Streets are empty. Shops are shuttered. Offices are abandoned. Across Europe a number of weeks ago, buildings of work and leisure emptied of people and in parallel, domestic settings filled up. Millions of Europeans filled up houses and apartments, taking up residence for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Coronavirus, COVID-19, has pushed Europeans behind the doors of their homes and the dynamics of daily life have shifted. In reality, work to a certain extent has continued, childcare and care of older persons has expanded, and the monotony of life in confinement has set in.
However, in addition to these every day realities, in many European households a darker phenomenon is being played out, where women, men and children, are now locked up in close quarters for an indefinite amount of time with abusers. For many, domestic violence is as much a reality of life in confinement as work, childcare and boredom.
The Istanbul Convention defines domestic violence as “all acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occur within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim”. Domestic violence is played out in silence, behind closed doors, where nobody can hear or see. Instances have spiked during this lockdown period, with major increases reported in countries across the world. There are two factors that are contributing to this increase in cases.
The first is that abusers, with more stress and pressure than normal, are locked into domestic settings. The OECD assesses that the social consequences of COVID-19, such as the loss of social interactions, additional stresses within the home and the inability to leave the home are likely to be used to justify violence. In addition, as men most frequently perpetrate domestic violence, it is significantly linked to power dynamics. In these high-pressure times, violence is likely to be used as a way for men to reassert authority and control over women in the domestic setting, lashing out in frustration at the current situation.
The second factor is the lack of available support services for victims. While many meetings and services have moved online instead of in person, due to close proximity to abusers in the household it is very difficult as well as often dangerous for victims to try to seek support or help through online fora. The consequences of their abuser discovering their efforts to seek help may be grievous.
Together, these two factors allow the circle of violence to continue unabated, with tensions continuing to rise in the household while victims feel increasingly alone, abandoned and isolated. As politicians, it is our duty and responsibility to do whatever we can to protect all of our citizens during this period, not just from COVID-19, but also from other dangers that may be hiding within our neighbourhoods and communities.
I am heartened to see action being taken in many EU Member States to tackle domestic violence in the current climate. In France for example, clinics have been set up in grocery stores to allow victims to seek help while they are doing their shopping. In Spain, a code word has been circulated to allow women to seek help in pharmacies. In Ireland, a new campaign has been launched (stillhere.ie) to remind citizens to be on the lookout for domestic violence, and to provide support to victims. In countries across the continent and indeed across the world, funding for domestic violence support organisations has been offered by governments, while the attention of police officers has been drawn to the crime, and they have been advised to be vigilant.
As Minister for Justice in Ireland, in 2017 I brought forward legislation tackling domestic violence that allows for an immediate and temporary barring order from the home where there is reasonable grounds to believe there is an immediate risk of significant harm. Such orders will prove crucial during these weeks.
All of these crucially important measures are aimed at helping and supporting victims. However, while politicians can put in place measures to try to tackle domestic violence, it is the actions of the general public that are needed to combat this scourge. People know their neighbours, they hear them more and they see them more, even just when putting out the bins or sitting on the balcony. With technology, we are in touch with family and friends often much more than we have been in years.
The reality is that the greatest action we can take when it comes to combating domestic violence will be the vigilance and attention paid by the general public, by friends, by family and by neighbours. So, while you are checking in with at risk neighbours, while you are doing grocery shopping for elderly relatives, or even while you are reading your book and happen to hear something strange from next door, pause for a moment and pick up the phone, just to check if everything is ok. Because in these times, behind closed doors, it really is better to be safe than sorry.