural issues indicate a higher likelihood of a women experiencing domestic violence, the most problematic being women who engage in behaviors that are considered to be gender role transgressions:
Income inequality (man earns more than partner)
Large differences in education and wealth in a couple
Conflict around finances
Gender role transgressions
Male dominant ideologies
Growing up in a violent home
Living in a society where domestic violence is accepted
Helplines For Victims of Domestic Violence
What they do: Provide shelter and help for women and children suffering from domestic violence
Telephone: 800 111 (UAE)
What they do: Shelter women and children victims of human trafficking
Telephone: 800 SAVE (UAE)
What they do: Humanitarian group advocating for and protecting women in the Middle East