Domestic violence and abuse, coronavirus, and the media narrative

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  • 1 University of Bristol, UK
  • | 2 Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
  • | 3 University of Glasgow, UK
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Following lockdowns in countries around the world, reports emerged of a ‘surge’ or ‘spikes’ in the number of domestic violence and abuse cases. It is critical to contextualise this: more men are not starting to be abusive or violent; rather, the patterns of abuse are becoming more frequent. Spiking and surging make us think in terms of more one-off incidents but it is more likely that the pattern of abuse that is already there is increasing in terms of frequency and type because both parties remain together at all times. Amid such a crisis, it is imperative that we continue to see the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse as both a pattern of abusive behaviours and a product of gendered social and cultural norms, rather than a reaction to a specific factor or event, such as COVID-19.

Abstract

Following lockdowns in countries around the world, reports emerged of a ‘surge’ or ‘spikes’ in the number of domestic violence and abuse cases. It is critical to contextualise this: more men are not starting to be abusive or violent; rather, the patterns of abuse are becoming more frequent. Spiking and surging make us think in terms of more one-off incidents but it is more likely that the pattern of abuse that is already there is increasing in terms of frequency and type because both parties remain together at all times. Amid such a crisis, it is imperative that we continue to see the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse as both a pattern of abusive behaviours and a product of gendered social and cultural norms, rather than a reaction to a specific factor or event, such as COVID-19.

On Monday 23 March 2020, the governments in the UK issued a series of announcements asking the public to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Following lockdowns in countries around the world, reports emerged of a ‘surge’ or ‘spikes’ in the number of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) cases. In this article, we argue that it is critical to contextualise these reports: more men are not starting to be abusive or violent; rather, the patterns of abuse are becoming more frequent and, in some cases, being reported more readily. Spiking and surging make us think in terms of more one-off incidents but it is more likely that the pattern of abuse that is already there is increasing in terms of frequency and type because both parties remain together at all times. As three experts in this area, we urge the media to make this distinction.

From the outset, specialist DVA services were preparing for a potential increase in both the occurrence and reporting of abuse. Concerns were raised by a number of charities – Women’s Aid England, Scottish Women’s Aid, Respect UK, Safelives and Rape Crisis (both Scotland and England/Wales) – about the potential problems that they would face with increased demand given the already limited services that they were able to provide following austerity cuts to funding across the sector.1 It was also likely that without government intervention, many key staff would be furloughed. Women’s Aid (England) have requested emergency funding of £48.2 million.2 The Scottish government made available just over £1.5 million to Scottish Women’s Aid and Scottish Rape Crisis.3

Early data from those countries that went into lockdown earlier than the UK have suggested that during self-isolation, reports of DVA have increased. In China, for example, research suggests that the numbers of reports of abuse increased threefold when comparing figures from February 2019 to February 2020.4 Similarly, in France, reports of abuse increased by over 30 per cent,5 while there was a 33 per cent rise in helpline calls in Singapore.6 Spain has reported 18 per cent more calls to emergency helplines in the first two weeks of the lockdown compared to the month before,7 and reports from India suggest that domestic violence has doubled.8 Finally, bearing in mind that data are emerging all the time, Australia has reported a 75 per cent increase in Internet searches relating to support for domestic violence victims.9 We also know that some communities who are subject to different types of social inequalities – for example, women with no resource to public funds, black and minority ethnic (BME) workers in front-line key services, those with underlying health conditions and disabilities, and those living in poverty – will be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and therefore both COVID-19 and DVA.

