Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE)

Stay Home But Not Safe: Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cases of domestic violence increased by 32% in France, and the usage of hotlines for domestic abuse in Spain rose by 18% within a month. Recognising the potential effects of lockdown and other restrictions on the European population, how can the EU eradicate domestic violence and safeguard the physical and mental health of its citizens?

 

by Çağatay Büyükçaylı (TR)

 

Key terms: domestic violence, social service hotline, intimate partner violence, coercive control, scare tactics, support service, informal support, stigma


 

1.Background and relevance 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown its impact on the world in several ways. It has brought many challenges for people in terms of mental, social, societal and economic aspects. People stayed at home, became unable to see their relatives and friends, tried to cope with the pressure of financial instability, but most significantly, the cruelty of domestic violence occurred due to heavy lockdown measures. While it was possible to some extent digitalise work and study practices to relieve the situation, the consequences of preventive, protective, and isolating measures have worsened the conditions for the victims at home, workplaces, and all other occasions.

 

According to WHO, in 2020 number of domestic violence cases reported within the EU increased due to reasons such as the depression caused by health problems, economic issues, and the inability to socialise. For example, Spain's social service hotlines received 18% more calls during the first lockdown in March 2020. The situation became much worse for other countries such as France, where the rates of domestic violence increased by 32% in one week in March 2020.

Image Source: European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE)

 

Young people and adolescents are highly affected by domestic violence. They experience emotional, mental, and social damage affecting their development and growth, and consequently influencing their interpersonal and intrapersonal relations. Because of the domestic violence they witness, children at younger ages might develop symptoms of what is called 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder' (PTSD). They might experience difficulty in adapting to school and problems concerning concentration, have painful aches or eating disorders as a result of the abuse they have been exposed to.

 

During the pandemic some Member States have taken steps to combat domestic violence and illustrate how governments can amplify the role of people witnessing violence  by launching national action plans, adapting new legislation or initiating awareness-raising campaigns. Nevertheless, the problem is still prevalent and needs to be tackled with more concrete and sustainable solutions.


 

2.Key stakeholders 

Member States possess legislative and executive power that enhances access to the people facing domestic violence or intimate partner violence. Member States are the key actors as they have the capacity to collaborate with local agencies and NGOs that operate hotlines or other social services. For instance, Czech Republic adapted the UK's ‘Bright Sky’ app and trained delivery personnel from delivery companies in recognising signs of domestic violence.  

  

The European Commission promotes the general interest of the EU. The Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers (DG JUST) develops and carries out the Commission’s policies on justice, consumer rights and gender equality to  vindicate and strengthen the rights of people living in the EU.

     

EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) provides independent and evidence-based data on fundamental rights. The agency identifies trends, helps with law-making and implementation while strengthening cooperation between the Member States' governments, NGOs, childcare institutions and higher-educational institutions to increase collaboration against all types of violence. It has annual reporting and surveying projects specifically on the judicial rights of violence victims, the way those are executed and the way the victims are treated

 

European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) strengthens gender equality, including gender mainstreaming in the EU and national policies by fighting against sexual discrimination as well as raising EU citizens' awareness of gender equality. Since 2010, EIGE has provided the policymakers with data, and recommendations related to gender-based violence to understand the scale of the problem and eradicate it.

 

Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) has been a legal entity since 2014 and a formal network NGO composed of NGOs working to combat violence against women. It aims to promote and strengthen human rights, whilst preventing violence against women and children.
 

Click here to view this Stakeholders Map on Miro


 

3.Challenges and measures in place 

Increasing Tendency to Violence During the Pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences such as unemployment, financial instability, health crisis, their psychological impact, and lockdown measures have drastically affected people's well-being. Emerged economic and well-being insecurity resulted in several outcomes such as increased alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism and increased coercive control over victims for the perpetrators. In addition, virus-specific factors have contributed tremendously to the problem of domestic violence. These factors could be misinformation, scare tactics, and blaming related to virus or withholding safety items and as a consequence, an increase in the tendency to violence has been observed. 

 

With the increase in domestic violence, some Member States started responding to the situation by putting measures in place. For example, in Spain, shortly after the start of the lockdown, the Ministry of Equality adopted a comprehensive ‘Contingency Plan against gender-based violence’ to minimise the risk of gender-based violence resulting from confinement measures. All support services were declared as “essential” and they continued to operate normally. Finding help during the COVID-19 crisis could be more challenging, therefore all necessary information on support services, including a newly launched chat service through instant messaging, were widely distributed as a part of a social campaign.

