Why has the pandemic sparked a rise in domestic abuse?

Examining the rise in domestic abuse as a result of lockdown actually tells us some important things about the way abusers operate. 

Why has the pandemic sparked a rise in domestic abuse?

Two thirds of UK women in abusive relationships experienced more violence from their partners during lockdown. Globally, cases of domestic violence are thought to have increased by 20% during the pandemic. 

The answer to the question of why the pandemic has sparked a rise in domestic abuse cases may seem obvious. Victims are often trapped with their abuser, and when society was largely locked down, they had nowhere to turn for help.

But if we really get to the core of why the pandemic has seen cases of domestic violence soar, it actually helps us to more clearly understand why and how abuse flourishes, and how we can identify unsafe environments for victims. 

You see, it’s not like the pandemic suddenly brought about a set of unique conditions that instantly turned domestic abuse into a pandemic of its own. The pandemic simply forced upon all of us an environment that abusers often deliberately cultivate in order to break their victims down. Plainly, the pandemic was a prime opportunity for abusers to operate more effectively, and here are some of the reasons why.

Victims can be isolated way more easily

This, again, may seem obvious, but it seems that abusers capitalised on the isolation of society as a whole to shut off victims from their connections. News outlets have spend much time discussing the ‘pandemic of loneliness’ that has arisen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis; with many people struggling with their mental health and feelings of loneliness, the isolation of those in abusive situations may actually have appeared less remarkable than it would have done before.

If a victim is interacting with people in the course of daily life, maybe at their place of work or in shops, other people at least have more opportunities to notice that victims may be withdrawn or may never engage in social interaction outside of work or practical activities. But if a victim isn’t going anywhere and most people aren’t going anywhere, the isolation of a victim is perhaps harder to spot and also harder for other people to feel concerned about. With everyone experiencing their own isolation struggles, victims may often have slipped through the net.

Isolation isn’t just about a lack of social interaction. It’s also a mental state. So while many of us may have felt cut off from others because of lockdown rules, we hopefully will have been able to appreciate that we are still loved and still cared about – and that this distance was only and is only a temporary pain. For an abuse victim, their abuser may see the total lack of social contact as a means to convince the victim that they are not cared about – ultimately making that victim more dependent on the abuser for emotional support. 

lockdown violence
A victim’s mental health may become more rocky as a result of the pandemic

Abusers can exploit their victims’ mental health. If a victim is struggling as a result of fears about COVID-19, or job loss or financial insecurity, they could become more vulnerable to an abuser’s behaviour.  A 2012 study found that having a mental illness made someone four times more likely to be a victim of violence. While this may cover a wide range of violent action, there is no denying that mental ill health can make people more susceptible to abusive situations.  

And this is a vicious cycle. Women who have been abused by their partners are three times more likely to suffer from mental ill-health than women who haven’t. 

So the pandemic has unfortunately created a situation where abusers find that their victims are easier to manipulate and take advantage of. Where an abuser might have spent time systematically breaking down an individual’s mental health through gaslighting, now the pandemic itself can do that job. We need to remember that the mental health of victims isn’t inextricably tied to how their abuser makes them feel – but it is ultimately something exploited by abusers. 

Economic insecurity can breed abusive conditions

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women’s economic security. Women have been most likely to lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic, with higher proportions of women working in the sectors most affected by lockdowns like retail and hospitality. There are many stories of women who have been furloughed over male colleagues, and of women whose employers have discriminated against them because of childcare responsibilities. The stress of childcare while schools have been closed and holding down a job has unfairly fallen on women’s shoulders – and often disadvantages them in the workplace.

All of this contributes to an environment where women more frequently bear the economic burden of the unfolding recession than men. And unfortunately, economic insecurity creates conditions where abuse can flourish.

A key tactic of abusers is to prevent their victims from having financial independence. This may involve stopping them from having a job, or forcing them to rescind control of their own salary. A lack of financial independence can prevent an abuse victim from leaving a relationship – even when they really want to. 

With COVID-19 having threatened the financial status of so many, we are now in a situation where the financial privations that an abuser might typically have enforced have simply occurred overnight because of world events.

This has put victims and potential victims in more precarious situations – and without proper support to help them achieve financial independence, many victims will never be able to escape from the trap of abuse. 

The pandemic has disproportionately affected women's economic security

It is important to recognise that the pandemic in and of itself hasn’t caused abuse. It has simply accelerated some of the opportunities abusers have to take advantage of their victims.

And the fallout from this is terrible; already under-resourced but vital services like helplines and refuges struggle to cope with increased demand from victims. As a result, more victims miss out on the help they need. This means more and more people trapped in cycles of abuse from which they cannot escape. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that abuse flourishes most in isolated societies, where community help and support is thin on the ground, and where individuals are not protected from financial insecurity. In order to make the world in which we live a more difficult place for abuse to flourish in, we need to seriously concentrate on our communities and our public spending, making sure we have the necessary support services in place for everyone, so that no-one slips through the cracks. 

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