When the COVID pandemic led to lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders in the spring, public health advocates worried that more domestic violence would be the result. With people forced to stay at home together, plus increased financial and other kinds of stress and reduced access to support systems, it seemed like an especially dangerous time.
The impact of COVID on intimate partner violence is still being assessed. Some victims’ support organizations reported a reduction of calls by 50% during that period, but it’s likely that fewer calls for help didn’t mean less need. A study of X-rays conducted at a Massachusetts hospital found a dramatic increase in injuries linked to partner abuse between March and May. Numbers aside, the conversations around partner violence during the pandemic drew attention to the reality that for many, home is not a safe haven.
For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we talked to Esha Dholia, a bilingual case manager at San Francisco SafeHouse, about what survivors and their friends and family should know about partner abuse, this year and any year.
What are the factors that may make abuse worse during COVID?
On the one hand, abuse may have become more frequent or intense during the pandemic because of the stress of being out of work or fearing that they will be, fear of getting sick and just anxiety over horrible things in the world that are happening. But it’s essential to emphasize that fear and stress do not cause abuse or violence on their own, but they may exacerbate it in people that are already prone to violence by increasing intense emotions and situations. People who are already in unhealthy relationships might find that the unhealthiness is more pronounced.
In addition people are isolated in ways that they’ve never been isolated before and that’s a key part of why abuse persists — the survivors can’t see friends or family, people can’t check in on them and say “I’m worried about you.” A lot of the services people typically access are closed or survivors may not be able to access resources because they can’t physically get away from the abuser. It’s when we don’t have our support systems that abuse festers.
You use the word “survivor” instead of “victim” — why is that?
I prefer to use the word survivor, even if somebody is still in an abusive relationship, because it speaks to what these people are doing every day, surviving in the relationship.
I work with survivors directly as a case manager and supporting people in navigating whatever they are going for and operating from a strength perspective.
What would you say to somebody who is in an abusive relationship, or who thinks they might be?
Know that it’s not your fault and you have options should you choose to leave. Even if you’re starting to think you want to leave, or just starting to think that there are behaviors in your relationship might be problematic, safety planning is everything. Figure out what you need in your situation to prevent yourself from being hurt, think about what you need to bring with you if you leave, how to store extra money or cash, who you can trust and tell about your plan — think through all of these strategies.
What should somebody do if they have a loved one who they know or suspect is in an abusive relationship?
First of all, as a culture we have to acknowledge that survivors know what’s best for them, they know what their abuser’s triggers are, what their moods are, and they know how to keep themselves safe. We can’t simply tell people to leave, to do anything they’re not ready to do. But we can be there for the person, in whatever capacity they need us to be. Follow their lead, but be really consistent with checking in. Find ways to make sure they’re not isolated and offer support in whatever way is essential. Know local resources in the community – domestic violence hotlines are always happy to talk with loved ones, too.
But isn’t it hard to stand by and watch your loved one being abused and even in physical danger?
Absolutely, it can be hard to see your loved one in this situation, but challenge and push yourself to check in with them. Maybe with a video chat, maybe by dropping off meals, maybe by going on a distanced walk. What I’ve learned in my work and my personal life is that people are not going to be ready to leave until they’re ready. I’m not saying don’t tell your loved one, “This is not good.” You can point out in a gentle way, “When your partner speaks this way, I feel concerned for your safety.” Overall you have to be there for them and wait for the time to be right; and get mental health support for yourself, because this is really hard.
What about the friends and family of the abuser? We hear a lot about victims and survivors, but not about abusers.
This is another really tough spot to be in. It can feel really complicated to see your loved one hurt another person, and you can feel that it’s absolutely not okay and also you don’t want to see something bad happen to them. Our society is very carceral and there aren’t many systems in place for help other than the criminal legal system. Take on a similar approach of being upfront with that person, and say, “Hey I noticed the way you were talking to your partner and I felt really uncomfortable with that.” Offer space to unpack what is happening in the relationship. Abusive people have to come to the conclusion on their own that this isn’t the right way to relate to another person.
The stats about partner violence are staggering: More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the US will experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. What can we do as a society to change this?
From a programmatic perspective, we can do more work with young people, on high school and college campuses, to teach what a healthy relationship is and what warning signs to look for.
But when we take a step back, we need to recognize that all of this violence is rooted in power and control, and one person is actively using their power or access to power to control or hurt or manipulate another person. In society we are having frank conversations about violence against Black folks and I don’t think you can extricate intimate partner violence from police violence — because justice and liberation for all people is what intimate partner violence prevention is all about. Thinking about these power imbalances is so important to support a survivor. We have to ask people directly: What will make you feel safest? If calling the cops isn’t the best answer, what is? Maybe you can really lean on your sister or your neighbor or a local store owner.
Domestic violence prevention work is deepest when we center people who are closest to systems of harm. It’s deepest when we hold space for all of the types of healing. We’re often in relationships with people because we love them, even if they hurt us. Let love be a part of the conversation while acknowledging that abuse is unacceptable.
What resources should everybody know about?
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource and they can connect to you local options, and they also have an online chat feature if you’re unable to talk on the phone. Their number is 800.799.7233. Some domestic violence programs have a peer counseling program where people can go to talk through what they want to talk through, whether it’s past trauma or what they’re experiencing in the present. And the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is an important resource, because suicidality often goes with intimate partner violence. Their number is 800-273-8255.
Esha (Ee-sha) Dholia is a healer and an advocate. She is passionate about reproductive justice, preventing intimate partner violence, and community-building. Esha is privileged to act on these passions through her paid work, and has held various roles as a case manager, a community educator, and facilitator. She enjoys plant care and bread baking in her free time.