“He’s in the next room — if he hears me, I’ll have to hang up.”
That call to the Family Place, an organization in Dallas, Texas, focused on stopping family violence, reflects the reality of many women worldwide who are trapped in close quarters with their abusers during the pandemic.
For some, the COVID-related stress of lockdowns, job losses and other limitations is worsening an already abusive situation. For others, the abuse is new, the result of frustrations and fears.
As the coronavirus spread from its point of origin in Wuhan, China, late in 2019, the United Nations in April issued a warning of a shadow pandemic, an increase in domestic violence against women.
The behavior isn’t restricted to physical, sexual or psychological abuse and can include tactics such as forced child marriage. Worldwide, women are the most likely to be victims in part because they are less educated and less able to exert control over their own lives than men.
“As more countries report infection and lockdown, more domestic violence help lines and shelters across the world are reporting rising calls for help,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, said on April 6.
And as COVID-19 persists, so has the shadow pandemic.
“It's stressful for anybody. But when you add financial problems and you have an abusive partner who is also unemployed — it's a bad recipe,” said Paige Flink, executive director of the Family Place.
Overall, calls to domestic violence hotlines in Texas cities spiked in March as the state locked down, according to a roundup compiled by the magazine Texas Monthly, even as calls for help from rural areas fell, partly the result of a digital divide that leaves a third of the state’s residents without broadband at home. Or, as some authorities have suggested, the drop occurred because victims cannot evade their abusers during lockdown to reach out for help.
The daily lives of many women are tracked by their abusive partners, Flink said, with any unaccounted-for time often seen as a challenge to authority or proof of an affair. But the shortages and reduced services that are the pandemic’s hallmark in the U.S. offered some women in Texas a lifeline.
“Hours [spent] in line were natural, so some women would call us, literally from the Walmart parking lot,” said Flink, whose organization provides counseling, temporary housing and other services for women and children.
As of Saturday, Texas had reported a COVID-19 toll of more than 585,600 confirmed cases and more than 11,400 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
Across the globe, the shadow pandemic of domestic violence looms, with different countries responding in different ways, as glimpses of Russia, Mexico and Malawi suggest.
Russia calls to hotlines spiked. The high commissioner for human rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, said the number of calls to domestic abuse hotlines jumped from just more than 6,000 in March to more than 13,000 in April.
The rapid increase came in a country where, in 2017, 36,000 women each day suffered from beatings by their husbands and partners, and the government and police regard domestic violence to be a “private matter.”
Despite the numbers provided by various women’s organizations and Moskalkova, the Ministry of Interior (MVD) reported that the number of domestic violence cases registered by authorities in April 2020 had decreased by 9% from a year earlier.
Janette Akhilgova, Russia and Caucasus consultant at Equality Now (EN), described the discrepancy as “very strange” because early lockdown measures left victims of domestic violence even more vulnerable.
“There were women who had intimate partners threatening them that they would call police [if they left] the house,” Akhilgova said.
The chairwoman of Russia’s Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, announced in April that the council would pause work on a controversial bill to counter domestic violence until after the pandemic.
“I don’t think there will be any surge in domestic violence,” she said, “because families, on the contrary, are going through this difficult period together."
As of Saturday, Russia had reported a COVID-19 toll of more than 949,000 confirmed cases and more than 16,260 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.
In Mexico, the secretary of the interior and civil society organizations said that violence against women was increasing during lockdowns, although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in May that 90% of calls made by women seeking help for domestic violence were false claims.
As part of its coronavirus-response emergency decree, the government defunded the Houses for Indigenous and Afro-Mexican Women, or Casas de la Mujer Indígena o Afromexicana (CAMIs), which provided culturally sensitive sexual support for those embroiled in domestic violence, reproductive health care and psychosocial care.
“This is scary,” said Barbara Jiménez-Santiago, Americas regional coordinator at Equality Now.
Although the government restored half of the 2020 funding for CAMI after a public outcry, authorities have yet to guarantee any money for 2021. Jiménez-Santiago sees this reluctance as a violation of international and regional commitments.
“The commitments state very clearly they should have to provide the budget … to eradicate violence against women, to bring equality,” said Jiménez-Santiago.
She worries about the well-being of women post-lockdown, reciting statistics illuminating Mexico’s challenge: Almost 9 out of 10 women do not report gender violence, and in April, an average of 11 women were killed every 24 hours. In May, Mexico’s National Shelter Network reported an 80% increase in calls for help.
“If the women don't have safe spaces to go and to share and to break the silence of what they lived during the lockdown, it's going to be a terrible trauma,” said Jiménez-Santiago.
As of Saturday, Mexico had reported a COVID-19 toll of more than 549,700 confirmed cases and 59,610 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.
In Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, where 46% of girls are married before age 18 and 9% before age 15, the organization People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR) discerned a spike in child marriages when lockdowns began in March.
PSGR director Caleb Ng’ombo attributed the increase to parents thinking that marrying off their daughters would relieve them of a burden during the pandemic.
“It is so horrifying,” Ng’ombo said. “It is so horrifying in the sense that the girls are being forced to get into marriage.”
The loss of income also has put women and girls at a greater risk of commercial sexual exploitation and pregnancy from transactional sex.
“People have to weigh their options,” Ng’ombo said. “[They think], ‘If I just stay at home and don’t go out to do anything, I’ll still be killed by hunger anyways … I still have to go and sell sex.’ ”
“This is where unscrupulous people are coming in to recruit children, to steal children, to abduct children, but especially girls,” said Ng’ombo, a crusader against child trafficking.
Despite “very cordial” help from government institutions and police in combating sexual exploitation during the pandemic, PSGR has laid off staffers because of a lack of funding.
“And this is at a critical time when we are needed the most by the girls, by the women,” Ng’ombo said. “Because time and time again, we keep getting distressing calls from women … and they’re looking for help.”
As of Saturday, Malawi had reported a COVID-19 toll of more than 5,300 confirmed cases and 166 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.