Nine people died in domestic killings in Britain’s first week of lockdown, following a global trend of increased domestic violence during coronavirus quarantine.
The low level of reporting makes statistics on domestic violence unreliable, but domestic violence deaths and police reports are going up. The government has responded saying women can leave their homes to seek help at a refuge, which ignores that many refuges are already struggling to meet need and that many access domestic violence services through something like their child’s school, children’s centre, or library.
Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive of National Domestic Abuse charity Refuge, has said:
“While in lockdown or self-isolation, women and children are likely to be spending concentrated periods of time with perpetrators, potentially escalating the threat of domestic abuse and further restricting their freedom”.
We must fight for better funding for domestic violence services and the gateways toward them, but we should also seek to understand domestic violence in order that we prevent it. That means understanding the psychological damage of gender and its relation to violence. Though men also experience domestic violence and women can be perpetrators, women are far more likely to be seriously injured by men and their attempts to control them. Gendered violence is shaped by broader societal gender expectations. Masculinity is associated with physical strength, toughness and dominance over women. Since “masculinity” is supposed to confer authority, men seek to exert that authority in a realm where they feel a degree of control – the home. The absence of the respect, authority and social status that masculinity was supposed to confer in life must be compensated for at home.
There are factors which determine which men are most prone to violence, the same factors which make them most likely to be victims of violence at the hands of other men. These are poverty, isolation, cultural dislocation, involvement in violent cultures or institutions (e.g. war, policing, or criminal activity), intense stress, and associated coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drugs abuse. For women the greatest protection is the degree of gender equality in her environment and independent social life. It isn’t only physical proximity of families and restriction on movement which will likely increase rates of domestic violence in the current crisis. Families will be exposed to many of the key risk factors – poverty and other forms of deprivation, stress, a loss of status for example through sudden unemployment or significant loss of pay.
Given that large essential sectors (supermarkets, care, and health) have high rates of female employment it will be common for women to continue working whilst male partners cannot. These risk factors do not cause domestic violence, nor are men or some men “naturally violent”. Damaging gender roles interact with social pressures and conditions to trigger domestic violence.
In the short term we must defend and increase escape routes from domestic violence, but we must also dismantle the structures which cause this violence.
• Women experiencing domestic violence can call The Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge on 0808 2000 247. Men experiencing domestic violence can call Men’s Life Advice on 0808 8010 327. In an emergency, always call 999.