SINGAPORE: Social isolation measures have been mandated around the world to contain the spread of coronavirus, but these have had undesirable side-effects.

According to Chinese daily The Global Times, the city of Xi’an has seen a record-breaking volume of divorce requests over the past few weeks.

Extended periods of time cooped up with one’s family may inadvertently lead to rising tensions and conflict at home. But self-isolation is putting some people’s lives in serious danger of another kind: Family violence.

Family violence is violent, threatening, coercive or controlling behaviour that occurs in current or former family, domestic or intimate relationships. It encompasses physical abuse, sexual assault, emotional and psychological abuse, economic control, social isolation and any other behaviour that may cause a person to live in fear.

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With social isolation measures, victims of family violence are now trapped at home with their abusers to an unprecedented degree. They are also cut off from the respite typically available to them, such as going out to work or school.

This potential secondary effect of the coronavirus crisis has not received the attention it deserves, despite past evidence that family violence rates rise in the wake of emergencies such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks.

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INCREASE IN FAMILY VIOLENCE NUMBERS

Advocates in China, the United States and Italy are all reporting a spike in victims reaching out to family violence hotlines and organisations. In Singapore, AWARE’s Women’s Helpline has seen a 33 per cent increase in February over calls received in the same month last year.

This increase stands in huge contrast to national-level data from 2016 to 2019, which shows family violence on the decline as evidenced by the number of personal protection order applications filed.

(Photo: Unsplash/Kevin Laminto)

Social workers AWARE spoke to recently reported similar increases in family violence cases and agree that isolation may be increasing the incidence of abuse, even as the circumstances and reasons that lead to people reaching out for help remains difficult to establish even under normal circumstances, let alone during crises.

One social worker highlighted that 60 per cent of recent daily referrals had been family violence related, up from 30 per cent last year. Another highlighted a couple of cases they saw that resulted in a sudden escalation in violence when families were given stay-at-home notices.

It is too early to say if this trend will continue, but we should consider how better support to victims can be provided while practicing social isolation or distancing.

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PANDEMICS AND FAMILY VIOLENCE

Crises like pandemics and natural disasters may be accompanied by an uptick in family violence because of three reasons. These reasons are closely associated with family violence’s roots in power and control.

First, pandemics are typically situations in which people’s lives may seem out of control. This could trigger abusers to lash out against their victims, in order to regain some semblance of control over a situation. An already abusive relationship may therefore worsen.

This may be why economic hardships themselves are a trigger for more abuse in a relationship. A research study on intimate partner violence and the global financial crisis in the US found that unemployment and economic hardship at the household level were positively related to abusive behaviour.

It also found that rapid increases in the unemployment rate increased men’s controlling behaviour towards partners, even after adjusting for unemployment and economic distress at the household level.

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Wife and husband quarreling

Photo illustration of a couple arguing. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Second, social support – from family, friends or other sympathetic allies – is critical in helping family violence victims heal and build hope.

Yet containment measures, such as work-from-home arrangements or when workers are put on enforced leave, increase social isolation. Many victims may also feel that they can no longer seek refuge at the home of a friend or relative, especially those with elderly residents or children, for fear they could expose their families to the virus.

Third, the coronavirus crisis is likely going to push the world economy into recession, which will make it even more difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships.

Leaving an abusive partner often involves establishing financial independence – for example, by keeping a secret savings account that the abuser cannot access – but this will be more difficult if victims begin to lose jobs.

Low-income households are particularly vulnerable to such economic shocks.

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NOT EVERYONE CAN GET HELP

Increased time spent at home may increase the incidence of family violence, as abusers and victims find themselves in close proximity 24/7.

But being forced to stay at home may also impact a victim’s help-seeking behaviour. Typically, victims call helplines and services when they are away from their abusers, such as at work, or out on an errand. 

With more people spending time indoors, victims may be afraid to reach out for help, assessing that their abusers have a higher chance of finding out.

Services themselves might also be impacted as a result of COVID-19. For example, crisis shelters may be taking necessary precautions to close their doors if they deem the risk of infection to be high.

Volunteers in protective suits disinfect a factory with sanitizing equipment, as the country is hit

Volunteers in protective suits disinfect a factory with sanitizing equipment, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China February 18, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

Helplines and social service organisations may be under pressure from increased demand and unable to respond promptly, especially if they aren’t provided the necessary resources to adjust to higher demand.

Already in Singapore, there are reports of social service organisations’ coffers running low, and non-profits seeing a dip in the number of volunteers offering to help. 

ADDRESSING FAMILY VIOLENCE DURING PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCIES

Lessons from previous pandemics, such as Ebola and SARS (which prompted similar spikes in reported family violence), indicate that vulnerable communities, particularly women, shouldn’t be forgotten during public health emergencies.

Indeed, UN Women has also called on governments to consider the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on women, who make up the majority of workers in the health and social sector and the informal economy.

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The Singapore Government has done a remarkable job in containing the spread of coronavirus while keeping the public informed of the number of people infected, who they came in contact with, and how they were infected.

As we begin to track the secondary effects of the coronavirus crisis, we must include the impact of family violence, and prioritise services providing crucial support to victims.

Any stimulus package can include specific plans to build the long-term economic resilience of all those who have been affected, especially family violence victims. This will be crucial for them to maintain financial independence from their abusers.

The package can also provide financial and technological support to social service organisations so that they are not forced to scale back operations at this crucial time, and can instead use this as an opportunity to take more of their work online.

If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, you can reach out to AWARE’s Women’s Helpline (1800 777 5555, Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm), or to Family Violence Specialist Centres such as PAVE.

Shailey Hingorani is Head of Advocacy and Research at AWARE.

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