At risk, but together

Marjan Greenblatt

May 12, 2020, 2:16 p.m.

Quarantined at home in the time of Coronavirus may be an opportunity for quality time with family members, old fashioned games with children, and even a chance for couples to rediscover each other. However, even for the most harmonious of households, long-term quarantine and anxiety over Covid-19 can be causes for cabin fever and exacerbate pre-existing tension and uncertainty. In certain segments of the society, the bickering and tension can quickly escalate into abuse and physical violence.  
For many women, men and children affected, domestic violence is not a new phenomenon, but it is arguably more dangerous during long-term confinement periods with involved parties.  
 
The dynamics of abusive  relationships were likely formed long before Covid-19. But with the recent increase in proximity and constant exposure, home-based altercations are more frequent and arguably more intense. Across the world, in countries grappling with the coronavirus, there has been an uptick in reports of domestic abuse and violence.  
 
While unprecedented circumstances have exacerbated existing domestic tensions, they have also triggered new cases of domestic abuse. An increase of external pressures, such as loss of income and sudden financial chaos are often correlated with a rise in domestic violence both for repeat and first-time perpetrators.  Other factors such as abuse of drugs and alcohol and lack of access to anger management support are among common culprits. 
 
The increased demand during a mass lockdown have resulted in increased challenges in accessing supportive services. Social distancing requirements translate to fewer shelter options for battered and abused partners, forcing victims to surrender to their abusers and tolerate the intolerable.  Victims who had been planning their escape from their abusers now find themselves behind sealed doors with their abusers. 
 
Stay-at-home orders have also extended to counselors and care providers who can not facilitate in-person sessions.  As a result, abuse victims seeking empowerment and independence strategies are unable to carve out the safe time and space to attend their appointments.  Many domestic abuse targets also lack access to outside communication lines or lack the spatial safety from which to call a friend, therapist, or even 911, the emergency number in the US. Lack of access to counseling can also impede the ability of remorseful perpetrators who seek help. 
 
Despite the limits and threats, abuse victims are calling for help, at unusually high rates. In the US, there has been an increase in domestic violence reports. Similar trends have been reported in France, China, Japan, Mexico, and many other countries.  At various levels, these countries have managed to deliver institutional support for the men, women, and children in need.  But the crisis is far from over. 
 
In closed and patriarchal societies such as Iran where women are constitutionally regarded as inferior to men, the stakes are even higher. Even if a woman calls for help, the institutions, meant to protect her may not recognize her grievance as legally or culturally justified. Marital rape, for example, is not recognized as a crime and women have a responsibility to “obey and serve” their spouses under Islamic law. In households with multiple wives, conflict can quickly escalate to psychological and physical abuse.  
 
In remote regions and small towns where poverty and digital divide has already put the population at a disadvantage, at-risk women are silent and invisible victims of abuse. Stories of suicide and child abuse occasionally emerge from these regions, providing a window to the abhorrent realities faced by abuse victims. Luckily good Samaritans also make themselves available despite the barriers to help fellow neighbors and friends in need. Despite the limitations, few organizations have emerged as trusted and valuable resources for victims of abuse. While names of these resources are easily available in democratic and open societies, in closed and patriarchal countries, these resources are communicated secretly among friends through word of mouth recommendations. In Iran, sites like Khaneh Amn and applications such as Toranj offer Persian language resources for those with access to a device or the internet, in some cases providing a lifeline to financially deprived victims of domestic violence by covering the cost of cell phones.  
Toranj which has been monitoring the statistics on domestic violence has reported a 50% increase in demands for their services. According to Sara Damavandan of Toranj, the sharp rise is even evident in the official government-run media, but it is challenging to determine the true impact in marginalized communities.  Without access to the vulnerable population, Damavandan relies on the power of Toranj’s resource infrastructure including reporting tools, printed and virtual brochures, as well as coping and empowerment techniques for those in need.  
Fortunately, such programs exist in many parts of the world but as we have seen, the gravity of the Coronavirus crisis tends to eclipse all the other social problems, especially in the media. For this reason, grassroots level advocacy and reporting have proven essential in keeping the domestic violence crisis in social discourse. Given the gravity of the situation, we encourage activists to proactively support victims of domestic abuse and violence to remain vigilant during these troubling times and offer their helping hand in advancing human rights by confronting abuse and violence at home.    
Anyone, who has experienced domestic abuse and violence, whether as a victim, perpetrator or bystander, can help to advise and support families and couples in crisis. Among our close social circles, a phone call or text message to a friend can help to deescalate a situation or support someone in need.  In broader circles, volunteers with more qualifications can enlist as virtual counselors.  
To quarantine at home can indeed be challenging, but with support of pro-active allies and activists, it doesn’t need to be dangerous.  

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