April 17, 2020

IntelBrief: The Plague of Domestic Violence During COVID-19

A woman hangs a banner from her balcony with the number of a domestic violence hotline during a national lockdown aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, April 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein).
  • While much of modern life remains shut down, domestic violence is a constant plague for far too many throughout the world.
  • On April 10, France 24 reported a 30% increase in domestic violence, with abused partners unable to escape their abusers during quarantine.
  • In the United States, felony domestic violence is surging, while many jurisdictions are reducing or ceasing misdemeanor arrests.
  • Sheltering in place provides no refuge for people experiencing domestic violence at the hands of an abusive partner or family member.


As the world focuses on how to mitigate the cascading impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the plague of domestic violence continues unabated, though now with the added horror of ‘sheltering in place.’ Sheltering in place (as well as ‘social/physical distancing’) is an effective epidemiological tool to reduce the spread of a contagion. It is also a worst case scenario for those, mostly women, who experience violence from alleged loved ones or family members. Domestic violence is a taboo subject in most parts of the world, already far too hidden behind household doors. Now, with entire countries ordered to remain indoors, domestic violence has become an even more acute crisis, with incidents surging and victims left with nowhere to turn.

Since the pandemic began to sweep the world in January, there has been a steep rise in domestic violence cases, which is not entirely unexpected given the implementation of sheltering in place orders across the globe. In early April, France 24 reported a 30% increase in domestic violence cases over the course of the first week of its national shelter in place order. In a tweet from early April, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on governments to ‘put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic’ in response to the surge in domestic violence worldwide. U.S. law enforcement agencies are also dealing with a drastic increase in cases. As a result of the pandemic, local law enforcement agencies have been attempting to reduce the number of people arrested and taken into custody (being arrested does not always mean going to jail) by detaining people involved in misdemeanor crimes and then releasing them on a subpoena for a later court appearance. Yet many localities and states have, in recent years, finally started to address domestic violence more seriously, with additional sentences or conditions imposed on certain misdemeanor crimes. In many localities, if an individual is arrested for a misdemeanor offense that is also domestic violence (for example, simple battery/domestic violence), the police are legally required to take that person to jail. This commonsense approach is designed to prevent the offender (not always but overwhelmingly male) from returning immediately an after arrest and committing further violence. 

There is a real issue of over-criminalization in the United States; this is not the case with domestic violence, where the rate of crimes far outpaces the courts’ efforts to reduce them. It can be reasonably argued that many crimes should not result in jail terms—domestic violence crimes are not among them. As a result, court dockets in the time of the coronavirus are filled with domestic violence cases. For some, the cases have increased and in others these cases are highlighted because they are qualitatively different in nature from other kinds of misdemeanors. There are also reports of increases in felony domestic violence cases, such as aggravated battery (serious risk of substantial injury or death). Until relatively recently, strangulation has long been an overlooked horror in domestic violence. There are so many of these cases that many localities have laws specifically for domestic violence strangulation. The signs of strangulation are often overlooked by initial responders or sometimes not visible at all, but there are serious health risks that manifest later. It is nearly impossible for police to maintain social distancing while trying to respond to such cases. 

Shelters for those dealing with domestic violence remain open but many are unable to accept new people, as they seek to reduce the risk of contagion. Experts are calling this rise in domestic violence a ‘shadow pandemic.’ Many people are also experiencing dramatic economic losses that may include a loss of their home or shelter. To deal with increased stress and anxiety, many are turning to alcohol and drugs, which often play a significant role in domestic violence cases. Others are taking out their stress and anxiety on their partners and family members. But there are no excuses for domestic violence and misogyny. The social safety net that for many people was already tenuous before the coronavirus is now debilitated, leaving vulnerable people with even fewer support options. As shelter in place orders continue, the risk to those dealing with domestic violence will only increase even as their options decrease. Domestic violence and violence against women—ranging from verbal threats to physical violence—is a constant in American society and across the globe. For countless people experiencing domestic violence, even the ‘best of times’ are a nightmare of fear and pain from the violent person in their home or life. For these people, home is no shelter. 


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