“I’m so scared” is a cry for help heard in ever-increasing numbers by the brave volunteers who operate the many violence prevention helplines and services across the WHO European Region since COVID-19 response measures commenced.
Lockdowns and movement restrictions have slowed down the transmission of COVID-19, but in many situations they have also confined those experiencing interpersonal violence with their abusers. Isolated and fearing a person who is supposed to love and care for them, they walk on eggshells, afraid of whatever innocuous trigger might lead to the next onslaught.
COVID-19: deepening the existing crisis of interpersonal violence
Unfortunately, every country in the Region is already all too familiar with the scourge of interpersonal violence. WHO estimates that 1 in 4 women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and 1 in 3 children experience some form of interpersonal violence by parents, caregivers, peers or other family members.
The reasons behind these horrifying numbers are many and varied, but gender inequality, harmful use of alcohol, and undermined women’s and children’s rights are important contributors to this misuse of power.
Increases in interpersonal violence during times of crisis are well documented. In addition to contributing to increased fear, anxiety, financial stress and alcohol consumption, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the ability of health and social services to connect with and support victims of violence – a herculean task even when not hampered by a global pandemic.
In many homes, women and children are relying on calls, emails and text messages to helplines and other community support mechanisms as their only refuge.
Significant rise in cases across the Region
While it is too early to have robust, Region-wide data, WHO is aware of a growing number of reports in diverse settings and contexts that suggest a significant increase of interpersonal violence in homes across the Region.
In the United Kingdom, calls, emails and website visits to Respect, the national domestic violence charity, have increased 97%, 185% and 581% respectively. Calls to Childline, run by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, from children reporting physical or emotional violence have increased 36% and 31% respectively.
While most victims of intimate partner violence are women, the Respect Men’s Advice Line has seen a 35% increase in calls regarding intimate partner violence against men. Similar need has been documented in Austria, Cyprus, Italy, the Russian Federation and Spain to name but a few.
In the United Kingdom, 14 women and 2 children were murdered in the first 3 weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns, the highest figures in 11 years.
Even in countries where reports of violence against children have decreased since COVID-19 response measures were enacted, there is no cause for celebration. Officials in Norway, for instance, are even more concerned for children, suspecting that as schools are closed, regular reporting mechanisms and support networks have been disrupted.
These numbers do not necessarily reflect an increase in violence of these proportions, but since these services are often the only options that adults and children have (or perceive to have) during lockdown restrictions, they are an important indicator of what is happening in homes across the Region.
Beyond physical abuse
Reports of increased violence and cries for help to police and other mainstream services go beyond society’s preconceived notions of what constitutes violence. When asked, many would expect visible physical harm to characterize a behaviour as violent, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many types of non-contact and indirect abuse and neglect.
For example, engagement with the United Kingdom’s National Stalking Advocacy Service, Report Harmful Content Hotline and Revenge Porn Helpline has doubled. The Australian eSafety Commissioner has reported a 40% increase in cyberbullying, and Europol has reported disturbing increases in online child sexual abuse and exploitation.
All of this is another side to the grim face of interpersonal violence, with perpetrators who are no less guilty and victims who are no less traumatized, often with lifelong consequences.
Extraordinary circumstances call for unexpected solutions
To respond to this unintended outcome of the lockdowns and to protect those subjected to violence, countries are putting in place solutions to offer safety. With many victims unable or unwilling to leave their homes for fear of infection or the penalties of breaching lockdown, these solutions rely more heavily on technologies such as online portals and on home visitations.
In Norway, for example, teachers and other child welfare service workers have gone mobile, instigating more direct follow-up measures with known vulnerable children. Other countries have reported similar outreach efforts, although often without personal protective equipment when limited supplies are reserved for frontline health services.
In France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain, pharmacies and supermarkets have become safe spaces where the utterance of a code word (“MASK 19”) signals that urgent protection from a violent partner or cohabitant is required. These locations are often the only retailers open, and shopping for essential groceries is the only accepted reason for people to leave their homes.
With refuges and shelters at peak capacity in many of these countries, hotels vacant of guests have been re-tasked to meet the shortfall in emergency accommodation.
WHO: “Violence is preventable, not inevitable”
Just as COVID-19 has re-engineered so many societal practices, cities and countries are adapting their efforts to sustain prevention and response to interpersonal violence. As part of a global strategy and campaign to end violence against women and children, WHO has developed extensive catalogues of evidence-based recommendations and guidelines. These include the violence prevention frameworks INSPIRE and RESPECT, which are being localized and adapted to the unique circumstances of COVID-19 and its response.
Summarizing violence as “preventable, not inevitable”, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, emphasized 3 key actions during his weekly COVID-19 press briefing on 7 May 2020:
- governments: keep health and social services running;
- citizens: stay alert to the safety and well-being of those around you;
- victims of violence: know that violence against you is never your fault – keep in touch with those you trust and who can support you.