Sunday, April 5, 2020

No Way Out? Domestic Abuse During Lockdown

Zoë Sharp

The UK is in lockdown. It has gone from advice issued by the government on March 15 that the over-70s should self-isolate, via an order for all bars, pubs, cafés, restaurants and gyms to close on March 20, to a nationwide lockdown three days later. By March 26, the UK police enforcement powers came into effect.

So, we were told that we were supposed to leave our homes only in order to:

  1. shop for necessities like food and medicine
  2. take exercise (once a day)
  3. for medical reasons or to provide care or help to a vulnerable person
  4. for essential work, or non-essential work where working from home was not possible.

When I last logged-on to my local doctor’s surgery website, the advice seemed to have changed slightly. Item #3 on the list now says we may leave our homes:

‘for any medical need, including to donate blood,
to avoid or escape risk of injury or harm,
or to provide care or help a vulnerable person’

The reason for this additional wording soon became apparent in most countries where lockdowns due to coronavirus have occurred. In Hubei province, China—site of the original outbreak in December 2019—reports to police of domestic violence more than tripled.

A drop-in centre in Brazil has seen a 40-50% rise in cases. Calls to helplines as far apart as Catalan and Cyprus have all increased by noticeable amounts within the first week of isolation.

On the other hand, not everybody who is confined to the home with their abuser is able to make phone calls. In Italy, calls to helplines were replaced instead by emails and texts. And now, in France, those being abused are able to walk into a pharmacy—one of the few outside places they are allowed to visit—and deliver a coded plea for help to counter staff.

Last weekend, when a woman in the French city of Nancy did this, the result was the woman’s spouse being arrested by police. The French police reported incidents of domestic violence requiring their intervention rose by more than a third during the first week of lockdown in Paris.

The feeling of not being able to get away from an abuser, coupled with the inevitable stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic, has led to an abrupt surge in aggressive behaviour. Similar spikes were documented by researchers during the financial crisis of 2008.

Living in close proximity with others, particularly if it is not usually part of your routine, can be stressful at the best of times. Although, I’m not sure that the series of online posters put out by the Malaysian government, advising women not to nag their husbands or be sarcastic, and to dress up and wear makeup, struck quite the right note. The government has since withdrawn their advice and apologised. (I would say, “Well, that was big of them…” But I’m following guidelines about use of sarcasm…)

Isolating with your family may be someone’s idea of heaven or hell. To be honest, for me life is much the same as normal. I shop infrequently, keep to myself, and spend most of my day sitting at my keyboard, trying to nurse a dodgy elbow while still chipping away at the word-face as productively as possible.

However, I am isolating with two demanding cats, as I do every winter, which is a delight. (Apart from their habit of playing ‘catch-and-release’ inside the house with the local wildlife. I have spoken to them most sternly about this. It makes no difference.)

Tosca and Lulu 'helping'
I was happy to see that when it became clear lockdown was heading to New York, the local animal rescue shelters ran out of pets to adopt, so great was the demand for company during a time of need. Let’s hope those new owners don’t abandon those pets when all this is over.

And, if you’re speaking to friends isolating at home with their partner, no matter how idyllic their relationship may seem on the surface, you might like to try asking them, not, “How are you?” but instead, “Do you feel safe?”

Stay safe and well.

And, as Annamaria has been doing, I, too, would like to applaud all the staff and families of the NHS, and all those who are doing their best to ensure that such vital workers are able to do their job.

This week’s Word of the Week is gonif, which means a disreputable or dishonest person, and is often used as a general term of abuse. It originates from a mid-19thcentury Hebrew word ganev, meaning a thief.


  1. Many things have changed recently as we adapt to this artificial lifestyle. You've highlighted one of the worst dangers. Hopefully there will be positives afterwards as well.
    Keep well!

  2. YOU? Trying to FOLLOW GUIDELINES? [snort] Uh-huh. That's about as likely as our Gonif in Chief growing a brain, a spine, a heart, and a conscience.

    It could happen... [snort] Uh-huh.

  3. Oh, Zoe! And then there are the abused and battered children. They cannot go out to the pharmacy. Most can't send an email or a text. Their teachers will not see them and be able to notice the bruises. No counsellors to detect the telltale signs. Too too difficult to dwell upon.

  4. This is a crisis that continues to spawn unspeakable horrors...and I fear it's just the beginning, despite the dedicated efforts of so many true heroes.

    As for gonifs...they're malakas.

  5. What a terrible problem that of domestic violence against women and children. Glad France has a plan. Many countries won't. I can't even imagine being cooped up with an abuser 24/7, with the stresses brought on by the pandemic.
    And gonif, I haven't heard that word since my mother said it in Yiddish many times. She would definitely have called the guy in the White House "gonif-in-chief."