Domestic Abuse: The Ignored Pandemic

COVID-19 is a pandemic on top of an existing ongoing crisis – that of domestic abuse, whereby intimate partner abuse already had one of the highest rates of repeat victimization.

Since the lockdown, there has rightly been increased scrutiny and focus in ensuring that victims of domestic abuse (including those confined to living with their abuser) get the appropriate help and support they need, recognizing that victims are at an increased risk of harm.

Since the lockdown in the UK, “calls and contacts to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline” run by Refuge “have rocketed by around 66%”.

Let’s be clear – lockdown has not caused domestic abuse, rather, it has escalated the risk to both the victims and children of domestic abuse.

A recent poll by Amnesty UK sees 72% of those polled agree that the Government should do more to ensure all victims of domestic abuse are protected, with 65% agreeing that the British Government should provide more funding.

But what exactly is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse often takes place behind closed doors, where victims suffer for hours, days and years on end with no respite or justice. It is common for this abuse to take place in public settings with bystanders not intervening, sometimes due to not wanting to get involved and sometimes due to not understanding the dynamics and thus being unable to recognize the abuse taking place in front of them.

At the most basic level, we can understand domestic abuse to be “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse… between those who are or have been intimate partners, or family members…”[1]. For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on intimate partner abuse which includes either a current partner or former partner. It can include but is not limited to the following types of abuse: verbal, emotional, financial, physical, sexual, coercive and controlling, and psychological. It includes a manipulative strategy of instilling fear, creating dependency, psychologically placing doubt, blame and guilt onto the victim and suppressing their innate freedom of thought, expression and most basic human rights. It can have a devastating impact of second-guessing a victim’s every thought and move and annihilating their self-worth.

One of the biggest fallacies is believing that domestic abuse doesn’t happen in our societies. Domestic abuse has been a global pandemic long before the Coronavirus lockdown. Research shows that it cuts across all ethnicities, cultures, religions, gender, class, and professions whereby anyone can be subjected to it. Likewise, abusers come from all backgrounds and professions.

Unfortunately, many myths and misconceptions exist around the underlying causes of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse comes from patriarchal beliefs and attitudes; it is deeply rooted in power and control and involves a sense of ownership and entitlement. No one is born an abuser, rather it is learnt behaviour picked up from norms, values and the actions of role models, guardians and society at large.

The majority of victims are girls and women. There are many other forms of gendered based abuse such as sexual abuse, forced marriage, honour-based abuse, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and many more. This is not to say that there aren’t any male victims of domestic abuse, because there are, and furthermore, it is important to understand which types of domestic abuse affect men.

Common myths regarding domestic abuse are that alcohol, drugs and mental health causes domestic abuse. Generally, these factors do not cause someone to become a domestic abuse abuser, but when factors such as mental health, drugs or alcohol are present with the domestic abuse abuser, they can escalate the risk level for the victim as it is a toxic combination. Another common misconception is that domestic abuse only occurs when there is physical abuse. The absence of physical abuse does not mean that the relationship is not abusive. Similarly, the presence of physical abuse does not validate or confirm that it is an abusive relationship.

There is an extensive list of myths of domestic abuse which are misunderstood to be the underlying causes of domestic abuse, and thus, the wrong solutions are offered to abusive relationships. These myths are often (and wrongly) used as excuses to justify the behaviours of an abuser, which society often reinforces, in turn moving further away from the truths behind domestic abuse. It’s important to note that abuse in abusive relationships does not decrease, rather it increases across time.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of judging victims for remaining in or returning to abusive relationships whereby one of the most common statements thrown at victims of domestic abuse is that “if it were that bad, why don’t you just leave?”. The dynamics and nuances of domestic abuse show us that a victim is at a much higher risk of further harm at the point of separation. The more the victim aims to regain control, the more the abuser aims to crush that control which involves the abuser escalating abuse to show who is in control.

No one but the victim understands the risks of homelessness that they and their children will face; the threats to harm them should they leave; the threats to take the children away from them; the brainwashing that no-one (including police) will believe them; the misinformation that the abuser provides to the victim on how the laws work in that country; the shame that they will be subjected to due to pressures of society and more complex issues around divorce not being acceptable in certain cultures. It is also very common for victims to suffer post-separation abuse from the perpetrator after having left the abuser.

Once we begin to understand the level of control that the abuser holds over the victim coupled with the misconceptions of domestic abuse and the minimal support available, we see that it is not that the victim always chooses to remain in the abusive relationship, it is that many times they actually have no choice or no viable options.

What can you do to help?

Before we explore what assistance is suitable, it is essential to highlight what we should not be doing. DO NOT OFFER OR ENCOURAGE COUPLES COUNSELLING, FAMILY MEDIATION OR COMMUNITY MEDIATION. All of these methods are considered to be highly inappropriate and runs the risk of escalating a victim’s risk level. 

There are often hidden forms of domestic abuse taking place during these processes that only the victim and abuser know is taking place. Counselling and mediation provide the chance for the perpetrator to make excuses for their behaviour, which re-enforces the myths of domestic abuse, and these platforms are wrongly used to encourage victims to remain patient and forgive abusers. Such platforms also provide false hope and wrongly suggests that a victim can fix the abuser.

To be clear, a victim does not make someone abusive, nor push someone to their limits and does not share blame in abusive relationships.

This does not mean that perpetrators of abuse cannot be helped. Instead, it is crucial that the right tailor-made programs, led by experienced domestic abuse facilitators are utilized which challenges the abusive mentality.

  1. If someone discloses that they are experiencing domestic abuse, it is important to link them in with a local domestic abuse service in their area so that they are able to receive independent specialist domestic abuse advice.

It is their right to decide what options they would like to pursue, so do not pressurize them nor make decisions for them. If you have safeguarding or welfare concerns for the victim or any children, please speak directly to a local domestic abuse service who will be able to provide you with information highlighting the safeguarding duties that we all have in our countries.

  1.  Reach out to your local domestic abuse services and women’s refuges/shelters to see how you can support them so that they have the available resources to best support victims.

Each service will have its own funding pressures and may need your help. This can include; providing emergency/essential packs (which can include clothes, baby items, phones), funding a woman’s stay in a refuge, providing toys for the children living in refuges, funding crucial roles in domestic abuse services such as 24-hour helplines, providing food hampers or supermarket vouchers, providing an emergency cash fund which can include transport money for the victim, emergency accommodation for victims and children fleeing domestic abuse, providing funding for victims who may not have access to public benefits, etc.

  1.  Link in with your local domestic abuse services to see how you can fund domestic abuse prevention projects providing education on healthy relationships for children and young people in schools & colleges; funding projects to support the children who have been harmed by domestic abuse; funding projects to increase the awareness of domestic abuse across society (e.g., to spot the indicators of domestic abuse; to outline what support is available).
  2. Take part in peaceful and safe marches/campaigns to advocate for changes and developments to laws in order to hold perpetrators of abuse to account and to make services more accessible to all victims and children of domestic abuse. Let’s shift the focus from “why doesn’t the victim leave” to “why doesn’t the abuser stop”.

Before making any donations to or taking part in any organisations, please be mindful to research on these local domestic abuse services to ascertain if their values, ethos and mission statement align with yours.

What should we be aiming for as a society?

As a society, it is important to recognize that domestic abuse is OUR collective societal issue. We can stand firm against abuse and violence. We need to work toward creating a society in which individuals can live free of abuse and violence.

Both men and women deserve to be in a safe relationship where there is love, respect, happiness, admiration, and healthy communication between the two of them without fear of any consequences or punishments.

[1] The UK Home Office definition of domestic abuse

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