The new rules imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have created challenges for women and children in abusive relationships. Home is often not the safest place for them. Amongst South Asians in the US, 2 in 5 women are reported to have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of their abusive partners. While there have been reports of increase in domestic violence during COVID 19 globally, the US has seen an increase of 3 % to 22 % in different states. Domestic violence (which includes violence by intimate partners and family members) in South Asian communities is often hidden as a “family matter.” COVID-19 has further buried these incidents within the walls of the home, isolating victims from access to safety. Experiencing domestic violence is also associated with adverse long-term health outcomes.
Many South Asian women living in abusive homes experience abuse also at the hands of extended family members. Families are forced to live in close proximity for prolonged periods of time. Many victims who report being in “fight, flight or freeze” mode around their abusers when they return home are now constantly exposed to the abuse with no reprieve of escaping to their workplaces or schools. In these uncertain times, many abusers experiencing the loss of power and control are escalating their abusive behaviors.
There is also an increased consumption of alcohol and other substances, which can further exacerbate the frequency and severity of the abuse. Even for those women who leave home for work, COVID19 has brought challenges as perpetrators maintain power and control. For example, many working women are being threatened that they will be not be allowed to enter the home if they return to their jobs, and, many working abusers are intentionally not taking the precautions to safeguard their partners. Children exposed to domestic violence during COVID-19 has further placed these children at risk as their access to schools, playgrounds and extra-curricular activities have all stopped.
The instability in immigration status increases fears of being reported to authorities or deported, keeping victims feeling entrapped and powerless. Many who are physically injured are afraid to seek medical help. Those considering leaving their abuser to move into a safe house are hesitant to do so for fear of risking their own and their children’s health. Those with disabilities/special needs are further at risk. School and health care personnel are often the only support for children and women experiencing abuse. With the closure of primary care facilities and distance learning, many women and children lose their only access to information and resources. The presence of the abuser in the home, prevents calls for help and further isolates victims from receiving professional support. Similarly, seeking support from their families in their home country through telephone/video calls has helped many women cope in abusive relationships. However, during the pandemic, many women are discouraged, if not forbidden, from speaking to their families. Additionally, friends and family who would be visiting and informally monitoring are no longer able to do that, taking away all safeguards to prevent the abuse.
Though many providers have moved to teleservices, there are shelters that remain open and referral services available and accessible. With courts closing for in-person services, legal protection orders are being awarded virtually through phone or video conferencing. As community members, it is important to connect with family and friends safely, provide non-judgmental active listening, provide access to domestic violence resources and create safe places to discuss domestic violence not only as a social issue but a health issue that impacts our community.
by Rupa M. Khetarpal, MA, MSW, LCSW
Assistant Professor of Teaching, Rutgers, School of Social Work