Nearly three months into lockdown and we find ourselves in a surreal world of contradictions and constantly shifting emotions. The pandemic has shone a light on social inequalities and the challenges that people face in their day-to-day lives. For some, these challenges are considerable and there is real concern about how lockdown might be impacting on the way that people experience different forms of gender-based violence.
We know that reports of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) have increased globally and this has been well documented in the media. We also expect a rise in service need when restrictions are lifted. We know from those specialist service providers who work through schools to tackle issues such as FGM and Forced Marriage that there is deep concern about how to reach those who need services in a safe way. And there is the reality that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted certain groups in our society particularly BME communities, including migrants and refugees, those living in poverty, older people, and those with underlying health conditions or disabilities.
Our comments in a recent article in the Journal of Gender Based Violence looked at how media narratives of DVA and coronavirus are problematic need to be considered in this context of these deeply entrenched inequalities.
There are three key issues:
- The way perpetrators use lockdown measures as a tool for coercion and control.
- How lockdown restricts access to normal external sources of support for victims-survivors.
- How media representations of coronavirus and DVA interact to exacerbate an incident–led approach to thinking about abuse.
In the journal article we suggest that there isn’t a direct causal relationship between coronavirus and DVA. The relationship between the two has been conflated in some media reports, but it is wrong to suggest that the pandemic, or lockdown, is causing abuse. The different, and contradictory, ways in which perpetrators are utilising lockdown as a form of coercion and manipulation demonstrates that this is about power and control and not the virus per se.
Perpetrators can use the lockdown measures as a tool of control and coercion by, for example, either insisting on strict lockdown or failing to protect the health of family members. Specialist service providers have seen both. This includes essential key workers exposed to the virus not then protecting family members at home.
During lockdown, normal coping strategies for both survivors and perpetrators, and the family and friends who might support them, are limited. What we know from previous research is that victims-survivors, predominately women and children, use a wide range of coping strategies to deal with abuse. However, in the current situation, victims-survivors don’t have the normal outlets where they get positive reinforcement from others or access to safe spaces, which help them cope with the impact of abuse. Beyond these informal support mechanisms, formal responses to support victims-survivors are also more difficult in lockdown. We have seen refuge spaces lost as they lockdown to protect staff and current residents. Outreach workers are trying to support people remotely, both victims-survivors and perpetrators, where safety issues are a concern and privacy within the home may be difficult to establish.
Victims-survivors negotiate the limits which perpetrators put on their lives everyday. They find ingenious ways to navigate potentially abusive situations and to keep themselves and their children safe. Lockdown limits those coping strategies and gives further excuses to perpetrators who, like the rest of us, are used to seeing media reports blaming DVA and DVA homicides on external stresses, whether that is financial issues, football, alcohol, or the coronavirus. As well as blaming external factors we often see media representations in relation to DVA homicides of victim blaming both implicitly and explicitly. Victims are blamed because they were planning to leave the relationship, for taking the children away from an abusive relationship, for not keeping the peace, or for other so-called failures on their part to manage and take responsibility for the abusive behaviour of the perpetrator.
We are clear, therefore, that in order to undermine the power and control exercised by perpetrators of abuse, the media need to accurately report on DVA cases, to be clear that responsibility for the abuse should be held by the perpetrator, and that in the vast number of cases these patterns of abusive behaviour are not the one-off incidents of an otherwise ‘good’ person.
Domestic violence and abuse, coronavirus, and the media narrative by Emma Williamson, Oona Brooks-Hay, and Nancy Lombard is available Open Access from the Journal of Gender-Based Violence.
Read the Journal of Gender-Based Violence here.
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