As services have begun to address the impact of the current lockdown on potential victim-survivors10 and perpetrators,11 many have moved to providing online support through online chat, video calling and telephone. Women’s Aid (England) maintain that demand for these services has risen by 41 per cent since the lockdown was imposed.12 While online support may be helpful for many, replacing face-to-face support normally provided within communities is not ideal. The key principle of working in this field is to ensure that any intervention or support does not increase the risk to victim-survivors, which is something that is more difficult to establish when not meeting face to face in a safe space.13 Organisations have now issued guidance to victim-survivors in order to help them through this difficult time, and further guidance has been issued for informal support networks, such as family and friends.14

One of the issues currently facing the DVA sector is that refuges and safe houses are unable to take new residents due to concerns about coronavirus contamination and sickness levels in key working staff. Residents in refuges are unable to leave and move on due to problems accessing other housing at this time. These problems, which mirror those experienced at the intersection between health and social care, have led to suggestions that women and children fleeing abuse should be housed in hotels – away from their belongings and necessary means to exist, such as kitchens to cook food, washing machines and separate rooms – further isolating them during this difficult time. This has also opened up the perennial debate about who should be removed from a household, with campaigners arguing for the removal of perpetrators into alternative accommodation so that women and children can stay in their own homes. However, concerns have been raised about how this will work in practice and similar issues arise in terms of the availability of support for perpetrators to address and change their behaviour.15

Alongside these practical measures, we have witnessed an increase in the number of domestic violence homicides, as many in the sector feared. In the three weeks following the lockdown, there were 16 domestic abuse murders in England and Wales16 – a figure that continues to rise alarmingly. This number is higher than the normal rates reported by counting dead women and the femicide census.17 As a result, DVA services have called on the respective UK governments to issue clear guidance to potential victim-survivors and perpetrators during this time. Government guidance18 recognises that for some people, social isolation is dangerous. It also makes clear that the police will come to assist in cases of DVA and that fleeing an abusive home is classified as essential travel.

Despite the efforts of front-line services to adapt to the current circumstances in order to continue to support victim-survivors, we have unfortunately seen a lack of understanding in the media reporting of the murders that have recently taken place, referring to these cases as ‘coronavirus murders’.19 This is unhelpful and points to a much bigger problem in the way in which, as a society, we understand DVA and the reasons why it happens. If perpetrators see messages that identify the cause of abuse as an impact of the virus, then this undermines the messages being presented by perpetrator services: that individuals have a choice as to whether to use violence and abuse, and that help is out there if they want support to change.20 It also further constructs the narrative that the virus is to blame and that ordinarily murders such as these – by ordinary men – would not otherwise be happening.

While we are undoubtedly in unprecedented times, this type of blurring of causes and excuses is not new. This happens in relation to other situations where a seemingly erroneous context is presented as causing abuse. The current situation reminds us of earlier research projects in which we were involved, where we received funding to study the apparent links between football and domestic abuse (Crowley et al, 2014; Brooks-Hay and Lombard, 2018). This came about as a result of the narrative being taken forward by local and national media that football was a cause of DVA, based on quantitative data showing a correlation between football matches and DVA. A key conclusion of this research was that focusing on football – or other specific factors or events, in this case, COVID-19 – as causative of DVA risks oversimplifying and ‘re-incidentalising’ DVA: seeing it as one incident or set of discreet incidents rather than facilitating a more nuanced understanding of DVA as a form of ‘coercive control’ embedded within an ongoing pattern of behaviour and wider social relations of gendered power and other types of inequality. The findings of this original study can be applied to the current coronavirus pandemic and the daily updates which tell us that domestic violence rates around the world are increasing. While this increase may be linked to ‘triggers’ – isolation, pressure, boredom, frustrations, anger and so on – coronavirus should not be positioned as a cause of DVA. The key here is how the public confuse ‘normal’ relationship tensions and strains – which are likely to be high during the lockdown – with DVA. The linking of the term ‘domestic’ with the idea that we are all in our homes experiencing tensions needs to be separated. They are not the same. DVA is about power and control, and the use of that power to abuse and coercively control another person.

It is also important to note that media reports are not the same as prevalence. While other crimes are falling during this pandemic, DVA is not, and the lack of alternative ‘news’ and increasing murders make it a more newsworthy issue. In non-virus times, two women a week are murdered by their partners, with these crimes rarely making the news.21 So, why are they being focused upon now? The ‘virus’ element and the lockdown make them more newsworthy. This creates a media loop in which the misreporting of these crimes perpetuates the incident-based perception of abuse that subsequently leads to further misreporting and misunderstanding. This is a problem because many statutory and other agencies – whether the police, courts or health practitioners – also continue to perceive this type of abuse in terms of incidents, when the reality for victim-survivors is that this is an underlying, ongoing, fluctuating pattern of abuse.

