May 7, 2020

BLOG: When Staying Home Isn't Safe: How COVID-19 is Putting Vulnerable Women at Even Greater Risk

COVID-19 has upended all of our lives to varying degrees. Georgetown students were forced to abruptly adjust to online courses after being sent home unexpectedly. This transition has also brought with it non-academic concerns like health, financial and job security, and emotional wellbeing. These concerns are shared by the rest of the United States and the world as we all grapple with the uncertainty of the pandemic. The future remains unknown, and so does our collective safety.

Collaboration amongst members of the Georgetown Women's Alliance
Collaboration amongst members of the Georgetown Women's Alliance

For most people, staying home (when possible) has become the safest way to live our lives during the coronavirus pandemic. However, a new crisis has emerged: as the number of people staying home increases, so have incidences of domestic violence. According to the New York Times, "mounting data suggests that domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection," with perpetrators taking advantage of the measures put in place to combat the virus. This increase in domestic violence impacts both genders, but especially women. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 3 women experience some form of physical violence by an intimate partner and 1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner physical violence. Despite it being a known risk that domestic violence goes up whenever families spend time together, the NY Times concludes that "governments largely failed to prepare for the way the new public health measures would create opportunities for abusers to terrorize their victims." Now governments and emergency services are trying to play catch up. Unfortunately, just like delays in taking COVID-19 seriously caused irreparable damage to our efforts to combat the virus, delays in responding to the increased risk of domestic violence means "irreparable harm may already have occurred."

The multitude of stories in the NY Times article that I previously referenced are saddening individually, but together they demonstrate a disturbing pattern of reoccurrence that is taking place in country after country. The institutions that should be stepping in to help domestic violence victims are straining to respond to the increased demand. Most detrimentally, the governments of countries that impose lockdowns do not think through the impact of those lockdowns: they issue the order, and about 10 days later cries for help spike. Only at that point do governments attempt to improvise solutions. 

What should governments do to protect women during this uncertain period? Unfortunately, they can't go back in time and improve their immediate response to domestic violence during lockdowns. But this doesn't mean they shouldn't do anything going forward. As social distancing continues, it is likely the isolation these (predominantly female) victims face will only continue to increase. As life becomes even more stressful, abusers may escalate their tactics to severe violence or murder. Governments need to take proactive steps towards ensuring that the communal public health of their countries does not outweigh the health of vulnerable women. 

Hoyasforshe fellow Amber Broder (SFS'22)
Hoyasforshe fellow Amber Broder (SFS'22)

My time as a fellow with the Georgetown Women's Alliance Communications Committee has taught me the power of using technology to connect women of a multitude of ages, socioeconomic groups, physical locations, and other diversifying factors. Technology would be a critical asset in providing these women with contact to the outside world and a feeling that someone is there with them, even as they're physically isolated. Governments should design a electronic system for complaints, so although some victims may not be able to physically escape due to shelter closures and lack of safe space to quarantine, their cases can be monitored. Additionally, governments that are instituting lockdowns should put in place preparations to house victims in spaces that are not currently being utilized, like France is doing with hotels. Finally, future relief packages need to prioritize getting aid to organizations that are working to support domestic violence victims, and identify ways to get financial support (like stimulus checks) into the hands of the women themselves, and to avoid leaving them dependent on their abuser for financial support.

In this time of uncertainty and fear, it can seem like the path of least resistance for governments to focus on the greater public health concern and let non-COVID 19 issues fall to the wayside. This is not the approach that we should take. COVID-19 has highlighted areas where we are falling short as a society, but rather than use it as an excuse to continue ignoring serious social issues like domestic violence, we should take it as motivation to improve our infrastructure for combating these problems.

This post was prepared by Amber Broder (SFS’22) as part of the Hoyasforshe Student Fellowship.