The Covid-19 crisis, which might last another 24 months, has made the issue of domestic violence a matter of urgent public concern. According to a UN Population Fund study, a 20% surge in incidents of domestic violence globally equates to an increase of 15 million cases for every three months of the lockdown.
The resources available for victims of domestic violence vary greatly from place to place. Democracies generally tend to provide greater support to victims. This has changed with the pandemic. Implementation of national emergencies have resulted in the suspension of regular public services, and shelter-in-place orders have confined people to their homes. The intimacy of small spaces terrorizes victims of domestic violence. If they cannot escape without placing themselves and their dependents at risk of Covid-19, what are their options?
In the United States, the problem of domestic violence had worsened even before Covid-19 hit. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized in early 2019, and after it passed in the House, the bill has been sitting in the Senate committee because of a deadlock between Republicans and Democrats over the question of gun ownership by perpetrators of domestic violence. Joni Ernst, a Republican Senator from Iowa who came forward as a survivor of sexual assault last year, removed the provision banning such ownership from the House version of the bill. Ernst was more concerned with curtailment of the second amendment than with the safety of women and children who live with perpetrators. This was strongly supported by her GOP colleagues in the Senate despite studies showing that more than half of the perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States had a history of domestic violence.
VAWA provides funding for states to develop and sustain individualized plans for protecting victims of domestic violence. We are currently in a critical situation but VAWA has not been discussed this year. The last VAWA reauthorization in 2019 provided $582 million for states. The money went to a variety of programs, some of them for prevention, others for supporting victims of domestic violence in shelters and other residential programs. Although this amount is barely sufficient for the needs of all the states and territories in the U.S., it has helped local efforts to stay afloat, especially during periods of economic downturn. Evinced by the experience of the 2008 recession, the economic crisis resulting from the lockdown will likely increase incidents of domestic violence.
In the current situation, victims of domestic violence have received inappropriate and unhelpful advice from hotlines and non-government assistance centers; some were told to “find a safe place,” such as one’s car, in order to escape abuse. This is not a solution. It is a confession of powerlessness. We need to do better. The federal, state, and local government authorities need to do better to protect these citizens.
By contrast, the French state has provided 20,000 hotel rooms at no cost to victims of domestic violence. Although this initiative isn’t enough for all those who need help, it is nonetheless promising. It shows the state’s awareness of the problem, and its willingness to put the safety of victims on the table as a legitimate and urgent need.
Such is not the case in the U.S.. The President has the authority to order private enterprises, like hotels and motels, to support a similar initiative, by requisitioning rooms and paying for the services at a fixed rate. It would help the victims, and it would also help the hotels and motels that are empty during this crisis. But it would take a robust political and financial commitment on the part of a federal administration that has chosen to defer responsibility to states, which are now having to compete for essential resources at high prices. There is no evidence to suggest that Donald Trump would ever lead an effort to coordinate the response to domestic violence incidents and to provide some relief for those victims. Immediate efforts to alleviate the problem should be undertaken by the Congress and local elected officials and activists.
The rise in incidents of domestic violence needs to be a more central concern in our public policy planning for both during and after the pandemic. The victims of domestic violence are predominantly women and children. They are often hesitant to make themselves known as they fear retribution. They muffle the sound of their own screams to avoid further abuse. They need to hear from us with both words and action.
Those of us with the privilege of safety, time, and energy, need to make policy makers aware of this growing problem. We have little federal funding to adequately respond to rising domestic violence, and this needs to change. Our senators need to hear from us on this matter. We have examples of other countries taking appropriate measures to address the problem, and it is imperative that such initiatives be taken in the United States as well.
The current discussion about reforming and defunding the police provides an opening for allocating more funds towards this major problem, if not through a reauthorization of VAWA, then at least through state and local initiatives. Partnering with local non-government groups that provide shelter and support for victims of domestic violence would be a good start. Reauthorizing VAWA and releasing more federal funds to support this endeavor is also necessary.
All this will not happen without extraordinary pressure from below. The time to beat our drums on behalf of these victims is now. Victims of domestic violence might want to leave their abusers but they do not have a place to go to. We need to do better to support them, especially as city councils all over the country are starting to reconsider what public safety means and what it takes to care for the most vulnerable people in our communities.
Maria Bucur is the John V. Hill Professor of history and gender studies at Indiana University. She is the author of six books and over forty articles on the recent history of Romania and gender relations. She has published on eugenics, war and memory, citizenship under communism, gender violence, modernism, feminism, and is now working on a book about the veterans administration in interwar Romania.
This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.