This means that the reality of abuse becomes hidden and the domestic abuse becomes invisible. The naming of domestic abuse killings as ‘COVID-19 murders’ is therefore dangerous as, like links to football, it masks the reality that perpetrators are everyday people. These men are not monsters; they are your mate down the pub, the ‘caring dad’, the family next door and so on. Much of the context of the lockdown magnifies existing abusive behaviours: isolation from friends, family and employment; the opportunity for constant surveillance; restrictions on access to the outside world; and limitations on food.

A further problem that comes from the media focus on domestic abuse as individual incidents is that it implies that we are in a situation that will dissipate after COVID-19 when, in reality, DVA was there before COVID-19 and will be there after it. While there may be increases in abuse and reporting, many victim-survivors will use their many coping strategies to survive the coming weeks in social isolation and not report, which explains why reporting has decreased in some countries. Specialist services know from increases in reporting after school holidays and other times when families are in closer proximity that reports are likely to increase for a period of time after the lockdown has ended. For many, it will be the time when they can leave the house, recharge and get support that they will find the strength to report and leave an abusive situation.

What we hope that we have shown in this article is that COVID-19 is not a cause of domestic abuse and that focusing on external events – whether a health crisis, political instability or a football match – masks the underlying gendered causes of DVA and potentially offers perpetrators excuses for their abusive behaviour (McFeely et al, 2013). Amid such a crisis, it is imperative that we continue to see the dynamics of DVA as both a pattern of abusive behaviours and a product of gendered social and cultural norms, rather than a reaction to a specific factor or event such as COVID-19. If, as a society, we continue to offer excuses to perpetrators, we make it more difficult for victim-survivors to get help, pandemic or not.

Sources of support

  • Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is available 24/7 via phone on 0800 027 1234, email at helpline@sdafmh.org.uk or web chat (available at: www.sdafmh.org.uk). Specially trained staff are available to offer support and information for anyone experiencing domestic abuse, those concerned about someone else and professionals with questions.

  • Women’s Aid England run online chat services at: https://chat.womensaid.org.uk/

  • Welsh Women’s Aid run the Live Fear Free helpline on 0808 80 10 800. You can also access support through their direct email service at info@livefearfreehelpline.wales. You can also contact the Live Fear Free helpline by text 24/7 on 078600 77 333.

  • Respect UK run a helpline for perpetrators who want to change their behaviour on 0808 8024040.

  • Male victims can access support through the Men’s Advice Line on 0808 801 0327.

Notes

Conflict of interest

A much shortened and highly edited version of this paper appeared in The Conversation on 15th May 2020.

References

  • Brooks-Hay, O. and Lombard, N. (2018) ‘Home game’: domestic abuse and football; the role of research in policy and practice, Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 2(1): 93108. doi: 10.1332/239868018X15155986580769

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  • Crowley, A., Brooks, O. and Lombard, N. (2014) Football and domestic abuse: A literature review, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) Research Report No. 06/2014.

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  • McFeely, C., Whiting, N., Lombard, N., Brooks, O., Burman, M. and McGowan, M. (2013) Domestic Abuse and Gender Inequality: An Overview of the Current Debate, University of Edinburgh Briefing 69, Edinburgh: Centre for Families and Relationships.

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  • Brooks-Hay, O. and Lombard, N. (2018) ‘Home game’: domestic abuse and football; the role of research in policy and practice, Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 2(1): 93108. doi: 10.1332/239868018X15155986580769

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crowley, A., Brooks, O. and Lombard, N. (2014) Football and domestic abuse: A literature review, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) Research Report No. 06/2014.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McFeely, C., Whiting, N., Lombard, N., Brooks, O., Burman, M. and McGowan, M. (2013) Domestic Abuse and Gender Inequality: An Overview of the Current Debate, University of Edinburgh Briefing 69, Edinburgh: Centre for Families and Relationships.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 University of Bristol, UK
  • | 2 Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
  • | 3 University of Glasgow, UK

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