Quarantine without protection

Intimate partner violence amid COVID-19 and how authoritarianism makes it worse

May 27, 2020

As would-be criminals heed stay-at-home orders, major cities across the globe have reported a significant drop in both property and violent crimes. The numbers of burglary, assault, murder, robbery, and grand larceny cases have dropped following the outbreak of the pandemic. This is due to the lack of opportunities, and the recognition that life is worth staying away from the public for. But for many, we are living in an utmost dreadful time, and it is still not over: victims of intimate partner violence are likely to suffer more under a constant threat when staying at home together with their aggressors.

An essay by Katalin Parti and Gunda Wössner

In a matter of a few weeks, millions were asked to stay away from public places, and to stay at home in order to contain the Coronavirus disease. States have applied various levels of quarantine, curfew, shutdown, shelter-in-place, or "lockdown" measures in order to flatten a curve of the virus by social distancing. Lockdown isn't a technical term, it can refer to anything from mandatory, geographic quarantines to non-mandatory recommendations of staying at home, the closures of certain types of businesses, or bans on events and gatherings. People stopped going to work, K-12 schools closed, colleges and universities shifted to online platforms for the rest of the semester.

At the time of writing, more than a third of the planet's population was under some form of restriction. The directives started in China, in January 2020, continued with Italy in March, and was followed by other countries in Europe. Lockdown orders started in the US with California in mid-March, and quickly swept through the whole country. By mid-April, at least 316 million people (95% of the population) in at least 42 states in the US were being urged to stay at home in order to stunt the epidemic.

Total crime rates were negatively affected by these interventions to stop the virus. In Chicago, drug arrests dropped by 42%, while in Los Angeles the rate of index crimes declined by 30% after the cities’ lockdowns. In New York City, crime dropped about 40% within just a couple of weeks of the lockdown. In San Francisco and Oakland, the daily number of total criminal incidents has dropped by 40% following stay-home orders. This seems to be a global phenomenon, as countries in the Americas and all over the world keep seeing a drop in street crime since the shelter-in-place orders took effect.

Not all crimes are negatively affected by the pandemic. Domestic violence, intra-familial assaults, targeted violent crimes, as well as nuisance complaints–such as residential noise complaints—have been rising since the nation-wide home-stay orders took effect. Though domestic violence cases did not rise to the degree that was expected, this may largely be the result of underreporting as a consequence of the constant supervision of the offender while staying home together with the victim. 

The situation is worse in authoritarian regimes

Victims of domestic violence suffer more in authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes tend not to respect individual rights. They tend to sacrifice individual rights under the vortex of the continuation of power and suppression. Crises are seen as opportunities for aspiring authoritarian regimes to roll back democratic institutions and curtail freedoms. It is how governments cover the institutionalization of their power to rule by decree. Similar tendencies exist in countries where democratic institutions are fragile and leaders leverage the crisis to consolidate power. Democratic institutions, as well as civil society organizations are underdeveloped and/or suppressed in authoritarian regimes. People are discouraged and sometimes even punished for speaking out or asserting their needs, especially when it is against their governments’ populist political agenda. Grass-roots organizations, among them feminist organizations, are subjugated and eventually banned in these countries.

Authoritarian regimes convey the myth of protection to people, and of keeping their country safe from insidious movements coming from ‘outside’. Political populism thrives on the ideology of ‘protection’. Protection from immigrants, protection from ethnic and racial minority groups, protection from sexual otherness, and from any kind of ‘otherness’, literally, as ‘otherness’ threatens the nation’s integrity. As societal organizations are traditionally the servers of victims of intimate partner violence, and because such violence undermines the myth of the ‘stranger danger’ that the ‘good state’ keeps at bay, these organizations cannot function freely in these countries.

Familism is a social structure where the needs of the family take precedence over the needs of the members of the family. Authoritarian governments are in favor of familism with a twist according to which the state is in denial that violence within the family exist in the first place (see Hungary’s explicit ban on the Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women). Admitting that most of the time the threat and danger comes not from outside (from foreign states, racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and refugees, sexual minorities, etc.) but from their own government or from within domestic society would expose a serious weakness in their ideological scaffolding. This is a complex state of denial of individual rights, walking hand in hand with the distant and foreign enemy concept, and the populist ideology of the state’s exclusive ability to protect its people. 

