Domestic violence has spiked globally during COVID-19. But not all abuse is physical.
Domestic abuse extends into digital and financial realms, and even if it doesn’t leave bruises, it can crush a survivor’s sense of independence and traumatize him or her permanently.
With COVID-19 forcing many survivors into isolation with their abusers, experts are seeing a striking increase in financial and digital abuse, from stimulus funds being co-opted by abusers to an increase in domestic online harassment.
“Online harassment is on the rise because people are spending a lot of time online, and unfortunately, abusers can get extremely creative,” said Erica Olsen, the Safety Net director for the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).
Domestic online harassment can come in many forms, from impersonating a victim by email in order to sabotage her work, to controlling the influx of information about the pandemic to make her more fearful and reliant on the abuser.
Olsen described one situation in which a teacher received violent emails supposedly from students saying that they would harm her if they saw her out on the weekends. Police eventually traced the emails to her husband, who was trying to terrorize his wife.
“What may seem preposterous or just unbelievable is someone’s truth that they’re living every day,” said Olsen. “Online stuff doesn’t seem like that big of a deal - but it could ruin a survivor’s reputation, career, their feelings of safety. Often it’s a precursor to a physical event.”
Online stuff doesn’t seem like that big of a deal - but it could ruin a survivor’s reputation, career, their feelings of safety.
A global crisis
Domestic violence is currently on the rise. The U.K. recently reported a 66 per cent increase in domestic violence calls while the U.S. state of Alaska reported a 52 per cent increase. Gender-based violence has doubled in India.
Before COVID, it was estimated that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner. Studies suggest that victims of domestic violence include people from all race and classes. Fewer global statistics are available for men, but in the U.S. it is estimated that one in 10 men experience domestic partner violence, as opposed to one in three women.
Up to 99 percent of domestic abuse cases feature financial abuse, however most data for abuse during the COVID-19 era is still under review.
Low-income women of colour, particularly those in remote areas or developing nations with a cash economy, have the fewest options for recourse. These survivors may not have access to police protection or the internet, which may, for example, allow survivors to connect with support structures or to form secret bank accounts to keep money from their abuser.
According to an April United Nations policy brief, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women,” women globally have borne most of the burden of COVID-19, from health to finances to security from violence. In addition to being holed up with abusers, women generally handle more childcare and caregiving, which has forced them to take on unpaid work during COVID-19. The brief predicted that gender-based violence is likely to keep increasing over the course of the pandemic.
In addition to being holed up with abusers, women generally handle more childcare and caregiving, which has forced them to take on unpaid work during COVID-19.
Experts say that job loss and a lack of childcare assistance is leading to increased household stress, which exacerbates abuse.
“The kids are there in the house all the time. Maybe the abuser loves the kids or not, but he’s not accustomed to them being around all the time, that jacks up the tension,” said domestic abuse advocate and survivor Kit Gruelle. “It is throwing a hand grenade right in the middle of all the family dynamics, which is already precarious. The victims are hostages to their abusers.”
Abusers are getting creative
Securing total financial control is also a common tactic among abusers. This can include a wide range of behaviours from draining a victim’s finances to blocking a victim from working so that they are completely reliant on the abuser. An abuser may destroy a victim’s credit line or deplete funds needed for the kids.
An abuser may destroy a victim’s credit line or deplete funds needed for the kids.
Job sabotage is easier than ever when many survivors are working from home, according to Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski, program manager of Economic Justice and Workforce Initiatives at Futures without Violence.
“Abusive partners can be monitoring or editing email and Zoom calls. They may also completely refuse to do any childcare at all,” said Bocinski. “We now know that survivors who can work at home are now at home with abusive partners looking over their shoulder and having access to their workplace in a way they haven’t had before.”
Many domestic partners already know each other’s personal financial information. If not, it’s easy to get through coercion, according to Bridget Tate, manager of service delivery at The Financial Clinic, a nonprofit that offers financial services to low-income clients who are often victims of abuse.
“The abuser has the victim’s pin number. The social security number. We see so much fraud and identity theft,” said Tate.
According to Margaret Drew, professor at the University of Massachusetts Law School, some abusers in the U.S. are hoarding all of the COVID-19 stimulus money meant for the whole family, thanks to weak oversight and the nation’s unique use of physical checks.
“The U.S. government does nothing to ensure that the person in charge of the kids is the one getting the funds. Some of these people are divorced, and the abusers still get the full family check. It goes to the head of the household, which is often assumed to be the man,” said Drew.
The U.S. government does nothing to ensure that the person in charge of the kids is the one getting the funds.
Drew and other experts said that there has also been an uptick in men petitioning in court for custody of their kids, particularly when a wife is a first responder or essential worker. Sometimes it may be for legitimate reasons, Drew said, but many abusers do it so they can obtain the survivor’s stimulus money, as well as future child support. The victim’s long hours make it difficult to fight back during court proceedings, which often takes place over Zoom calls.
“They’ll do this on an emergency basis, which is a favourite tool of abusers: get custody without notice to the mother,” said Drew. “The children, of course, are an afterthought for the abuser.”
Relief requires imagination
Leaving an abusive situation is difficult for an array of financial, psychological and legal reasons. The confinement and lockdown due to COVID-19 has made leaving an even greater challenge.
The confinement and lockdown due to COVID-19 has made leaving an even greater challenge.
“There's no way for a survivor to be as strategic as they would have been in a world that was open,” said Tate. “Saying ‘I’m going to lunch with my mom’ is not possible at this time. Being able to get to family members and give them money to hold onto is not possible. That has become more and more concerning.”
While many survivors escape their abusers, advocates warn against pinning responsibility entirely on them.
“The first thing people say is: ‘she’s in a bad situation, she needs to get out of there.’ That’s such a simplistic, victim-blaming response, and it lets the abuser off the hook,” Gruelle said. “We don’t say to any other crime victim: you’ve been abused now you have to leave your home.”
We don’t say to any other crime victim: you’ve been abused now you have to leave your home.
Relief against domestic abuse has come in fits and spurts. In Israel, the cabinet voted to electronically track abusers to prevent restraining order violations.
Tech security companies like NortonLifeLock and MalwareBytes have formed a global coalition to fight stalkerware, which is a catchall term for apps that abusers use to secretly monitor victims’ locations, communications and passwords. Stalkerware has been on the rise globally for the past year, though data from Kaspersky suggests that it is dipping considerably during the quarantine.
Locally, access to services like psychotherapy and safe housing are harder to come by during COVID-19, according to Drew. Many nations have introduced fiscal stimulus plans for those who cannot work, though the United Nations argued that it will take comprehensive, top-down change and more women-focused stimulus packages in order to tackle problems like gender-based violence.
“COVID-19 is not only a challenge for global health systems, but also a test of our human spirit,” reads the U.N. brief. “It is crucial that all national responses place women and girls - their inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes, equality and protection - at their centre if they are to have the necessary impacts.”
On an individual level, people should be looking out for one another and letting potential survivors know that they are a source for support, whether they are neighbors or employers.
“We don’t encourage people to specifically reach out and say, ‘Hey I think you’re experiencing violence,’” Bocinski said. “Be generally supportive. Create that openness where, if there is someone who feels like they need to reach out, they know there’s a trusted person to come to.”
Some advocates believe COVID-19 is an opportunity to completely overhaul our thinking of domestic violence response.
“I’ve had this fantasy for 25 years where everyone is a first responder to domestic violence, whether it’s the dentist, the bank tellers, the bus drivers,” said Gruelle. “If everyone was a little bit more fluent in the realities of domestic abuse, I think there would be many more doors open for victims and their kids to walk through than there currently are.”