Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence

Emma Graham-Harrison, Angela Giuffrida in Rome, Helena Smith in Athens and Liz Ford
Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

Around the world, as cities have gone into lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, the mass efforts to save lives have put one vulnerable group more at risk.

Women and children who live with domestic violence have no escape from their abusers during quarantine, and from Brazil to Germany, Italy to China, activists and survivors say they are already seeing an alarming rise in abuse.

In Hubei province, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in one county alone during the lockdown in February, from 47 last year to 162 this year, activists told local media.

“The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence,” Wan Fei, a retired police officer who founded a charity campaigning against abuse, told Sixth Tone website. “According to our statistics, 90% of the causes of violence [in this period] are related to the Covid-19 epidemic.”

It is a pattern being repeated globally. In Brazil a state-run drop-in centre has already seen a surge in cases it attributes to coronavirus isolation, the Brazilian broadcaster Globo said.

“We think there has been a rise of 40% or 50%, and there was already really big demand,” said Adriana Mello, a Rio de Janeiro judge specialising in domestic violence. “We need to stay calm in order to tackle this difficulty we are now facing.”

The Catalan regional government said that calls to its helpline had risen by 20% in the first few days of the confinement period; in Cyprus, calls to a similar hotline rose 30% in the week after 9 March, when the island had its first confirmed case of coronavirus.

A woman crosses an empty street in Paris during the nationwide confinement. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

“It’s been a dramatic rise and it has only gone up,” said Annita Draka, of the association for the prevention of domestic violence, which is based in Nicosia, the island’s capital. “It’s a 24-hour helpline and the calls come in all the time.”

Those alarming figures log only cases where women are able to seek help; many cannot make calls because they fear being overheard by abusive partners, or are stopped from leaving home.

In Italy activists said calls to helplines had dropped sharply, but instead they were receiving desperate text messages and emails.

“One message was from a woman who had locked herself in the bathroom and wrote to ask for help,” said Lella Palladino, the president of D.i.Re, the Women against Violence Network. “For sure there is an overwhelming emergency right now. There is more desperation as women can’t go out.”

Palladino said she expected to see an “explosive increase” in the number of reports of domestic abuse once the lockdown restrictions eased.

Mara Bevilaqua, an activist for the Casa Lucha y Siesta shelter in Rome, said all shelters were open and they were looking out for women trying to get in touch by any means. “We’re all ensuring that channels of communication are kept open,” she said. “Our mobile phone is active all the time and women can also contact us by email and Facebook.”

A woman wearing a face mask in Barcelona. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

In Spain – where lockdown rules are extremely strict, and many people are being fined for breaking them – the government has told women they will not be fined if they leave home to report abuse.

But on 19 March, the country saw the first domestic violence fatality since the lockdown began five days earlier, when a woman was murdered by her husband in front of their children in the coastal province of Valencia.

The increased threat to women and children was a predictable side effect of the coronavirus lockdowns, said activists. Increased abuse is a pattern repeated in many emergencies, whether conflict, economic crisis or during disease outbreaks, although the quarantine rules pose a particularly grave challenge.

“It happens in all crisis situations,” said Marcy Hersh, a senior manager for humanitarian advocacy at Women Deliver. “What we worry about is just as rates of violence are on the rise, the accessibility of services and the ability of women to access these services will decrease. This is a real challenge.”

In many countries there have been calls for legal or policy changes to reflect the increased risk to women and children in quarantine.

In the UK, Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality party, has called for special police powers to evict perpetrators from homes for the duration of the lockdown, and for authorities to waive court fees for the protection orders.

A prosecutor in Trento, Italy, has ruled that in situations of domestic violence the abuser must leave the family home and not the victim, a decision hailed as “fundamental” by the trade union CGIL.

“Being confined to home because of coronavirus is difficult for everyone, but it becomes a real nightmare for female victims of gender-based violence,” the union said in a statement.

In Germany the Green party’s parliamentary leader, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, said this week she feared for the lives of thousands of women trapped with violent partners, and called on the government to free up money for safe houses.

“The spaces in safe houses for women are tight even during normal times,” she told German media, and urged authorities to consider transforming empty hotels and guest houses, and lift conditions on leaving home for women who are vulnerable.

A residential building in Wuhan, China, during the lockdown there. Photograph: Reuters

Her deputy, Katja Dörner, said house visits should continue in cases where there was suspicion that children were being maltreated, despite rules banning contact.

Police in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, which has one of the worst track records on violence against women in the country, have launched a new domestic violence helpline as cases surge.

“Suppress corona, not your voice,” read an advertisement on the front page of one newspaper. Police promised a female officer would handle each case, and police could arrest the perpetrator of any violence.

In Greece, officials said they were stepping up a campaign to help women deal with problems clearly emerging from the issue of confinement.

“Recognising that, generally, in times of crisis this is a problem, we are working around the clock to get the word out,” said Maria Syrengela, who heads the general secretariat for family policy and gender equality.

“Once official figures are released next week, and we know the true scale of the problem, we’ll be enlisting TV channels as well as social media and the mainstream press. There is no question in my mind that with the economic impact of the crisis this will get worse.”

  • Kate Connolly in Berlin, Sam Jones in Madrid, Tom Phillips in São Paulo, Lily Kuo in Beijing and Annie Kelly also contributed reporting