When Staying Home is Not Safe
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Intimate Partner Violence
Content warning: intimate partner violence
Disclaimer: The author is involved with Tufts’ Action for Sexual Assault Prevention as a member of the Events branch.
The instruction “just stay home”—prevalent since the spring as an important COVID-19 protection measure—is not as straightforward as it seems. For those experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV), staying home poses its own risks.
IPV is a longstanding and severe issue in the US, affecting over 12 million people annually. According to the CDC, IPV is “physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse.” The dangers that survivors of IPV experience have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic with mandatory stay-at-home orders as just one of many factors. Being confined to their homes forces IPV survivors to be in closer and more frequent contact with their abusive partners—potentially increasing the amount of abuse and making it more difficult for survivors to contact emergency IPV services without their abusers’ knowledge. The National Domestic Violence Hotline originally saw a decrease in contacts in March 2020 compared to March 2019, which may be because of this added risk. Adrienne Ramcharan, Jane Doe Inc.’s policy coordinator, explained, “Now [survivors] don’t have a sort of ‘safe space’ where [they] can go and can make that call and…reach out to someone in private.” Ramcharan also noted that some survivors’ confusion as to whether services were open may have also contributed to this initial dip in outreach.
However, throughout the overall pandemic, service providers saw an increase in survivors seeking help. A recent study from Brigham Young University found an approximately 10.2 percent increase in police calls reporting domestic violence since the start of the pandemic. The National Domestic Violence Hotline saw a 9 percent increase in contacts from March 2020 to May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, with approximately 10 percent of contacts noting that COVID-19 negatively impacted their situation in some way.
Even in the Tufts community, there has been a rise in cases of IPV. Alexandra Donovan, director of Tufts’ Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE), noted that their number of contacts related to domestic and intimate partner violence have tripled since the pandemic began. The experience of Tufts students reflects the broader trends occurring across the country. Donovan explained, “We’re seeing students that are in relationships where…because it’s such a close environment and there aren’t spaces to go…their partner has been able to…control their world even more than normal.” Ramcharan added, “Power and control are really common dynamics in a relationship…where there is violence. There are often signs of isolating the person who’s being harmed…[like] taking them out of situations where they’re forming connections with loved ones and friends, sort of isolating them, having them be on their own.” Social distancing regulations have now contributed to this isolation, making it even harder to connect with one’s support system.
In addition to social control, abusers may exert financial control over their partners. Economic instability can force survivors to remain dependent on their abusers if they lack the financial means to leave. This phenomenon has worsened during the pandemic due to increased unemployment and job instability. Ramcharan described, “Most recently in the last couple of months, there’s really been an increase in requests for safe housing and shelter services…And survivors are also asking for…basic needs, so things like help paying their rent, help paying utilities, access to things like food.” Women of color, immigrants, and workers lacking a college education are especially impacted. They are often disproportionately deprived of the same economic opportunities, stability, and resources as other demographics and are some of the communities hit hardest by COVID-19. “I think, for some people, we’re seeing coronavirus is sort of exacerbating inequality that is already accepted and social issues that already existed and I think sexual violence falls into that,” said Eliza Campbell, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s outreach and education manager.
At a time when people are more vulnerable, resources such as Tufts’ CARE are less visible than ever. Accessing services, both on and off campus, has become more difficult for survivors at Tufts. Service providers like Donovan and Campbell also share an underlying concern that survivors will not reach out for help—partially because they are already overwhelmed by all of the new issues the pandemic has created. “If folks just have a lot of stressors in their life and immediate things they have to deal with, it…makes it less likely that they’ll reach out around sexual violence,” Campbell said. However, resources such as CARE, Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services, and off-campus organizations are still providing assistance—often in virtual formats.
Student organizations such as Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) have also had to transition to providing support in new ways during the pandemic. All of ASAP’s branches are now virtual and its Survivor Space—a group that meets to provide community and support to survivors—is working around these challenges with creative events like virtual pumpkin carvings. “Even this semester, Survivor Support has found really creative ways of still making it accessible…bringing together a community that definitely needs [it],” said ASAP Co-President Malaika Gabra.
Despite the obstacles, there are still many ways to seek confidential help or provide support for survivors during this time, according to Donovan. “Someone who’s going through [IPV] is…[thinking], ‘How could I possibly burden myself on a friend or a family member when things are really tough?’…If we can just be open to [the mindset of] ‘I’m here, I want you to do that. I want to make sure you’re okay. That’s a priority for me.’ I think that’s really important.”
Confidential Resources At Tufts:
Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE)
Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services
National Domestic Violence Hotline
24/7 hotline: 800.799.SAFE (7233)
chat online: thehotline.org
The Network/La Red
24/7 hotline: 800-832-1901
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC)
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)
24/7 hotline: 800-656-4673
chat online: rainn.org