2020-04-15

In almost all European Member States, and within a few weeks public life has largely come to a halt. The restrictions put in place by Governments as a measure against the further spread of the Covid-19 Virus have raised concerns among practitioners and activists: will the lockdowns result in higher numbers and more sever forms of Domestic Violence? Does the relegation into the private sphere increase the violence? What do we know? And what can be done to mitigate the risks of high impact domestic abuse?

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN THE TIME OF CORONA

While media coverage has been consumed with developments of the current pandemic and its implications, few other topics have received attention in the last six weeks. Domestic Violence however gained – at least brief – recognition, as potential fall-out, not of the virus itself, but as a consequence of the societal reaction. In Austria, not just victim organizations and activists, but the Ministers of Health and Justice raised awareness for the issue. They introduced new access to information and ensured the public of a rigorous application of the existing restraining order provisions despite the crisis. Initially, no difference in restraining orders, but an increase in requests for information on DV was registered.

Across Europe and beyond, the existing evidence is scarce, preliminary, and does not show a homogenous trend. While an increase in crime reports or restraining orders has been observed in some countries, other regions saw a decline or no change. With a lack of systematically gathered prevalence data (which is hard to obtain for Domestic Violence, even without an ongoing public health crisis), the analysis has to rely on police data and the existing limitations prevail: Is an increase in reported crime due to an increase of a phenomenon or because of an increase in police activity; a decrease caused by fewer offences or a lack of reporting or higher threshold of police to issue restraining orders; has the phenomenon merely "shifted" from the seen to the unseen? Are different duration of measures and their specific design responsible for the differences between countries?

No definitive answers can be given at this point.

Against a lack of reliable and systematic data, the focus has shifted on known risk factors for violence in general and domestic violence, in particular. Confinement, financial insecurity and social precarity, alcohol abuse, lack of routine, psychological strain, feeling loss of control and being overwhelmed, and (lack of) care for children seem to be obvious stressors now enhanced by the state-imposed measures. Two constellations of threat are implied. The general population is exposed to an increased potential for escalating situations and conflicts on the one hand, and high impact perpetrators exerting financial, psychological control, and sexual and/or physical violence have now an "easier game" on their victims. Few and little chances for positive developments are conceivable right now.

Obviously, and beyond the more or less dramatic scenarios (and the reference to anecdotal cases), implications for the reactions to Domestic Violence are less intensely discussed. Missing social networks and the lack of informal contacts reduce the likelihood of early detection of DV and providing support to persons affected. With schools and child care institutions closed, and a higher threshold and additional fears to seek medical attention, further gateways to detection, intervention and treatment seem obstructed. And key frontline responder organizations – police, doctors, and social workers – are those most likely to be preoccupied in dealing with additional and extraordinary requirements of the pandemic at the expense of routine tasks further delaying and complicating the response. Here, the crisis highlights shortcomings of the public sector especially, in countries that over the last decade, implemented severe austerity policies and cuts to these same frontline responder organizations. In addition, the measures designed to decrease the severity of the pandemic, have resulted in a societal regression to stay home and minding one's own business, while giving more weight to (as well as putting more strain on on) the "nuclear family". The call to neighbours "if you see something, say something" seems an insufficient and helpless response, against this background. And any security crisis coordinator is well advised to include the risk of DV in equally strict measures as happens in cases of transgressions against social distancing rules.

by Norbert Leonhardmair (VICESSE) and Joachim Kersten (DHPOL)