Violence-stricken families are like authoritarian states

Let’s imagine that violence-stricken families are authoritarian states. They function as such: in the imaginary ‘honeymoon period’, they entice their members by promising that they will take care of their needs, feed them, protect them, that they are the only way members can actually feel protected and secure. In return, members gradually give up their independence, and descend on the slippery slope of isolation. Victims of domestic violence slowly lose their economic independence and common sense of reality.

Analogously, citizens of the authoritarian state slowly lose their community organizations—which function as an immediate support network—as free speech and movement are restricted, and grass-root community organizations are suppressed and even banned. This happened in Hungary when the government cut the funding of civil society organizations that would have been the primary source of victims’ service. The second period in the cycle of violence is tension-building: the aggressor threatens to harm the victim(s) or even themselves if victims don’t obey. Similarly, the authoritarian state is caught red-handed by acting in such manner when deciding to eliminate social institutions (e.g. banning marriage for non-binary people; or ending the legal recognition of trans people as happened in Hungary in April, 2020) or withdraw social support from groups that are not ‘tolerated’ (e.g. or sweeping homeless people from public spaces without providing adequate social support, or creating a vacuum of space for victims of sexual and domestic violence as happened in Hungary in May, 2020).

The third phase in the cycle is the acute or crisis phase; the tension is so high that people fear to contradict their victimizers. In the citizen-state relation analogy, if citizens disagree or deviate, they can lose their existence, their jobs, and eventually their lives. This is the utmost high of annihilation anxiety that a person and a group of persons in a society can experience, leading to the feeling of abandonment and despair.

What governments can do to help victims of intimate partner violence

Obviously, any kind of authoritarianism is bad, but states are cautioned not to reach the third phase in the above referred cycle as the restrictions can well be--financially and politically--detrimental to the abusers themselves. States must be creative and introduce ingenuous ways to help increase reporting. In South America and several European countries, governments have urged women who are being abused by a partner to ask for a ‘red face mask’ at a pharmacy, a coded message that is meant to prompt a call to the authorities. Code words such as ‘mask 19’ can indicate that the customer is in danger and needs immediate help. Elsewhere, 911 or 112 respectively, is extended with an automated dial-up feature, or a ‘Silent Call’ option was established for smartphones and chatbots that let dispatchers know that there is an acute or urgent case in progress.

In realization of that women’s rights must be recognized and protected in order for a state’s economy to recover smoothly and fully, states can follow the patterns of governments applying the ‘feminine’ strategy. Hawaii’s Feminist Economic Recovery Plan aims at providing institutional support for women who are caretakers of children and elderly, boosting the health care system with midwives so that rural populations can access safe and affordable birth giving, and injecting financial aid into small, female-staffed enterprises. Another example, Sweden has implemented feminist policies such as gender-responsive budgeting, introducing gender-equal division of power and influence, economic gender equality, gender-equal distribution of unpaid housework, and strong campaigns to combat violence against women, just to name a few of its sub-targets.

The cost of violence can pose multilevel and multidimensional challenges to a nation. We tend to recognize only the immediate costs, i.e. the burden it deploys on the health care sector (shelters, social work, couple and family therapy), the criminal justice system (police, trial, prison), and other resources (treatment for offenders and compensation for victims etc.). Further indirect costs are associated with intimate partner violence such as the economic costs of death and injury on the national working capacity of the population, not to mention the devaluation of life, and the disregard for human rights.

States need to recognize that not providing for domestic violence or establishing a reactive rather that of a proactive strategy will eventually cost more than a preventative-supportive strategy would. Even authoritarian states must realize that protecting and empowering female home care and workforce, as well as recognizing non-traditional (such as individualist) values and minority rights will eventually lead to a healthier economy, and healthier families. It must be realized and widely accepted that sexual and domestic violence happens everywhere, even in the most economically developed places.

Victims and survivors of sexual violence need their rights to be recognized. They also need institutions (hotlines, shelters, advocacy, therapy, etc.) in order to feel supported. This,—and not short living, easily exhausting economic packages—will encourage families to stay together and produce more children, to bluntly state the goal of authoritarian governments. If states pursue a quick economic recovery after the pandemic, women must be supported in every way possible, including the recognition of the rights of individuals and proactively taking care of victims of intimate partner violence.

Editorial note: In case of emergency, call or chat with the domestic violence hotlines: www.thehotline.org/help/ (US); www.hilfetelefon.de/en.html (Germany)

Katalin Parti is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (US) and guest scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law (Germany). 

Gunda Wössner is Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law (Germany). 

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