By Rina Lokaj
The COVID-19 pandemic is already stressful enough: the threat of illness and, even worse, death, constantly lurking around your mind. For some women, though, the threat of death is in their own house, and not in the form of a virus that can be willed away with a squirt of hand sanitizer. It comes in the form of a husband.
COVID-19 has forced us all into a state of quarantine. We are, effectively, trapped in our own houses. Some of us complain about our mothers yelling, our brothers hogging the television, our dads eating the leftovers we were saving. While our families are driving us crazy at times, it is nothing compared to the women who are trapped in their homes with their abusers.
Quarantine has provided the perfect environment for abusers to thrive. It forces families to spend more time together, like during the holidays, which also sees a rise in intimate terrorism, more commonly referred to as domestic abuse. When a woman is trapped with her abuser, she is under constant surveillance*. This means that every single thing she says or does will be scrutinized. On top of that, she will have to follow strict, detailed rules. Because of the current quarantine, both victims and abusers are isolated away from their friends and families. This causes tensions to run high.
Moreover, this pandemic has left us all feeling a loss of control and power — things abusers desperately seek. To make up for this lack of control, victims are sure to feel the effects. What we don’t realize is that anything, even the most mundane thing, can result in abuse. Physical violence does not emerge only when there are arguments; anything, especially during a tension-filled time, can trigger an abuser. Victims must constantly be thinking, “Did I make the right lunch? Did I fold his shirts right? Did I buy the right groceries?” This then escalates to, “if an argument breaks out, where is the safest place in [my] house? Keep arguments out of the kitchen, out of the bathroom, which can be really dangerous spaces. If [I] need to go sleep in [my] car, is that a possibility?”
This is not only affecting women. Children are at risk now too, even those who have never been abused before this pandemic. Being packed in a house together with no escape will inevitably allow children to witness their mothers being abused. At times, children could even be at the receiving end of the abuse, especially if they try to intervene on their mothers’ behalf.
Quarantine has also taken away victims’ safe havens. When their abusers would go to work, women could let their guard down. For those few hours, they do not have to worry about being perfect. In fact, they could even seek solace in places of comfort, friends, family members, even therapists. Now, all this support goes away, and, not only are there threats to their physical well-being, but victims’ mental health is on the line too. As the manager of a Minnesota shelter, Teresa Burns, stated, “When the mind is constantly in fight, flight, freeze [mode] because of perpetual fear, that can have a lasting impact on a person’s mental health.”
Not only are women, and at times children, being abused by the male figures in their lives, but they are also being abused by the system. Every sign pointed to a rise in domestic abuse; the country should have been prepared. In the past, domestic abuse has statistically risen after major events, such as after Hurricane Katrina, which saw a surge of “spousal abuse calls to the local helpline increased by 50 percent.” Therefore, the government should have been prepared to see a spike in intimate terrorism and taken measures to help victims. But it did not, and victims are feeling the effects.
Although shelters are considered essential services, many have stopped accepting new victims as to avoid overcrowding. Support groups have moved to online venues, which, of course, poses problems for those who do not have access to the internet and even more so to those who do not have privacy in their homes. Victims attend support groups to get away from their abusers; of course, this will not happen in their homes where their abusers demand complete control over everything, including their online activities. There are also no more drop-in counseling centers, and therapist offices are closed, taking away an additional level of support needed from not just current victims but even survivors during this time.
Though things look bleak for victims, there are other avenues for hope. Some shops and businesses have provided other methods for victims to receive the help they need in ways that will not raise red flags to their abusers. For example, B. Blaze Hair Boutique is a company that has one single goal in mind — to help victims. It has offered to call the police to women trapped in their houses with their abusers; “If you specifically ask about liquid eyeliner, we will ask you for your address ‘for shipping’ and we will contact law enforcement for you.”
Abuse is possibly one of the worst forms of torture someone can be subjected to. But there is always hope. There are resources, there are people here for the victims. Though it seems like the end right now, things will get better.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, please do not go through it alone.
Resources for victims and survivors:
Anti-Violence Project offers a 24-hour English/Spanish hotline for L.G.B.T.Q.+ experiencing abuse or hate-based violence: call 212-714-1141
New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline is available in multiple languages: call 1-800-942-6906 for English. For deaf or hard of hearing: 711
For immediate dangers, call 911.
**Men can be abused too. This must be acknowledged. However, women are disproportionately the victims of abuse, which is why I am writing from the perspective of a woman.