Quarantine in Home or Prison? Domestic Violence in the Time of COVID-19 and What it Holds for Bangladesh

The curse of the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently increased the threat of domestic violence worldwide. As more cities are going under lockdown with stay-at-home orders, support organisations and counselling centres have expressed their fears on the possible rise of violence at home. Increased abuse is a common phenomena during any crisis period – be it political conflicts, financial crisis or disease outbreaks.

The Guardian reported that the Coronavirus is ‘fuelling’ domestic violence. Social distancing could be a nightmare for people facing abuse at home, as it entails that they will be ‘trapped’ with their abusive partners. According to legal advocates and women’s rights activists, violent tendencies among abusers is triggered by isolation and stress. The stress caused by the pandemic is likely to cause more frustration and anger. Abusive partners are likely to justify their atrocity using isolation tactics to escalate their aggression. It is important to mention, that not only women and children are subject to violence; men too can become victims.

Activists worldwide fear that travel restrictions would impede victims from escaping their households, leaving them severely vulnerable. In many cases, it would be impossible for victims to reach out for help by calling the advice centres. Phone conversations cannot be made as calls are likely to be monitored constantly by the perpetrators. Stepping outside the house and going to workplaces, visiting families and neighbours are essential protective measures for victims of domestic abuse; but these have now been put to halt.

Abusive partners can inflict abuse in a multitude of ways in addition to violence – such as by withholding necessary items like hand sanitizers from victims, withdrawing health insurance and sharing misinformation about the pandemic to frighten victims, and in some cases, preventing them from seeking appropriate medical assistance.

Tensions are escalating worldwide. In China, newspapers have reported a significant spike in domestic violence. According to Wen Fei, founder of an anti-domestic violence non-profit in Hubei Province, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the police stations had tripled in February compared to the previous year. In the United States, the national domestic violence hotline received increasing volumes of complaints against abusers, who have been misconstruing the COVID-19 crisis to isolate, manipulate and control victims. Abusers have also prevented their victims from seeking financial and medical assistance. According to activists in Italy, phone calls to their domestic violence hotline dropped sharply, but desperate text messages and emails pleading for help were received. A state drop-in centre at Brazil also noticed a rise in cases of domestic violence after being hit by the pandemic. In Spain, fatalities related to domestic violence have been reported during the lockdown, where an individual murdered his 35-year old wife, a mother of two.

With the increasing incidences of domestic violence, countries are undertaking different initiatives to combat the crisis. In China, the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic #疫期反家暴 has been trending in the social media platform Sina Weibo. Upon the realisation that reaching out for help might not always be feasible for victims, counselling centres in Germany have advised citizens to be vigilant and keep an eye out for their neighbours. “If you hear loud shouts or cries in neighbouring apartments, call the police”, advised the Federal Association of Women’s Counselling and Rape Crisis Centers (bff) of Germany. Katrin Göring-Eckardt, parliamentary leader of the Green Party, has asked the government to free up money for safe houses for survivors. In the United Kingdom, Dawn Butler, Women and Equality spokesperson of the Labour party, asked the Prime Minister to implement emergency funding to help people in danger of domestic abuse. Special police powers to evict perpetrators during lockdown have been called, and authorities are asked to waive court fees for protection orders. The Spanish government has ensured that they will not be fining women if they leave the house for filing complaints. In our neighbouring country India, police in the state of Uttar Pradesh have launched a new helpline for domestic violence as cases continue to rise.

It is now important to assess where Bangladesh stands. Violence against women remains an endemic issue in the country. According to Bangladesh Mohila Parishad, 4,622 women became victims of abuse in 2019. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reported 54.2% of married women facing lifetime physical and sexual intimate partner violence. From January-February 2020, 29 women were murdered by their husbands, according to the Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK). Under the shadow of “sticky” social norms, these cases remain mostly unreported.

The county has legal tools to combat domestic violence. The demand for having a separate bill for domestic violence emerged in the 1990s and women’s rights organizations formed a coalition named Citizen’s Initiative against Domestic Violence (CiDV) in 2007 to initiate the drafting process. After successful advocacy and lobbying, the government adopted the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act in 2010. The national helpline centre has a 24 hour toll-free hotline number – 109. However, the law’s implementation remains difficult with various kinds of resistances arising when translating into action.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed Bangladesh to the risk of massive economic fallout. Unemployment is spiking overnight and the country lacks necessary health care facilities. With frustrations and anxiety building at the household level, it is now crucial to assess our country’s readiness to learn from the global domestic violence crisis. Processes need to be implemented to ensure that complaints can be made safely and privately, followed up with rapid and effective response from the authority. Cooperation between legal and development agencies, research institutes and the government is needed to effectively respond to this crisis. Hotlines need to be more responsive; service providers more approachable. If such measures are not immediately implemented, the county will fail to counter the potential deluge of violence and abuse in the family.

Pragyna Mahpara is a Research Associate in the Gender and Social Transformation Cluster of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University. 

Photo: By Tumisu from Pixabay