 

Complications over the Continuity of Service Delivery

The pandemic has not only worsened the situation for victims but also for support services. Due to the virus and its risk of contamination, the availability and accessibility of medical services have been limited. As isolated individuals from informal support, victims faced difficulties while trying to access professional help from specific service providers. In severe conditions where extra places are needed for the victims, alternative accommodation opportunities have also been limited owing to the contamination risk. Overall, the infrastructure is severely affected by the pandemic and, hence, the capacity to provide the victims or witnesses with adequate support is depressed.

 

Besides, in Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia and France, legislation now obliges governments to provide women facing violence at home with alternative accommodation. Estonian courts have been empowered to issue temporary restraining orders against violent partners, protecting the victim from homelessness and pinning accountability on the abuser. 

 

Limitations on the Funding of Support Services

As the measures to tackle the pandemic and its pressure were becoming more severe, their financial consequences also became a burden for economies of some Member States. According to the recent study conducted by EIGE among 12 respondents from nine Member States, only half of the surveyed service providers had made changes to service provision as a result of COVID-19, receiving additional national or local government funding to support the social service activities. Furthermore, service providers as a whole experienced difficulty in accessing necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for continuing any face-to-face services. 

 

Nevertheless, Ireland, Spain and Lithuania have launched national action plans to eradicate intimate partner violence during the pandemic. Ireland has gone further by providing funding of EUR 160,000 to assist shelters and hotlines for victims to adapt to new remote working conditions.

 

The Roots of Domestic Violence and Related Social Stigma

Social stigma is a notable factor contributing to the victims of domestic violence staying silent as they feel ashamed for choosing to remain in an abusive relationship. Both culturally and socially, victims are sensitive to the judgement they fear from others, whether they are suffering physical abuse, emotional abuse, or both. Reporting such an incident seems embarrassing and humiliating to them, particularly when it endures for several years. Additionally, victims with children fear another issue: being labelled as 'bad parents'.

 

To grapple with the pressure that domestic violence and its stigma put on victims, the European Commission has set a Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. The strategy aims to handle the stigma and stereotypes in all social, economic, and cultural domains, supporting the development of unbiased evidence based policies through framework programmes called ‘Horizon Europe’ for research and innovation. Although this 5-year strategy is an important step, further measures are required for eradicating the social roots of domestic violence and its stigma.   


 

4.Further questions 

  • Bearing in mind the increasing demand for support service providers, how can the EU support them and ensure the safe providing of services?

  • Considering that children usually witness or get exposed to violence and get traumatised for their entire lives, what measures should the EU take to help the victims and/or witnesses of domestic violence combat its severe impact on mental health?

  • Taking into account that some Member States have taken action to combat domestic violence, what should the EU do to ensure further eradication of domestic violence?

  • Having observed the lack of knowledge on domestic violence, what steps should the EU take to educate the general public, particularly in the countries with high rates of domestic violence rate and lack of awareness of the issue?

  

5.Faces of Sustainability

It becomes much harder to facilitate the continuity of support services during crisis like COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is not impossible to provide the necessary equipment and conditions. The relevant data show that a 60% increase in emergency calls from women subjected to violence by their intimate partner has been reported in the World Health Organisation Europe Member States which is a heavy blow on the service providers. Therefore, it is crucial and indispensable to reinforce the systems and infrastructure for victims of domestic violence.

Yet, social sustainability is another significant aspect that can be easily attached to support services. The society’s well-being and its maintenance are closely relevant to and dependent on support services in that they provide the victims and/or witnesses with a safe environment or assist with finding one. The provided support  not only contributes to ensuring well-being of individuals, but also establishes a more peaceful society.


 

6.Material for further research

Essential Engagement 

  • Read this Fact Sheet from the WHO regarding ‘violence against women’ as a general topic

  • Read this Fact Sheet from the European Commission regarding ‘violence against women’ as a general topic

  • Watch this section (00:00-08:40) of the special news video by DW about ‘the surge in domestic violence during lockdown’  

Additional Engagement 

  • Here is a curated Mix collection with news articles, podcasts and infographics about domestic violence surge during COVID-19 pandemic

  • Here is a YouTube playlist with a collection of videos about domestic violence rise caused by COVID-19 lockdown  

  • Here is an article about positive impacts of lockdown measures on child-parent relationship