COVID-19 and gender-based violence

Implications for survivors and those at risk


Guest post by Funmi Ayeni

Graduate student in Ecological-Community Psychology, MSU


At 1:20 p.m. on March 31, local authorities responded to reports of multiple gunshots fired at a home in Wilson Borough, 70 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Officers arrived on the scene to find that 38 -year-old Roderick Bliss had shot his longtime girlfriend in the back before committing suicide. The reason for this? Police say Roderick lost his job due to the coronavirus pandemic and had become extremely upset in the days leading up to the shooting. The victim underwent surgery and is expected to make a full recovery. However, she will require much support to heal from the trauma of an experience that almost claimed her life.


Since the first cases of the Coronavirus were reported in the United States by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020, there has been an increasing concern about the rapid spread of the virus. In response, most states have encouraged social distancing by asking residents to stay at home except for essential activities and services with some states issuing executive orders to this effect. The United States has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world with at least 957,875 people testing positive and 53,922 deaths across the 50 states and 5 jurisdictions as of April 26, including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

While social distancing is important to minimize person-to-person spread, this practice is not without significant consequences, particularly for vulnerable populations. Violence against women and girls is a public health concern as global reports suggest that 243 million women and girls have experienced sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner in the past 12 months. Reports also suggest that LGBT people are at an increased risk of experiencing such violence. For survivors of sexual and domestic violence and those at risk, the ongoing crisis threatens their safety and overall well-being. While data on prevalence rates are scarce, some reports from the United States, Canada, Germany, Spain, and other countries indicate an increase in cases of sexual and domestic violence and crisis calls since the Coronavirus outbreak. For example, in Canada, Vancouver’s Battered Women Support Services reported that their staff have seen a 300% increase in crisis calls with 40% being first-time callers. Similarly, within the first two weeks of the lock down in Spain, calls to the government’s helpline for victims of gender-based violence increased by 12.4% and online consultations increased by 270%. These statistics underscore the severe impact of this crisis for survivors of gender-based violence and those at-risk. Trauma experts have identified several pathways of risk which include:

Increased isolation: For many survivors, their homes can be unsafe. The mandatory lockdowns force such individuals to spend more time in close contact with the perpetrator and they may be isolated from or have less contact with supportive family members, friends, and helping resources. Additionally, perpetrators may take advantage of the restrictions due to the crisis to exert power and control over survivors which can induce stress, trauma, and further limit their access to informal and formal support systems.

Economic Vulnerability: The ongoing crisis has led to unprecedented economic impacts. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the U.S. economy lost 701,000 jobs in March, bringing the unemployment rate to 4.4%. Rates of unemployment are still increasing as a large number of jobs continue to be affected by the crisis. The potential job loss makes survivors vulnerable to economic insecurity and places individuals at a greater risk of experiencing economic abuse among other forms of violence the abuser may resort to.

Limited access to sexual and domestic violence services: With increased physical restrictions, many essential services for survivors of sexual and domestic violence such as shelters, crisis centers, sexual and reproductive health services, legal assistance and protective services may be significantly reduced and more difficult to access, thus limiting the helping resources available to survivors.

As governments continue to take unprecedented measures in response to the pandemic, resources for survivors of sexual and domestic violence should not be overlooked. The continuity of essential health services for survivors during this crisis should be prioritized. Joint action should be implemented by multiple service providers to ensure that survivors continue to receive much-needed support during this time. Agencies and advocacy organizations should continue developing technical guidance and resources for health care workers, agencies and service providers working with survivors. Community outreach and communication tools about the risk of violence and resources available should also be developed and widely disseminated. Health providers should be made aware of the increased risk for domestic and sexual violence, and protocols should be put in place to provide appropriate care to survivors.

Resources for Sexual and Domestic Violence

There are several resources that survivors can take advantage of during this time. For immediate help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7. This resource is free and confidential: Call 1-800-799-7233. For immediate help, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7. This resource is free and confidential: Call 1-800-656-4673. Additional resources for survivors and their loved ones can be found at: Futures Without Violence: https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/get-updates-information-covid-19/ National Domestic Violence Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/2020/03/13/staying-safe-during-covid-19/ National Network to End Domestic Violence: https://nnedv.org/resources-library/help_online_during_crisis/ National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/blogs/resources-for-covid-19-response

Image credits: Creative Commons

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