The Shadow Pandemic, a rise of domestic violence cases

By Rhea Endo

The Coronavirus pandemic has caused unprecedented change to many people’s lives, putting whole nations into lockdown. But the pandemic has one devastating side-effect, what UN Women is calling ‘The Shadow Pandemic’: a rise in domestic violence cases all around the world.

“My husband works from home, and my child’s school is closed,” one woman said. “He is really feeling the stress and using physical violence against family members.” (Asahi Shimbun, April 2)

“Things changed when the school closed on the 14th,” she says. “Then the children were home constantly and they began to irritate my husband. Usually he saves his anger for me, but he has begun to yell at them for minor things like leaving a cup on the floor.” (BBC News, March 31)

In the past year alone, 243 million women and girls were physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner, and the global cost of domestic violence is estimated to be around US$1.5 trillion, according to UN Women. These numbers are on the rise during the spread of the coronavirus, and are expected to remain so in the aftermath. A UNFPA report published in April predicts that for every 3 months of continued lockdown, there will be an additional 15 million cases of gender-based violence, and the number is expected to jump to 31 million for an additional 6 months. Helplines and shelters are receiving more distress calls: reports of domestic violence have increased by 30% in France and 33% in Singapore since lockdowns started.

Organisations in Japan are also reporting a surge in cases of abuse. The Center for Child Abuse Prevention in Tokyo saw an increase in reports in March from mothers after schools shut down and families were forced to live in close quarters constantly. In April, a woman was injured by her husband, suffering a head injury, and later died in hospital. The couple had allegedly had a domestic dispute about a fall in income due to COVID-19. A petition that started on demanding a support system for victims of abuse who couldn’t go home during the pandemic was presented to the governor of Tokyo with over 30,000 signatures the same month.

The Stress of Confinement

Why is this ‘shadow pandemic’ happening? “Prolonged confinement and financial difficulties fosters tension, and partners lash out,” explains the head of an NPO that supports victims of abuse in Japan, “エープラス”, adding that in Japan, the wife is often burdened with the duty to support her husband through stressful times. Such isolation makes it difficult for victims to reach out for help, and with health systems close to capacity, help centres may be repurposed for patients of COVID-19. “It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors,” UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says in a statement released in April.

Messerschmidt, in Masculinity and Crime: Critique and Reconceptualization of Theory (1993), points to a wider social problem: toxic masculinity and the “gendered nature of crime” as a factor in the rise of domestic violence. The socially constructed mold of masculinity pressures men to constantly prove their ‘manliness’, and when their role is challenged by changing circumstances, some may resort to violent measures to reclaim their masculinity. Amid a global economic downturn, many are receiving lower wages and losing their jobs, and when such financial difficulties equate to a ‘loss of masculinity’, domestic violence becomes a way to reclaim control.

Global Measures

France was one of the first countries to implement measures to protect domestic violence victims. Marlène Schiappa, the secretary of state for equality between men and women, announced that the state will pay for 20,000 hotel bookings and provide support to the country’s domestic abuse hotline number, 3919. In the UK, special contact procedures connect victims to the police in an emergency: the ‘silent solution’ system allows people to call the police without speaking, by pressing 55 on a mobile phone and making a noise like coughing to respond.

A short video launched by the Canadian Women’s Foundation showing a simple hand gesture to signal domestic violence has recently gone viral. The 2-step gesture, called the Signal for Help, can be used in a video call to call for help.

What to do in Japan

Japan’s Gender Equality Bureau launched a national helpline in April called “DV+”, a counselling service for those suffering from domestic abuse. It has 24-hour telephone (0120-279-889) and email support that connects the caller to a professional counselor, and is available in 10 languages. It also provides a chat service from 12:00 to 22:00 for those who cannot talk on a phone. All Japan Women’s Shelter Network provides useful information for receiving the Japanese government’s ¥100,000 coronavirus cash handout for victims of domestic abuse living apart from the head of household as registered in Japan’s basic resident register, who can apply separately (the procedure is explained here). A number of NGOs and NPOs can be reached through the messaging app LINE. If you are a teenager and do not have a safe home, Colabo provides a safe haven with shelter and food: read Voice Up Japan’s latest article here for more information.

What Can I Do?

Domestic violence is a global issue, but we can all contribute to raising awareness and tackling the issue at an individual level. In a recent webinar conducted by UN Women’s HeForShe, Ariel Zwang, CEO of Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organisation situated in New York, provided a few recommendations. First, don’t make assumptions about other people; abuse is often hidden, and victims find it difficult to reach out for help, or are reluctant to do so. Second, be equipped with a helpline telephone number or information, and recognise when someone is signalling for help. Lastly, support organisations that provide essential support to victims of domestic violence, through donations or spreading awareness on social media.

Rhea Endo is a junior at International Christian University. She is one of the founding members of Voice Up Japan ICU branch.

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